12/08/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Skeleton Unearthed In Siberia May Be Oldest Evidence Of Metastatic Cancer In Humans

Scientists in Siberia say they may have discovered the oldest human case of metastatic cancer -- in a skeleton that dates back 4,500 years.

"This is one of -- if not the oldest -- absolute cases of cancer that we can be really, really confident saying that it's cancer," Dr. Angela Lieverse, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and one of the researchers, told CBC News.

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Skeleton found in Siberia is believed to show the oldest case of metastatic cancer.

The Early Bronze Age skeleton was unearthed in a small cemetery in Siberia's Cis-Baikal region and is believed to have belonged to a man who was 35 to 45 years of age when he died. The researchers say he likely suffered terribly from either lung or prostate cancer that had spread through his body.

“This individual was in constant pain [and] likely expectorating blood,” Dr. Daniel Temple, a George Mason University biological anthropologist and another one of the researchers, said in a written statement.

The researchers noted that though evidence of cancer has been seen in skeletons dating back 5,000 to 6,000 years, such cases have either been unconfirmed or involved benign tumors.

cancer pelvis
The pelvis bone of the 4,500-year-old skeleton found in Siberia.

The researchers say their discovery challenges the widely-held assumption that cancer is strictly a modern disease.

"We've had this perception that it was almost nonexistent in antiquity, because people didn't live the same kind of lifestyle that we live now," Lieverse told CBC News. "They lived in these pure, toxin-free environments and they were very active and ate natural foods. But it was more common than we like to think it was."

The research was published online on Dec. 3 in the journal PLOS ONE.