(p. D3) Carcinogens abounded 1.7 million years ago in Early Pleistocene times when a nameless protohuman wandered the South African countryside in what came to be known as the Cradle of Humankind.
Then, as now, ultraviolet radiation poured from the sun, and radon seeped from granite in the ground. Viruses like ones circulating today scrambled DNA. And there were the body’s own carcinogens, hormones that switch on at certain times of life, accelerating the multiplication of cells and increasing the likelihood of mutations.
That, rather than some external poison, was probably the cause of a bone tumor diagnosed as an osteosarcoma found fossilized in Swartkrans Cave, a paleoanthropological trove northwest of Johannesburg. A paper in the current South African Journal of Science describes the discovery, concluding that it is the oldest known case of cancer in an early human ancestor.
. . .
The seemingly small number of malignant tumors reported by anthropologists is probably an illusion. The only cancers that can be found in long-decomposed remains are those that originated in the skeleton or somehow left a mark there. They include cancers that spread from other organs or, like myeloma, could scar the skeleton in other ways. For most ancient cancers, the evidence rots away. Mummified bodies are rare, but here, too, an occasional cancer has been found.
For the full story, see:
Johnson, George. “RAW DATA; After 1.7 Million Years, a Bone Cancer Diagnosis.” The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 23, 2016): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 22, 2016, and has the title “RAW DATA; The Known: Cancer Is Really, Really Old. The Unknown: How Common It Was.”)
The academic article mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:
Edward, J. Odes, S. Randolph-Quinney Patrick, Steyn Maryna, Throckmorton Zach, S. Smilg Jacqueline, Zipfel Bernhard, Augustine Tanya, Beer Frikkie De, W. Hoffman Jakobus, D. Franklin Ryan, and R. Berger Lee. “Earliest Hominin Cancer: 1.7-Million-Year-Old Osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa.” South African Journal of Science 112, no. 7/8 (July/Aug. 2016): 1-5.