Researchers from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment and the University of Tübingen in Germany announced earlier this month (August 2015) that they have identified the oldest known case of leukemia in the archaeological record.
Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow. It causes the patient’s body to produce huge numbers of immature white blood cells, preventing the formation of normal blood cells which can cause anaemia and severely compromise the immune system. It is perhaps best known as a cancer of children but over 90% of leukemia cases actually occur in adults, as is the case with this ancient example. The patient in this case was a woman, aged somewhere between 30 and 40 and she died over 7000 years ago. She was first found in a Neolithic graveyard at a site called Stuttgart-Mühlhausen in southern Germany and was in otherwise good health except for a few dental cavities and a slight inflammation of the lungs. At the time Europe was a patchwork of tiny farming communities which were gradually displacing traditional hunter-gatherers, and evidence suggests that physical injuries and infectious diseases were common. There was nothing that we would recognise as health care although some surgical interventions such as skull trephining were practised.
Most diseases leave no trace on the bones but leukemia is different. It acts directly on the bone cells and therefore leaves tell-tale patterns on their internal structure. Using high resolution CT-scans of individual G61 (as the female ‘patient’ is known) the researchers were able to identify several changes to the internal tissue of the upper right humerous and sternum consistent with leukemia. It could also have been consistent with several other disorders and diseases but these were able to be discounted. For example osteoporosis, a thinning of the bones usually associated with old age, would have affected more of the skeleton rather then being concentrated in two discreet areas. Similarly hyperparathyroidism, a disease caused by an excessive release of certain hormones by the parathyroid glands usually, leave characteristic traces in the skull and finger bones which were absent from G61.
The final question to answer was whether this degeneration of the bones was simply caused by local preservation. Soil conditions or local erosion patterns could potentially have caused certain parts of the skeleton to be preferentially damaged. In order to answer this problem the team examined 11 other individuals recovered from the same site between 1982 and 1993. None showed evidence of similar damage despite the bodies being from the same site and belonging to the same age group as G61.
Whether G61 died from her leukemia is impossible say. Leukemia is rare in adults under 50 but it can be caused by exposure to certain environmental conditions such as smoke and ionizing radiation as well as by some viruses. Genetics can also play a part with a family history of the cancer dramatically increasing the chances of developing it. We sometimes think of cancers as in some way a modern disease, caused by our increasingly long life spans and often less then healthy life styles, but the sad truth is that disease of all types has dogged humanity throughout our evolutionary history and without modern medical treatment G61’s cancer would have most likely proved fatal.
Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum. “Oldest case of leukemia discovered: Prehistoric female skeleton shows signs of this cancer.” News release: accessed 01/09/15. Available at: http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=155901&CultureCode=en