The oldest known example of cancer has been found in the foot bone of an early human dating back about 1.7 million years. The discovery was made along with evidence of the oldest tumour in the vertebrae of a child. The finds, from two sites in South Africa, challenge the established theory that cancer is a disease caused by modern life. They predate by far the earliest previous evidence of cancer - a tumour discovered in the rib of a Neanderthal from about 120,000 years ago.
Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed.
Researcher Edward Odes
The discoveries were made from by a team from South Africa and including researchers from the University of Central Lancashire in Britain. Researcher Dr Bernhard Zipfel, an expert on the foot and movement of human relatives, said: “Due to its preservation, we don’t know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual. But we can tell this would have affected the individual’s ability to walk or run - in short, it would have been painful.” On the child vertebrae find, lead author Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, from UCLan, said: “This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record.”