120,000-Year-Old Tumor Shows Neanderthals Suffered from Cancer

The first definitive case of a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm in a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal rib from the site of Krapina in present-day Croatia reveals that Neanderthals suffered a cancer that is common in modern-day humans, say scientists led by Dr David Frayer from the University of Kansas.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Neanderthal Museum)

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Neanderthal Museum)

The discovery of the world’s oldest tumor, reported in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, predates previous evidence by well over 100,000 years.

The cancerous rib from Krapina is an incomplete specimen, and thus the researchers were unable to comment on the overall health effects the tumor may have had on this individual.

Prior to this find, the earliest known bone cancers occurred in samples about 1,000 – 4,000 years old.

“Fibrous dysplasia in modern-day humans occurs more frequently than other bone tumors. But evidence for cancer is extremely rare in the human fossil record,” explained Dr Frayer.

“This case shows that Neanderthals, living in an unpolluted environment, were susceptible to the same kind of cancer as living humans.”

Neanderthals had average life spans that were likely to be half those of modern humans in developed countries, and were exposed to different environmental factors.

“Given these factors, cases of neoplastic disease are rare in prehistoric human populations.”

“Against this background, the identification of a more than 120,000-year-old Neanderthal rib with a bone tumor is surprising, and provides insights into the nature and history of the association of humans to neoplastic disease.”

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Bibliographic information: Monge J et al. 2013. Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia. PLoS ONE 8 (6): e64539; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064539