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Before this discovery was made in Krapina, Croatia, the earliest evidence of this type of bone tumor, known as fibrous dysplasia, dated back 1,000 to 4,000 years.
The researchers, who reported the finding online June 5 in the journal PLoS One, said the specimen found is incomplete so they can't determine the effects the tumor had on the Neanderthal's overall health.
"Evidence for cancer is extremely rare in the human fossil record," David Frayer, of the University of Kansas, said in a journal news release. "This case shows that Neanderthals, living in an unpolluted environment, were susceptible to the same kind of cancer as living humans."
The average lifespan of Neanderthals was likely about half that of humans in developed countries today, and they were exposed to a different environment, the researchers said.
"Given these factors, cases of neoplastic disease are rare in prehistoric human populations," the researchers said. "Against this background, the identification of a more than 120,000-year-old Neanderthal rib with a bone tumor is surprising, and provides insights into the nature and history of the association of humans to neoplastic disease."
Fibrous dysplasia is more common today than other bone tumors, Frayer said.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: Public Library of Science, news release, June 5, 2013