The tell-tale marks on this Early Bronze Age man’s bones reveal cancer is not necessarily a modern phenomenon only

Researchers find oldest known case of cancer in 4,500-year-old remains of Siberian man

(Read the article on one page)

The earliest known case of cancer has been identified in the skeleton of a Siberian Bronze Age man. The 4,500-year-old bones have significant marks and holes, alerting researchers to the devastating lung or prostate cancer that the ancient man had endured. This new evidence of the illness in ancient bones demonstrates that cancer is not only a modern phenomenon, but also affected the ancient world.

The Baikal-Kokkaido Archaeological Project and research team which located the rare find was comprised of international experts, including bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, archaeologist Vladimir Bazaliiskii of Irkutsk State University in Russia, and biological anthropologist Daniel Temple, of George Mason University in the U.S., reports The Siberian Times .

“This is one of — if not the oldest — absolute cases of cancer that we can be really, really confident saying that it's cancer," Angela Lieverse told CBCNews. Previous cases of cancer have been detected in remains up to 6,000 years old, but those remained unconfirmed or with tumors that were benign.

4,500 year old bones of Siberian man reveal he died of cancer

4,500 year old bones of Siberian man reveal he died of cancer. Researchers have found what may be the oldest case of human cancer in the world. Credit: Angela R. Lieverse et al.

The remains of the man, dating from the Early Bronze Age, show he was 35 to 45 years of age at the time of his death. He had suffered from a cancer which spread throughout his body, the deterioration of his bones leaving him immobile. It was almost certain that those around him would have recognized he was ill. They had placed him in a circular grave in the fetal position, his knees drawn up into his chest, and he was buried with a crooked bone serpent spoon, among other items. According to CBCNews this type of burial is in contrast to other men at the time who were buried on their backs with fishing or hunting gear.

Lesions and holes in the skull of the Siberian man suggest people suffered cancer in the Early Bronze Age period

Lesions and holes in the skull of the Siberian man suggest people suffered cancer in the Early Bronze Age period.  Credit: Angela R. Lieverse et al.

Daniel Temple told George Mason University News “The people who lived with him probably knew something was wrong … they gave him something that symbolized illness had visited him. Grave goods have deep symbolic meaning, and when contextualized with these skeletal lesions, it is likely that the object reflected the circumstances surrounding this individual’s illness and death.”

One of the grave goods associated with the Siberian Bronze Age man - a unique bone spoon

One of the grave goods associated with the Siberian Bronze Age man - a unique bone spoon with a carved winding serpent handle. Credit: Angela R. Lieverse et al.

Temple also touched upon the importance of the find, saying that diagnosing a case of cancer from 4,500 years ago is relevant to how modern cancers are viewed. Environmental causes and industrial contaminants are often blamed as the cause of modern cancers, and while this find does not challenge that link, the current understanding of cancer can be expanded with this additional information, according to George Mason University News.

Lieverse told CBCNews of the sad fate of the ancient man as revealed by his bones, “He must have lived a distinct life in his community but he also would have experienced a most agonizing death. Near the end, he would have been nauseous, fatigued, unable to breathe and in constant pain. It's a tragic story. It breaks your heart to think of what he went through.”

Perhaps his pain was mitigated by those around him. There is evidence which suggests that pain management in ancient times was accomplished through the use of natural techniques, such as herbs, or cannabis. The 2,500-year-old mummy of a woman found in 1993 in a kurgan (mound) of the Pazyryk culture in the Republic of Altai, Russia, was buried with a pouch of cannabis , commonly known as marijuana. Found by her body, the Princess of Ukok may have used it to cope with the symptoms of her illness. Researchers revealed that the young woman died from breast cancer, and suffered numerous other ailments.

The Baikal-Kokkaido Archeological Project team discovered the Bronze Age man’s bones while examining remains in a small hunter-gatherer cemetery in the Cis-Baikal region of Siberia. The study detailing the rare find has been published in the scientific journal PLOS One .

Featured Image: The tell-tale marks on this Early Bronze Age man’s bones reveal cancer is not necessarily a modern phenomenon only. Credit: Angela Lieverse/University of Saskatchewan

By Liz Leafloor


DeAegean's picture

The crooked serpent spoon is the best part of this article. Such symbolism. Ancient thoughts of afterlife were much more hopeful.

Really informative, thanks!

It wasn't used to "Treat" cancer, it was used to manage pain...

rbflooringinstall's picture

That is absolutely incredible that there is evidence to support the idea that cannabis was used to treat cancer back then as well. Excellent article.

Peace and Love,


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

An ancient skull (public domain). Note: This image is representational only, and is not a photo of one of the skulls recently-discovered in Mayo, Ireland. Photos have not yet been released of the Neolithic Mayo bones.
The remains of at least ten adults, adolescents and children that were positioned in a 5,500-year-old cave-like structure over the course of 1,200 years during the Neolithic Period, have been found in Ireland. All of them show signs of having their heads smashed in after death, as part of a mysterious funerary ritual.

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

Roman glass (not the legendary flexible glass). Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.
Imagine a glass you can bend and then watch it return to its original form. A glass that you drop but it doesn’t break. Stories say that an ancient Roman glassmaker had the technology to create a flexible glass, ‘vitrium flexile’, but a certain emperor decided the invention should not be.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article