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Evidence of pre-industrial cancer

15 September 2012

I recently came across photographic evidence of ancient tumors!

Image: Dr. Aufderheide and one of his “patients.”

A common theme I’ve stressed in my cancer awareness blog is the historical perspective: cancer is not a new disease. Conceptually, the breakdown of tissue homeostasis and aberrant mixing of cell types has likely been a problem facing even the most primitive multi-cellular organisms. Semantically, cancer might not only be a very old disease, but the ORIGINAL degenerative disease.

Historically, cancer has been difficult to document, especially among societies without traditions of medical literature. I.e. pre-industrial societies. Since most human cancer afflicts soft tissue, any evidence of the disease usually decays away with the rest of the deceased.

Tumors of hard tissue, like osteosarcomas of the bone, are a relatively rare phenomenon. In 1990 paleopathologist Arthur Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota at Duluth had the opportunity to perform necropsies on a “treasure trove” of naturally mummified bodies from a grave in the Atacama Desert (southern Peru) dating back to the Chiribaya people (AD 850-1470). In one of the specimens he discovered an osteosarcoma (bone tumor) on the upper arm of a woman that died in her mid-thirties!

Image: I’m not a neurologist, but that osteosarcoma looks pretty painful.

So there you have it, unequivocal proof of pre-industrial cancer. This does not imply that modern lifestyle and environmental factors do not influence cancer rates, but cancer is most certainly not a modern phenomenon.

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