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Scientists Discovered Tumor in Neanderthal Dating back 120,000 Years

Update Date: Jun 06, 2013 01:12 PM EDT

Scientists announced that they have discovered the oldest cancer case in history, dating over 120,000 years ago. The cancer was a benign bone tumor known as fibrous dysplasia, which is a common tumor today. This finding suggests that regardless of time and environment, humans today still share the same diseases with the Neanderthal ancestors that existed thousands of years ago.

"They [the Neanderthals] didn't have pesticides, but they probably were sleeping in caves with burning fires," said David Frayer, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas and co-author of the paper, according to National Geographic. "They were probably inhaling a lot of smoke from the caves. So the air was not completely free of pollutants-but certainly, these Neanderthals weren't smoking cigarettes."

This new fascinating find first started in 1899 when paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger uncovered the world's largest Neanderthal remains site that contained animal bones, stone tools and over 900 fossilized bones. The site is located in Krapina, Croatia and since then, physical anthropologist from University of Pennsylvania, Janet Monge has been studying the bones. Monge, who is also the lead author of this new report, has analyzed the bones for over decades but did not make this tumor discovery until now. Monge is one of the first physical anthropologists to study the x-rays of the remains.

In the 1980s, Monge and radiologist, Morrie Kricun, who is also from the University of Pennsylvania, took plain films of the bones. These images could not reveal the internal structures well enough for Monge to study the insides of the bones. Therefore, the duo decided to use a micro-CT-scan machine that provided 500 distinct frames of the 1.18-inch long (30mm) rib bone from one Neanderthal specimen. They discovered that the bone had a benign tumor.

"Most cancers affect people when they get older," said Frayer. "And most Neanderthals and earlier populations died before they got old. So this was really exciting to see."

The research was published in PLoS ONE.

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