Earliest hominin cancer: 1.7-million-year old osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa

Odes, Edward J., Randolph-Quinney, Patrick, S. orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-0694-5868, Steyn, Maryna, Throckmorton, Zach, Smilg, Jacqueline, S., Zipfel, Bernhard, Augustine, Tanya, N., de Beer, Frikkie, Hoffman, Jakobus, W. et al (2016) Earliest hominin cancer: 1.7-million-year old osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 112 (7/8). ISSN 0038-2353

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150471


The reported incidence of neoplasia in the extinct human lineage is rare, with only a few confirmed cases of Middle or Later Pleistocene dates reported. It has generally been assumed that premodern incidence of neoplastic disease of any kind is rare and limited to benign conditions, but new fossil evidence suggests otherwise. We here present the earliest identifiable case of
malignant neoplastic disease from an early human ancestor dated to 1.8–1.6 million years old. The diagnosis has been made possible only by advances in 3D imaging methods as diagnostic aids. We present a case report based on re-analysis of a hominin metatarsal specimen (SK 7923) from the cave site of Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. The expression of malignant osteosarcoma in the Swartkrans specimen indicates that whilst the upsurge in malignancy incidence is correlated with modern lifestyles, there is no reason to suspect that primary bone tumours would have been any less frequent in ancient specimens. Such tumours are not related to lifestyle and often occur in younger individuals. As such, malignancy has a considerable antiquity in the fossil record, as evidenced by this specimen.

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