Discovered in a shallow cave in Krapina, Croatia the fossilised Neanderthal showed signs of having had a bone tumour, a common cancer today, in one of its ribs.
Scientists say the finding is the oldest recorded human evidence yet of the disease.
“It’s the oldest tumour found in the human fossil record,” Dr David Frayer, an anthropologist from the University of Kansas who led the research told reporters.
“It shows that living in a relatively unpolluted environment doesn’t necessarily protect you against cancer, even if you were a Neanderthal living 120,000 years ago,” Frayer added.
While the discovery may seem startling to most, considering that cancer is believed to be a contemporary disease, bone cancers have previously been identified in the remains of ancient Egyptians that date between 1,000 and 4,000 years ago.
“Some people think that cancer is only a modern disease, but there’s evidence from fossils, bones and mummies that it’s actually many thousands of years old,” a spokesperson from Cancer Research UK told British reporters.
“So this discovery isn’t entirely surprising, even though such finds are very rare, but it helps to shed light on the complex history of cancer in humans and our ancient relatives,” the spokesperson added.
The fossil was uncovered at an archaeological site that has already yielded more than 900 ancient human bone specimens along with their tools.
A medical radiologist diagnosed the tumour using X-rays and CT sans, but efforts to extract DNA from the specimen were unsuccessful.
The fossilised cancerous rib was an incomplete specimen and as such the research team cannot establish the overall effect the tumour may have had on the individual.
Researchers hope the study, published in the journal PLOS One, may shed a light on the presence of cancer in prehistoric humans and offer more clues about the complex history of the disease.