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17 July 2004
Ancient skeleton collection yields cancer clues

Cancer incidence rates in the developed world are increasing each year and developing countries are also now showing an increased incidence of the disease. But how much were our ancestors affected by the disease? Dr. Mario Slaus of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb presented archaeological findings, suggesting that the disease was very uncommon even in our recent ancestors, reinforcing the concept that cancer is a 'modern' disease and is largely a consequence of the greater longevity we are now experiencing.
     Dr. Slaus and his colleagues1 analysed the skeletal remains of the 3,160 individuals in the Skeletal Collection of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts for evidence of neoplasms (uncontrolled and abnormal tissue growth). The remains in the collection date from 5,300 BCE to the 19th Century CE and have been collected from archaeological sites across Croatia. Analysis revealed four cases of neoplastic disease in individuals ranging from three-to-four to 50-60 years of age. All four cases involved bone neoplasms, but all were benign, with little potential to become malignant.
     Dr Slaus said: "We found no evidence of secondary bone tumours in any individual in the collection, a factor that is probably explained by the fact that the mean age-at-death of the specimens is 35.6 years." Dr Slaus's view is that our ancestors would have died early from other common ailments and would not have survived long enough for cancer to take hold.
     Life expectancy in the 21st century is higher than it has ever been in the past, mainly due to better nutrition, improved health awareness, better sanitation and more accessible health care. However, increased longevity is accompanied by an increased incidence of cancer.
     "The individuals in the Croatian skeleton collection would have been prone to diseases such as syphilis, tuberculosis and leprosy and we found evidence for each of these conditions in individuals in the collection," said Dr Slaus. "These illnesses and others would have certainly contributed significantly to mortality in our ancestors," he added.

Sources: Eurekalert (6 July 2004), National Geographic News (13 July 2004), BBC News (16 July 2004)

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