Cancer is at least a million-year old. That may sound outrageous, but it’s true. Scientists have found cancer in a million-year old fossil, proving once and for all that cancer existed even in prehistoric times.

The team from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute and the South African Center for Excellence in Palaeo Sciences found evidence of cancer in a foot bone and spine from two ancient hominin species in South Africa.

The foot fragment is approximately 1.7 million years old and the vertebrae almost 2 million years old. The tumors found in the ancient bones were primary osteogenic cancers, which means they didn’t form due to environmental reasons.

What was profound about the study was the fact that not only was the tumor osteogenic in nature, the species in which the tumor was found was male and developmentally equivalent to a human child of 12 to 13 years of age. The earliest cancer discovery before this was found in the rib of a Neanderthal and was dated approximately 120,000 years old.

Edward Odes, a Wits doctoral candidate and lead author of the cancer paper, and co-author on the tumor paper, notes, “Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumors in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments. Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed”.

Both incidences of disease were diagnosed using state of the art imaging technologies, including those at the European Synchrotron Research Facility in Grenoble, France, medical CT at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg, and the micro-CT facility at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa at Pelindaba.

The lesion was macroscopically examined using phas-contrast X-rays, using the different refractive properties of the material under examination.

A comprehensive evaluation determined that the lesion was indeed diagnosed as osteoid osteoma, which meant that it was bone-forming cancer formed from connective tissue where there is active production of osteoid and woven bone.

Until these new findings researchers believed that cancer only existed in modern era due to our long lives, unhealthy diets and irregular sleep patterns. Since there is proof of its existence in prehistoric times, cancer’s treatment techniques and medications will evolve as well.

Edward John Odes of Wits University’s School of Anatomical Sciences said, “We tested this particular bone with a known modern human osteosarcoma specimen, and it looked identical. Millions of years old, and you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart.”

What still remains a mystery is that since humans evolved, even the whole earth evolved, why didn’t the cancer? To which the scientists don’t have an answer, at least not yet. Odes said, “What we do have is that these types of cancers existed so many years ago, and we are seeing the same thing today. Normally, in an evolutionary biological situation, you’d see change.”

What Is Osteosarcoma?

Osteosarcoma is the most common type of cancer that develops in bones. Like osteoblasts that make the bone matrix (connective tissue and minerals that give bones their strength), the cells that form this cancer make the bone matrix as well but its weaker.

Osteosarcoma can occur at any age but it is most likely to occur in children and adolescents, where teens are at the highest risk, since their bodies are developing, especially their bones, due to growth in height. In children and young adults, osteosarcoma occurs in areas where bones are growing quickly, such as near the end of long bones in limbs and arms. Most tumors develop in the bones around the knee, but can occur in any bone.

Most times tumors that occur in other regions of the body can spread to the bones, known as metastatic bone cancer, but are not true bone cancers. Luckily not all bone cancers are malignant; some are benign. They do not spread to other parts of the body, are not life threatening and can be cured through surgery.

Bone cancers such as osteosarcoma are detected through X-ray, a combination of scans (CT scan, PET scan, bone scan, MRI) and with a surgical biopsy. Most times, the early signs of osteosarcoma are caught on X-rays taken during routine dental check-ups. A complete radical, surgical, en bloc resection of the cancer, is the treatment of choice in osteosarcoma patients.

Why Cancer Research Keeps Changing?

This finding adds fuel to the fire that cancer research keeps changing. This discovery answers just that it’s because scientist keep discovering new things. Whenever something is hypothesized, scientists either claim it to be false or true after testing out their theory through proper research. As soon as a theory is proven to be legitimate, another research pops up that throws the claim out the window.

Cancer research is equivalent of diving into the deep unknown. Therefore, whenever we come up with hypothesis for a possible explanation, most of them will fall short. Even the premises that do pass the test of time are usually incomplete and are somehow modified later on. But that’s just how modern science works.

As technology progresses with time, we will see many such fascinating cases where we will discover ancient viruses, disease pathologies, and the cures our ancestors used to fight diseases of prehistoric times.