A tumor found in the bone of a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil provides the earliest evidence of cancer in humans

Scientists were shocked to discover a tumor in the bone of a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil that was excavated more than 100 years ago in Croatia. Most cancerous tumors are caused due to unhealthy diets and exposure to chemicals, pollution and radiation. Hence, it was surprising to see  such a tumor in the bone of a Neanderthal when such cancerous factors were not prevalent in those times. Another aspect that makes this discovery even greater is that generally tumors in fleshy tissues don't fossilize, so they're difficult for archeologists to find.  The tumor in today's world is known as fibrous dysplasia which causes bone cancer.

"It's evidence that Neandertals suffered tumors - that they were susceptible to the same kinds of diseases that we see in modern humans," said David Frayer, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, who co-authored the paper. "Before this, the earliest tumor in bone that we've seen goes back to an Egyptian mummy. So this is 100,000 years older than the previous tumor that has been found. There is no evidence of cancer older than this in the human fossil record."

The Neanderthal bone is just about an inch long and was not associated with any skeleton when it was excavated between 1899 and 1905 in a cave known as the Krapina rock shelter in Croatia. Hence, it was not possible to determine whether it belonged to a male or a female. Even the cause of death hasn't been determined.

"It may have involved other bones of the skeleton, but none of those have been found," said Frayer. "At this site, there are more than 900 bones, but very few of them are associated one with the other. And while there are other pathologies, none of the others show evidence of a tumor."

Previously, scientists were of the opinion that Neanderthals didn't fit in the line of evolution of man. However, genetic analysis has revealed that Neanderthals were forefathers of modern people.

"We have actual nuclear DNA from a number of different Neanderthals - not complete sequences - but segments of nuclear DNA," said Frayer. "So we know that Neanderthals have a set of unique genes that were passed on to modern humans. It's about 4 percent of our genetic makeup."

Frayer said that the tumor was fairly large and was preset in the upper third of the back, and muscles attach there that are associated with raising the arm.