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Last Updated: Friday, 16 July, 2004, 23:54 GMT 00:54 UK
How our ancestors avoided cancer
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Our ancestors died of other serious diseases
Cancer is a disease that touches most people's lives in some way.

We all seem to know someone who has had it and the global picture is far from encouraging with incidence rates rising year on year.

The increase is largely explained by the fact that the population is steadily ageing, but it is also associated with unhealthy lifestyles, smoking and obesity.

So what of our ancestors? Did they face a life shortened by cancer or were they healthier than modern man?

Research on skeletons dating back thousands of years, indicates that cancer was not something they encountered very frequently.

Dr Mario Slaus of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb, carried out tests on the skeletal remains of more than 3,000 individuals for evidence of neoplasms - uncontrolled and abnormal tissue growth.

The bones in the academy collection dated from 5,300 BC to the 19th century AD and had been collected from archaeological sites across Croatia.

As the average life expectancy in the UK has almost doubled since the mid-19th century, the population at risk of cancer has also grown
Dr Elaine Vickers, Cancer Research UK
Analysis revealed four cases of neoplastic disease in individuals ranging from three-to-four to 50-60 years of age.

All four cases involved bone neoplasms, but all were benign, with little potential to become malignant.

Dr Slaus said: "We found no evidence of secondary bone tumours in any individual in the collection, a factor that is probably explained by the fact that the mean age-at-death of the specimens is 35.6 years.

"Primary malignant and benign tumours of bone are relatively rare, even in young individuals where the incidence of these neoplasms is highest, while secondary tumours of bone, although much more common, are associated with older age."

Modern lifestyles

Dr Slaus's view is that our ancestors would have died early from other common ailments and would not have survived long enough for cancer to take hold.

Life expectancy in the 21st century is higher than it has ever been in the past, mainly due to better nutrition, improved health awareness, better sanitation and more accessible health care.

However, increased longevity is accompanied by an increased incidence of cancer.

The factors linked with the development of cancer in the West are smoking (estimated to cause about 30% of cancer deaths) and obesity/dietary factors (estimated to be responsible for a further 30% of all cancer deaths).

However, these factors can take many years to lead to the development of symptomatic tumours, so ageing populations naturally show a higher incidence of the disease.

"The individuals in the Croatian skeleton collection would have been prone to diseases such as syphilis, tuberculosis and leprosy and we found evidence for each of these conditions in individuals in the collection," said Dr Slaus.

"These illnesses and others would have certainly contributed significantly to mortality in our ancestors," he added.

"The change from these 'old' illnesses to 'modern' ones such as cancer can be seen as part of the evolution of our society, but as with the 'old' illnesses we can go some way to combating the 'modern' illness of cancer through educating people about the risks of the disease and encouraging them to adopt a healthy lifestyle," said Dr Slaus.

Healthy options

Cancer Research UK said it was no surprise to find a low incidence of cancer in a collection of individuals whose average age of death was 35 years.

The charity's science information officer Dr Elaine Vickers said: "Cancer is primarily a disease of older people, as it is generally the result of the DNA damage that accumulates over a person's lifetime.

"In fact, 65% of cancers occur in people over 65 years of age.

Woman smoking
Smoking has contributed to cancer deaths
"As the average life expectancy in the UK has almost doubled since the mid-19th century, the population at risk of cancer has also grown.

"Our risk of cancer is also influenced by our environment and lifestyle.

"For example, smoking is the single largest cause of cancer, and the mass-production of cigarettes only began in the late 19th century.

"You can reduce your risk of cancer by not smoking, eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, reducing your alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy body weight, and protecting your skin from the harmful effects of the sun."

Life was tough for the people whose remains lie in the Croatian Academy.

Our lives are somewhat easier and we have more control over them, but because we often take them for granted, we are in danger of contributing to the cancer epidemic.

The earlier we change our habits, the better and we may give scientists of the future something else to talk about.

Global bid to cut cancer deaths
03 Jun 03  |  Health
Cancer cases 'to soar'
03 Apr 03  |  Health

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