Subscribe to Archaeology

Cancer Identified in 700-Year-Old Bones From Panama


Panama cancer bonePANAMA CITY, PANAMA—According to a report in Smithsonian Magazine, bioarchaeologist Nicole Smith-Guzmán of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found evidence of bone cancer in 700-year-old skeletal remains stored since they were unearthed at a village site in Bocas del Toro more than 40 years ago by archaeologist Olga Linares. At the time, Linares wrote that she had found the remains of a “diseased individual,” who had been discarded in a trash midden. Smith-Guzmán says that radiocarbon dating has shown that the bones belonged to a teenager who had been carefully buried in the midden with ceramic vessels and a shell trumpet after the village had been abandoned. The teen would have had a swollen upper right arm from the sarcoma, but Smith-Guzmán and pediatric oncologist Jeffrey Torestsky of Georgetown University say that it was probably not the cause of his or her death. Smith-Guzmán also explained that the shells in the midden helped to preserve the bones, and the rare evidence of cancer, from the region’s acidic soil. For more on the identification of incidents of cancer in the archaeological record, go to "Ancient Oncology."



From the Trenches