Micrograph showing fibrous dysplasia with the characteristic thin, irregular (Chinese character-like) bony trabeculae and fibrotic : Wiki Commons
The first case of a bone tumor of the ribs in a Neanderthal specimen reveals that at least one Neanderthal suffered a cancer that is common in modern-day humans, according to research published June 5 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by David Frayer from the University of Kansas and colleagues from other institutions.
This discovery of a fibrous dysplasia predates previous evidence of this tumor by well over 100,000 years. Prior to this research, the earliest known bone cancers occurred in samples approximately 1000-4000 years old.
The cancerous rib, recovered from Krapina in present-day Croatia is an incomplete specimen, and thus the researchers were unable to comment on the overall health effects the tumor may have had on this individual. Fibrous dysplasia in modern-day humans occurs more frequently than other bone tumors, but Frayer says that, “Evidence for cancer is extremely rare in the human fossil record. This case shows that Neandertals, living in an unpolluted environment, were susceptible to the same kind of cancer as living humans.”
Neanderthals had average life spans that were likely to be half those of modern humans in developed countries, and were exposed to different environmental factors. The study concludes, “Given these factors, cases of neoplastic disease are rare in prehistoric human populations. Against this background, the identification of a more than 120,000-year-old Neandertal rib with a bone tumor is surprising, and provides insights into the nature and history of the association of humans to neoplastic disease.”