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article imageOldest cancer case in Central America discovered

By Karen Graham     May 31, 2017 in Science
It was only by chance that a bioarchaeologist came across a box on a shelf in Panama City with a bag of skeletal bones inside, and that was quite a find. However, the scientist noticed something strange on the humerus of one arm - A lumpy, calcified mass.
Here is what makes the find so remarkable - Bioarchaeologist Nicole Smith-Guzmán, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) really wasn't expecting to find a rare case of primary bone cancer, especially in Central America.
This is because the soil in this region of the world is acidic, and the rain tends to be slightly acidic, too. Bones tend to dissolve over time unless they are very well protected from the elements. As it happens, this particular skeleton was found originally in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro in 1970 by the now-deceased archaeologist Olga Linares.
This discovery is not the oldest cancer to ever be found. In 2014, researchers excavated a diseased skeleton dating back to around 1,200 BC at the Amara West site in northern Sudan. The skeletal bones were riddled with holes, and it was fairly obvious the young man had suffered with some type of cancer.
The bones were found carefully arranged in a midden  or mound of organic refuse.
The bones were found carefully arranged in a midden, or mound of organic refuse.
Nicole E. Smith-Guzmán
Linares was interested in the agricultural practices of the region, and while she did examine the bones, the skeleton had not been examined since 1991, instead, staying carefully wrapped in a burlap bag inside the box. But here's what is intriguing - Linares must have suspected something was strange about the skeleton, writing in a 1980 manuscript that "this was a diseased individual," says Smith-Guzmán.
Skeleton reveals the earliest known cancer in Central America
Smith-Guzmán s the lead author of a new research paper published online in the International Journal of Paleopathology on May 26, 2017. In the study, she describing what she believes is the oldest example of cancer ever found at a pre-Colombian site in Central America.
Only two skeletal remains were found in the trash middens  the child s skeleton and this half-skelet...
Only two skeletal remains were found in the trash middens, the child's skeleton and this half-skeleton of an adult with the lower part of the body missing. Courtesy of the Penn Museum, January 1971 - Web. 31 May 2017.
Linares De Sapir, .Olga "Cerro Brujo"
The skeletal remains had originally been found buried in one of five scattered shell-midden clusters in Bocas del Toro. These "trash mounds" contained what we would call trash, particularly pottery and other pieces of refuse, like animal bones, bivalve shells and bird bones.
The skeletal remains belong to a child, probably between the ages of 14 to 16 years old. This was postulated based on the wear of the teeth and the absence of third-year molars, as well as the degree of fusion in the cranium bones. It was not possible at the time to tell whether the child was male or female, but the researchers are waiting on DNA tests. Radiocarbon dating puts the age at death about 700 years ago.
While the exact type of cancer has not been determined, it is probable the child had some kind of sarcoma. "It would have caused intermittent pain in the right arm as the tumor grew and expanded through the bone. There would have been an associated soft tissue mass, creating a swollen appearance of the upper right arm,” according to the paper.
“We can never really determine the cause of death in bioanthropology,” Smith-Guzmán says. “We might be able to suggest the manner of death, but in this case, I collaborated on this paper with a specialist in pediatric oncology, [Jeffrey Toretsky of Georgetown University]. And he doesn't think that this person would have died of cancer.”
Smith-Guzmán also does not believe the child was thrown out like a piece of trash when it died, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The burial appeared to be more in line with ritual burials because of the relics found close to the remains that included several ceramic vessels and a trumpet made from an Atlantic Trident shell. "They obviously had to be taking care of this person for a while and buried them with these objects of ritual significance as well.”
“There's no evidence that cancer was less common in the past,” says Smith-Guzmán. “The thing is that cancer is rare in people that are less than 50 years of age and if you think about skeletal remains that are going to be preserved and excavated, you have an even smaller sample size. That's why we don't see more cases of cancer described in ancient populations. Also, you have to have cancer that affects the skeletal remains, which is unusual.”
More about bone tumor, 700 year old humerus, Bioarchaeology, Cancer, PreColumbian
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