SK 7923

Specimen number:
SK 7923
-27, 27.72
Date min:
1,600,000 Bp
Date max:
1,800,000 Bp
Time periods:

SK 7923, an unknown hominin from the Swartkrans cave site, in South Africa provided the earliest evidence of cancer in hominins. An osteosarcoma was found in its partial left fifth metatarsal, demonstrating that tumors unrelated to modern lifestyle also developed in ancient hominins [1][2].


The earliest occurrence of neoplasia or abnormal growth of cells or tissues in extinct hominins is rare, with only a few confirmed cases from the Middle or Late Pleistocene (780,000 to 120,000 years old). Furthermore, those cases are widely assumed to be benign. The first substantive evidence for hominin neoplastic disease comes from a 1.98 Ma juvenile Australopithecus sediba skeleton from the Malapa site in South Africa [3]. Later significant evidence for the human-like neoplastic disease was discovered in a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal rib from Krapinaa, presenting a case of fibrous dysplasia [4][2].  

Eventually, in a 2016 publication [2], a discovery from the cave site of Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa provided the earliest evidence of an identifiable case of malignant osteosarcoma a type of bone cancer from an early human ancestor dated to 1.6 to 1.8 million years. SK  7923 is a left fifth hominin metatarsal found recovered from the Member 1 Hanging Remnant, which also yielded Homo ergaster and Paranthropus robustus fossils [5]. The proximal diaphysis and a large portion of the distal part were preserved, but not the articular end. SK 7923 is from a hominin, but cannot be assigned to a specific taxon. The fossil bone was examined using micro-focus X-ray computed tomography (µXCT) at the South African Nuclear Centre for Radiography and Tomography [2].

Malignancy is commonly regarded as a modern-day disease. However, this case demonstrates that, while rare, malignant cancer can be found in the archaeological fossil record. And while the rise in malignancy cases is clearly linked to modern-day hazards, bone tumors have clearly occurred throughout history. Furthermore, while modern human lifestyles may increase the frequency of cancer, longer life expectancies imply that cancer will logically occur at a higher rate in modern people than in prehistory [2].


Cited References

  1. 1.

  2. 2.

  3. 3.

  4. 4.

  5. 5.

This page was last edited on November 25, 2022 at 14:13:59 UTC