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06/06/2013

Neanderthal tumour in rib bone is oldest evidence of disease

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A Neanderthal rib bone with a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm. (Courtesy PLoS ONE)

Scientists examining fossilized bones from Croatia have discovered evidence of a tumour in a Neanderthal rib, the oldest evidence of such a disease ever found.

The bone is well over 100,000 years older than the next most recent bone tumour in the fossil record, the researchers say in a new study, published in PLOS ONE.

The discovery is exciting because such diseases, given that they are rare enough in the living population, are exceedingly rare in the human fossil record. 

The rarity underscores an interesting issue raised by the discovery: that a relatively common modern-day bone tumour also blighted at least one Neanderthal. Since tumours and cancer are generally associated with longer lifespans, and Neanderthals had life spans approximately half that of modern humans, the find is all the more surprising, researchers say.

Without discovering the rest of the Neanderthal's body, the researchers can't say what kind of overall health the individual was in. In living humans, the effect of such a tumour can run from debilitation to a total lack of symptoms.

The Neanderthal rib is from Krapina, a famous Croatian site discovered in the late 19th century. Krapina has since yielded over 800 individual bones, the remains of at least 24 Neanderthal women and children. The bones are approximately 130,000 years old.

The study was led by researchers in the U.S. and Croatia.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen

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