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The world’s oldest tumour has been discovered in the rib of a Neanderthal who lived around 130,000 years ago.
Scientists at the University of Kansas took X-rays of the inch-long rib fragments – first found in the Krapina rock shelters of Croatia – and discovered parts of the inner bone were missing. Following CT scans the scientists discovered that this was likely to have been caused by soft-tissue tumour known in modern-day patients as fibrous dysplasia.
The bones studied by Kansas university anthropologist David Frayer and his team were first excavated more than 100 years ago in Croatia. Frayer wanted to scan the bones because many of them showed signs of trauma and marks that happened after the neanderthal had died.These marks suggest either cannibalism or burial rituals.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania took X-rays of the bones during the 1980s and published a book containing all the radiographs. One of the inch-long rib fragments was shown to have sections of bone that were ‘burned out’ in the X-ray images.
‘Burned out’ sections of X-rays suggest over exposure, and in the rib bones this overexposure was caused by missing bone in the inner part of the fragment.
Frayer used these images as a guide to take new, higher-resolution X-rays of the specimens. His team also scanned the bones using high-resolution microCT scanners that doctors currently use on modern-day patients. The microCT scan found that the ‘spongy bone’ which should be on the inner part of the fragment was missing and may have been ‘eaten away’ by a soft-tissue tumour.
This type of tumour is seen in modern-day patients and is called fibrous dysplasia. Fibrous dysplasia is an abnormal bone growth where normal bone is replaced with fibrous bone tissue.
It can cause abnormal growth or swelling of the bone and although it can occur in any part of the skeleton, it is most commonly found in the skull, thigh, shin, ribs, upper arm and pelvis Fibrous dysplasia is not cancerous but is rare and there is no known cure. Frayer reported the findings in the journal PLOS ONE. He told LiveScience: ‘People of that time didn’t live as long as they did today; plus, there weren’t very many of them compared to the Egyptians and people today. ‘Finding evidence of tumors and evidence of cancers, is – I don’t know if I want to say “lucky” – but there isn’t a lot of evidence for it.’
“They didn’t have pesticides, but they probably were sleeping in caves with burning fires,” says David Frayer, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas . “They were probably inhaling a lot of smoke from the caves. So the air was not completely free of pollutants—but certainly, these Neanderthals weren’t smoking cigarettes.”
Previously the earliest known tumours were found in Egyptian mummies dating back 4,000 years so this discovery predates this find significantly
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