Even Dinosaurs Got Cancer

The claim:

In 2010, research scientists Professor Rosalie David and Professor Michael Zimmerman published a study  on the origins of cancer.  They examined nearly a thousand mummies from ancient Egypt and South America, as well as fossils and ancient medical text, looking for  evidence of cancer in our ancestors.  They only found five cases of tumors out of a thousand mummies, and only one of those tumors was thought to be malignant.

The incidence of cancer has exploded as a result of the significant changes humanity has made to the world in which we live, and the way we live in it.  [1] Page 23


There were three published rebuttals to the David/Zimmerman study Chris references.

Bishoy Faltas noted that the authors (David/Zimmerman) mentioned more than 176 confirmed malignancies documented in the archaeological record, not 5, noting that this was “ample evidence that cancer is an ancient natural phenomenon and is not solely a by-product of carcinogens that are abundant in today’s industrial society.”[2]  Faltas further elaborated on the prevalence of malignancies in ancient populations, making a startling revelation that cancer rates in ancient populations were the same as modern populations and in some cases, higher.

Recently, more carefully designed and methodologically sound palaeoepidemiological studies show that malignant tumours in the past were as prevalent as in modern populations. A recent study by Nerlich et al. examined the preserved skeletal remains of 905 individuals from two major ancient Egyptian necropolises spanning 3,200–500 BCE and also those of 2,547 individuals in ancient Germany dating back to 1400–1800 CE. This study established the presence of malignant tumours in spatially and temporarily different populations over the past 4,000 years with an age- and gender-adjusted frequency the same as that of a control group of the English population between 1900 and 1905. Another study from the same group by Zink et al. examined the mummified remains of 325 adults in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Thebes-west from 1,500 to 500 BCE showed a higher prevalence than the same reference English population mentioned above. We also have evidence from some studies that distinct types of malignant tumours such as multiple myeloma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma occurred at rates that are much higher than those in modern populations.[2]

The second rebuttal was published by researchers from China who questioned David/Zimmerman’s proposal that based on their evidence,  cancer was rare in antiquity. They felt  this conclusion might need further verification as David/Zimmerman neglected the literature and evidence from China.

Cancer in ancient China was first documented in oracles, written in about the fourteenth to the eleventh centuries BCE. In Inner Canon of Yellow Emperor (475–221 BCE), the aetiology, pathology and symptoms of cancer were well documented, and it was proposed that tumorigenesis was associated with maladjustment, dietary factors, body deficiency and depression. The Classic of Mountains and Seas (before 221 BCE), recorded the medicines used for the treatment of cancer, such as seaweed and Thallus Laminariae, which is still used in China today. Documented in Jin Shu (648 CE) is the first recorded exairesis (removal) of cancer. [3]

Cancer Research UK provided the third rebuttal of the David/Zimmeran with an article titled, “Claims that cancer is only a ‘modern, man-made disease’ are false and misleading”[4] citing the following from director of Cancer Information, Dr Lesley Walker:

There isn’t enough evidence presented in the article to make any kind of reliable calculations about cancer rates in ancient populations – and certainly not enough to make bold statements claiming that cancer is “purely man-made”.

The suggestion that cancer was rarer in ancient populations is not surprising at all. But it’s not just because of our modern lifestyles. It’s because we live longer today than at any point in history.

Hundreds or thousands of years ago, life expectancy was short. Many people died in middle age from infectious diseases, and death in childbirth or childhood was also common.

But we know that cancer is mainly a disease of the elderly – three quarters of cases diagnosed in people aged 60 and over, and more than a third (36 per cent) of cases in people aged 75 and over.  So it’s not surprising that cancer was a rare event in populations where people were unlikely to make it past 40.

The likely reason that cancer appears to be a relative newcomer in the historical record is that it most commonly afflicts those 65 and older, and for a long time, few people lived long enough for cancer to become a concern.  A 2017 study of mummies from the Renaissance court of Naples (from the 15th and 16th centuries) revealed that 27% of elderly mummies died of cancer leading the researchers to conclude, “The presence of tumours in the mummies could suggest that the disease is not as strongly connected to modern lifestyle factors as has been thought. ” [5]

“Civilization did not cause cancer,” writes oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, “but by extending human life spans, civilization unveiled it.”

“You can opt for the paleo diet, you can have as clean a living environment as you want, but the capacity for these diseases is ancient, and it’s within us regardless of what you do to yourselves,” says Edward Odes of the University of the Witwatersrand.[6]

Even dinosaurs got cancer.

The hadrosaurs, or ‘duck-billed dinosaurs’, suffered from cancer. Researchers found 29 tumors in bones from 97 individuals of this herbivorous group from the Cretaceous period, about 70 million years ago.   [7]

Hadrosaurs weren’t the only prehistoric creatures to have cancer.  A prehistoric turtle , Triassic amphibian and a 1.7 million year old hominid suffered from cancer as well.


[1] “Chris Beat Cancer”, page 23
[2] “Cancer is an ancient disease: the case for better palaeoepidemiological and molecular studies” by Bishoy Faltas, https://www.nature.com/articles/nrc2914-c1#ref1
[3] “An old disease, a new disease or something in between: evidence from China”  by Youxin Wang, Tian Zhang, and Wei Wang, https://www.nature.com/articles/nrc2914-c2
[4] https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2010/10/14/claims-that-cancer-is-only-a-%E2%80%98modern-man-made-disease%E2%80%99-are-false-and-misleading/
[5] ttps://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(17)30464-3/fulltext
[6] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/07/oldest-human-cancer-disease-origins-tumor-fossil-science/
[7] https://www.nature.com/news/2003/031021/full/news031020-2.html

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