The Hunt for the Prehistoric Roots of Cancer

From Discover Magazine:

CanWhen you search the archives for the first known case of human cancer you come across the story of a prehistoric hominid called Kanam Man. The only remains that have been found of this relative of Homo sapiens is a petrified jawbone, and inside the curve of the tooth line is a large lump that many scientists believe to be osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bone. The Kanam jaw, discovered in Kenya in 1932 by Louis Leakey, was my portal into the world of paleopathology and, in particular, the obscure sub discipline of paleo-oncology — the search for the ancient roots of cancer. I tell the story in chapter 3 of The Cancer Chronicles, which is excerpted in the current issue of Discover.

In the piece, “The Long Shadow,” I also write about Egyptian and Peruvian mummies and early medieval skeletons — an accumulating body of evidence that cancer has been with us all along. There was an ancient Scythian king whose skeleton, retrieved from a royal burial chamber, was eaten by what appears to be metastatic prostate cancer, and an Egyptian woman whose face was all but destroyed by nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Visually the most striking example may be an enormous tumor the size of a basketball growing on the femur of an early medieval Saxon man. Finding cancer in the distant past shouldn’t be surprising. All of us multi-celled creatures — the metazoans — are the result of an evolutionary compromise. Each individual cell is granted enough power and autonomy to ensure the robustness of life, yet it must work in accordance with its neighbors. When this delicate balance is upset, the cell reproduces like mad, dividing and dividing, and a tumor begins to grow and evolve like an aggressive new species in the ecosystem of the body.

More here.