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 at the 18th Meeting of the European Association of Cancer Research (EACR-18) in Innsbruck today (6 July 2004), 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 5,300BC to the 19th Century AD and have been collected from archaeological sites across Croatia. Analysis (including gross morphology, X-rays and CT-scans) revealed 4 cases of neoplastic disease in individuals ranging from 3-4 years to 50-60 years of age. All 4 cases involved bone neoplasms (obviously, as bone was the only tissue remaining): two fibrous cortical defects, an osteochondroma and an osteoma. All three conditions were benign, with little potential for malignant transformation.
“The low frequency of neoplasms in the Croatian Skeletal Collection is characteristic for archaeological material”, said Dr Slaus. “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. Primary malignant and benign tumours of bone are relatively rare, even in young individuals where the incidence of these neoplasms is highest, whilst secondary tumours of bone, although much more common, are associated with older age”.
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