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Oldest 'definite' case of human cancer discovered in 4,500-year-old human remains from Siberia

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06 December 2014


The pelvis bone of the 4,500-year-old skeletal remains of a man found in Siberia. Picture: Angela R. Lieverse, Daniel H. Temple, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii

The findings refute the belief that cancer is a mainly modern phenomenon that was rare in the ancient 'toxin-free' environment, it is claimed. 

The academic research, reported this week in scientific journal PLOS ONE, was conduct by an international team comprising archeologist Vladimir Bazaliiskii, of Irkutsk State University, bioarcheologist Angela Lieverse  of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and biological anthropologist Daniel Temple, of George Mason University in the US. 

Map of the finding

Map of Cis-Baikal with location of the Gorodishche II cemetery. Picture: Angela R. Lieverse, Daniel H. Temple, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii

The bones of a man aged 35 to 45 exhumed in Siberia date to the Early Bronze Age.

He suffered from either lung or prostrate cancer which eventually spread through his body from his hip to his head, say the international team. 

'This is one of  - if not the oldest - absolute cases of cancer that we can be really, really confident saying that it's cancer,' said Lieverse.

Similar cancer discoveries in remains estimated to be 5,000 to 6,000 years old have been made but these involve unconfirmed cancers or tumours later found to be benign.

Sceme of cancer changes

Diagrammatic representation of skeletal completeness and lesion distribution; a, anterior view; b, posterior view. Picture: Angela R. Lieverse, Daniel H. Temple, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii

'We've had this perception that it was almost non-existent in antiquity, because people didn't live the same kind of lifestyle that we live now. They lived in these pure, toxin-free environments and they were very active and ate natural foods,' she said.

'But it was more common than we like to think it was.'

The victim was a hunter-gatherer who would have burned wood fires to stay warm. Inhaling the smoke could have led to lung cancer, it is claimed. 

The bones - arranged in the foetal position - were found in 1986 in a circular pit in the Cis-Baikal region. Men in this period were more commonly buried lying on their backs.

He was buried with a spoon in the shape of a serpent. His death would have been painful, she suggests. 'It's a tragic story. It breaks your heart to think of what he went through,' she said. 

Oldest cancer in situ

In situ photograph of Gorodishche II, Burial 3. Picture: Angela R. Lieverse, Daniel H. Temple, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii

Temple added: 'You have this really aggressive bone destruction and at the same time you have rapid bone formation.' The ancient man was probably ill long before his death. 

'This individual was in constant pain (and) likely expectorating blood,' he claimed. 'The people who lived with him probably knew something was wrong - they gave him something that symbolized illness had visited him,' he said. 

The serpent-shaped spoon could have symbolised his illness.

Serpent spoon

'The people who lived with him probably knew something was wrong - they gave him something that symbolized illness had visited him.' Picture: Angela R. Lieverse, Daniel H. Temple, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii

'Grave goods have deep symbolic meaning, and when contextualized with these skeletal lesions, it is likely that the object reflected the circumstances surrounding this individual's illness and death,' he said. 

The research was part of the Baikal-Hokkaido Archeological Project.

Read more about ancient cancer cases: Siberian princess 'died from breast cancer', reveals MRI scan

Comments (2)

About Bronze age man 'inhaled smoke' which may have led to 'lung cancer', I think is interesting to quote: "A lung health study has helped to determine the prevalence of lung disease among adults in Malawi. The work highlights the extent to which people living in Malawi are exposed to smoke from household burning of biomass (crop residues, wood, charcoal) for their day-to-day cooking needs. Around the world four million people die every year as a result of inhalation of this smoke which increases the risk of heart and lung diseases."Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. "Lung health study helps determine to prevalance of lung disease in adults in Malawi." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 February 2016. .
Gualterio Nunez Estrada, Sarasota, Florida, 34234
06/11/2016 07:52
Prostate cancer, not prostrate cancer.
PJ, Holland, IL
25/02/2015 04:19

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