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Dead Men Tell Some Tales

Posted on June 15, 2017 by in The OFI Blog

Evidence of malignant tumor in teen’s right humerus

The year 1970 was a time to be alive. Apollo 13 returned safely home to Earth, and the Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII with an undefeated record, and the nation sobbed over the breakup of the Beatles. In the case of a bag of bones discovered by archaeologist Olga Linares, however, 1970 was definitely a time to be dead. While Linares had set out in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro to study agricultural practices of natives in the surrounding area, she came upon the bones of a diseased individual. Little did she know the significance of such a discovery in the future.

Bioarchaeologist and postdoctoral fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Nicole Smith-Guzmán has recently re-examined the same bones that were first uncovered by Linares back in 1970. Looking more closely at these bones of a 14 to 16 year old girl, Smith-Guzmán found a lumpy mass on the humerus of one arm. This discovery was found to be the oldest known case of cancer in Central America. Although the exact type of cancer remains unknown, Smith-Guzmán has determined with Jeffrey Toretsky of Georgetown University that cancer was most likely not the cause of death. The bioarchaeologist has also discovered that the way the bones were found directly contradicts what Linares originally thought.

To learn more about this exciting new development, check out a recent article posted on Smithsonian.com here!