Earliest hominin cancer: 1.7-million-year-old osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa

  • Edward J. Odes 1 School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Patrick S. Randolph-Quinney 1 School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa * Current address: School of Forensic and Applied Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0694-5868
  • Maryna Steyn School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Zach Throckmorton 1 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 De Busk College of Osteopathic Medicine, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee, USA
  • Jacqueline S. Smilg 1 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 School of Radiation Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 3 Department of Radiology, Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Bernhard Zipfel 1 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 DST/NRF South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Tanya N. Augustine School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Frikkie de Beer Radiography/Tomography Section, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA), Pelindaba, South Africa
  • Jakobus W. Hoffman Radiography/Tomography Section, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA), Pelindaba, South Africa
  • Ryan D. Franklin Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Davie, Florida, USA
  • Berger R. Lee 1 Evolutionary Studies Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 2 DST/NRF South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0367-7629
Keywords: palaeopathology, oncology, malignant neoplasia, metatarsal, micro-computed tomography

Abstract

The reported incidence of neoplasia in the extinct human lineage is rare, with only a few confirmed cases of Middle or Later Pleistocene dates reported. It has generally been assumed that pre-modern incidence of neoplastic disease of any kind is rare and limited to benign conditions, but new fossil evidence suggests otherwise. We here present the earliest identifiable case of malignant neoplastic disease from an early human ancestor dated to 1.8–1.6 million years old. The diagnosis has been made possible only by advances in 3D imaging methods as diagnostic aids. We present a case report based on re-analysis of a hominin metatarsal specimen (SK 7923) from the cave site of Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. The expression of malignant osteosarcoma in the Swartkrans specimen indicates that whilst the upsurge in malignancy incidence is correlated with modern lifestyles, there is no reason to suspect that primary bone tumours would have been any less frequent in ancient specimens. Such tumours are not related to lifestyle and often occur in younger individuals. As such, malignancy has a considerable antiquity in the fossil record, as evidenced by this specimen.

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Published
2016-07-28