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11 December 2014
4,500 year-old skeleton show signs of bone cancer

More than 4,500 years ago, a Siberian man succumbed to a disease that left telltale signs on his bones. By the time it took him, the cancer had riddled his bones with holes from head to hip, including his upper arms and upper legs and virtually all points between.
     Angela Lieverse, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan worked with Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project colleagues Daniel Temple from the United States and Vladimir Bazaliiskii from Russia to examine the skeleton of this Early Bronze Age man. "This represents one of the earliest cases of human cancer worldwide and the oldest case documented thus far from Northeast Asia," said Lieverse.
     The man was exhumed from a small hunter-gatherer cemetery in the Cis-Baikal region of Siberia, and he was not in good shape. When he passed away, his community buried him in a fetal position in a circular pit. Unlike most men of this period, who would have been buried lying on their back with fishing or hunting gear, he was laid to rest with an ornamental bone and a bone spoon, intricately carved with a winding serpent handle. The researchers estimate he would have been between 35 and 40 years old.
     "It's clear the disease had progressed considerably, metastasising far beyond its original location in the body and contributing to his death," Lieverse said. "His age and sex and the lesions on his bones point to lung cancer or possibly prostate cancer." Lieverse explained that ancient skeletons exhibiting signs of cancer are quite rare, sparking the hypothesis that the disease is mostly a recent phenomenon, reflecting various aspects of our modern lifestyle.
     These latest findings provide evidence that may help refute this hypothesis, Lieverse said. She suspects that, taking into account variables such as longer life expectancies, cancer may have been considerably more common in antiquity than is generally presumed. "As we become more familiar with what metastatic carcinoma looks like in the skeleton, the number of cases identified by bioarchaeological research is likely to increase," she said.

Edited from Past Horizons (6 December 2014)

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