Ancient Skeleton Collection Yields Cancer Clues

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Both primary and secondary metastatic bone cancer are recognizable as malformations that can be spotted in skeletal remains.

Slaus and his colleagues used this knowledge during their quest to understand the prevalence of cancer through seven millennia of Croatian human history. The team analyzed the bones of 3,160 people held in the Skeletal Collection of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts for both types of tumor.

When researchers ran across something that looked like an unusual growth or scarring in a skeleton, they examined the bones more closely with x-rays and CTscans.

What the scientists found was much the same as has been demonstrated in other archaeological remains: The incidence of cancer was very low. This was particularly true for metastatic bone cancers, the type common in older cancer victims today.

Leprosy More Common

The researchers found benign tumors in four skeletal remains. Tumors were found on the femurs, or thigh bones, of a teenager from a fourth-century necropolis in the town of Mursa, a former Roman colony.

Evidence of a benign tumor was also discovered in the bones of a three- to four-year-old child unearthed in a medieval cemetery near Zagreb.

Another tumor was found in the femur of the remains of man in his 40s found in an 11th-century cemetery in the town of Lobor.

Researchers also discovered tumor signs in the skull of a 50- to 60-year-old man whose remains date to the third or fourth century B.C. and were found on the island of Vis, in the Adriatic Sea.

"The low frequency of [cancer] in the Croatian Skeletal Collection is characteristic for archaeological material," Slaus said. He believes the most likely explanation for the total lack of secondary metastatic bone tumors is that the mean age of death of the specimens is 36 years of age.

While cancer evidence was rare in the remains researchers examined, signs of other diseases, such as syphilis, tuberculosis, and leprosy—which damage bone as well as soft tissue—were much more common.

Slaus notes that cancer would have been as unusual and strange in historical societies as leprosy would seem to us today.

"Star of the Show"

This "fascinating" collection of Croatian skeletons "should prove a valuable resource for other studies," Bruce Rothschild commented. An expert on studying disease in ancient bones, Rothschild is a skeletal pathologist at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown. "The authors have a tremendous opportunity with the collection they describe," he said.

Rothschild said that in the roughly 30,000 skeletons from archaeological sites he has examined, cancer—particularly the secondary metastatic form—has also been extremely rare. The pathologist cautions, however, that many metastatic cancers might not cause obvious malformation in the bone and would initially require x-raying to detect.

Speaking of his study, Slaus said, "The bone collection is the real star of the show." Since his study was completed, the number of skeletons has already increased to more than 4,000. The resource continues to grow.

The remains are now being used to study the frequency and distribution of other afflictions and premature deaths, from arthritis and dental disease to fractures and even possible murders.

Slaus said, "Taken together, all of these data helped to corroborate or disprove various archaeological or historic theories and also provide important data not available through other sources."

The unique skeleton collection is now helping to paint an extraordinarily detailed picture of eastern European life and health throughout the ages.

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