Cancer is old, news at 11

In a mildly interesting discovery, a toe bone from a 1.7 million year old hominin has been found to bear an osteosarcoma. The poor individual would have been suffering with pain when they walked, it might even have killed him (not the toe, but the possibility of metastatic cancer) and it’s suggestive that there might have been some social care for them.


But you know what’s not interesting at all? That cancer has been around for millions of years. That’s old news.

The precise origins of cancer have been a source of debate due, in part, to the scarcity of historical evidence. Possibly the earliest reference to the disease is attributed to the great Egyptian physician Imhotep, who lived around 2600 B.C. In his writings, Imhotep describes an affliction characterized by a “bulging mass in the breast” that was resistant to any known therapies.

Errm, Dogs get cancer. Mice get cancer. Whales get cancer. Reptiles get cancer. Sharks get cancer, despite myths you may have heard. Insects get cancer.

That an old mammal got cancer is not surprising at all. And while the subtitle might claim that the observation “could have important implications for modern medical research”, the article doesn’t say what those implications are. It can’t, because there aren’t any.

I just find myself annoyed that here is a thought-provoking but ultimately anecdotal datum that humanizes our distant ancestors and might have some implications for the history of human social behavior, but it’s getting shoe-horned into the trite and pragmatically false paradigm that it’s a discovery that could lead to the Cure for Cancer. Stop the hype, please.


  1. A Masked Avenger says

    It seems like almost a mathematical theorem that cancer must exist wherever multicellular life exists and has differentiated cells: and disorder of the regulation on cell division and/or the specialization of the cell would inevitably yield something resembling cancer.

    Disclaimer: I’m a mathematician by training, not a biologist. But I’m not the right kind of mathematician to know whether there’s a branch devoted to abstract analysis of DNA-like systems. If not, there eventually will be–and at that time, there will probably be a theorem more or less to the above effect. Also, a theorem predicting viruses (approximately: minimal packets of DNA that rely entirely on other cells for all the machinery associated with self-replication). Also, transposable elements and other parasitical artifacts.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    Ugh. Can’t edit the previous post, but it should read “ANY disorder of the regulation…”

  3. =8)-DX says

    Bloody hominins, comin’ over here, 1.7 million years ago, getting cancer, dying.

  4. Siobhan says

    Isn’t cancer the thing you die of when nothing else has killed you? The rarity of cancer in old human body samples has less to do with cancer and more to do with “most people died of other things, like dysentery.”

  5. says

    I say it was the chemtrails from a time traveling alien ship sent to plant fake evidence in order to cover up the GMO connection to big pharma.
    This is PROOF!¡¡!

    (I’ll see myself out now)

  6. Rob says

    @4, that’s kind of been my lay persons understanding. I did see a paper decades ago that looked at rates of osteosarcoma in the bones of Roman soldiers (I think these ones were in Britannia). It showed pretty much the same rate as we would expect in current population of similarly aged people. Many of the skeletons showed evidence of having died violent deaths and presumably others died of disease.

  7. jacksprocket says

    This is perhaps slightly more interesting news: that a specific mutation (PIK3CA) has been linked to the use, by cancer cells, of a specific (and very common) amino acid. (glutamine).

    And that removal of the amino acid blocks the growth of these tumours. I’ve heard anecdotally of people surviving (not this, colorectal) cancer, by extreme low protein diet. Could this be a factor in other types of cancer? Can diet stave off the damage? Can a blocking treatment be found? Only scientific research can tell.

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @4:

    Isn’t cancer the thing you die of when nothing else has killed you?

    currently, but 1.7 million years ago. all the kids who were susceptible to cancer failed to produce offspring, so the only ones who reproduced could only get cancer much older.

    or so the pseudo geneticist would easily confabulate.
    (joining @5 offstage)
    (returning for a nother confabulation)
    evidence that there was once a comprehensive healthcare system allowing hominins to achieve advanced seniority. Really, lots of seniors had to exist to leave scattered fossils behind .. with evidence of carcinoma. what are the odds
    (seeing myself out again)

  9. applehead says

    So, how did that shark meme come to be? Do they have really low cancer rates, and that got embellished by pop-sci?

  10. multitool says

    I heard it started that sharks don’t get bone cancer (because they have no bones).

    Then that got mangled that sharks don’t get cancer at all, which fed the myth that cancer is somehow unnatural and caused by [paste conspiracy here].

  11. Katie Anderson says


    I wondered too, then discovered that the link in this article goes to a very nice article on the subject. It’s definitely worth a read.

  12. blbt5 says

    You all must have forgotten that one minute before 10,000 years ago Adam and Eve were cancer free!