Cancer Rates In Early Britons Show We’ve Been Battling The Disease For Centuries

There is nothing as idealized and as wishful as nostalgia. Things were always better back in the day. But is there any actual evidence that cancer rates were substantially lower?

We’ve long held this belief that we used to be healthier, often painting with a rather broad brush from yesterday to essentially the start of human history. We’re convinced that mankind was healthier because of our diet and active lifestyle. Before agrarian societies, hunting and gathering offered up both ample physical activity and ample leisure time, the best of both worlds. Even the caveman’s diet, largely seeds, and plants with meat on rare occasions, has turned into a diet fad, albeit heavy on red meats.

But recent archeological discoveries offer a deeper look into the health and, specifically, cancer rates of early Britons. For years, scientists have believed that cancer rates in pre-modern societies were much lower than they are today. The hypothesis made sense. Without fabricated chemicals, obesity, and unhealthy diets, the largest contributors to many diseases around the globe, early peoples should have been much healthier.

Now, after using modern cancer-detecting equipment on the bones of hundreds of bones, they know that cancer rates were likely much, much higher. One obvious contributing factor would have been the ever-present fire. From small huts to large gathering spaces, the fire and its accompanying smoke would have been a constant source of smoke inhalation on par with smoking cigarettes. It’s almost impossible to underscore just how central fires were to the pre-modern home; they were used for heat, cooking, boiling water, and were almost never allowed to go out completely.

Additionally, alcohol consumption was extremely high. A distrust of water meant that men, women, and even children drank plenty of beer, often brewed to have an alcohol content just high enough to kill dangerous bacteria. Later, tobacco products also may have increased cancer rates as they became much more popular in the 15th and 16th centuries across socioeconomic classes.

The study, published in Cancer, focused on 143 sets of bones unearthed near Cambridge in the United Kingdom. That’s a small sample size, but the researchers put an emphasis on limiting their pool to only the highest quality samples to avoid contaminated or damaged bones. These samples ranged from the 6th to 16th century, a large swath of time that spanned some monumental shifts in diet and technology, as well as imported foodstuffs from a widening ring of trade partners.

By looking for tell-tale cancer lesions in the bone, researchers were able to find a number of cancer cases in the 143 sets of bones, with their findings confirmed by a local oncologist. Still, there’s good reason to believe the rate was higher than they found. Of the 143 samples, 5 were positively identified to have had cancer, but that’s likely an undercount. CT scans only find about 75% of tumors, and many types of cancer affect only soft tissue, without spreading to the skeletal system at all. Based on the findings and extrapolating cancer data, the team estimates a cancer rate of 9 to 14% in early Britons. That’s more than ten times higher earlier estimates.

What these types of studies tell us is that cancer and other health problems have been a constant battle for mankind, and they’ll continue to change as our lifestyles and risk factors change, too. Today, we have many more tools for treating cancer, but seemingly many more risks that contribute to it. The answer isn’t to look back wistfully on a day when cancer didn’t exist, because it did. Instead, we need to invest in a future where cancer isn’t the problem it is today…or was yesterday, either.



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Cody Sovis

Low-level marketing guy with a cycling habit. Advocate for cancer prevention, active lifestyles, equality, and breakfast cookies.