Were Cavemen Cancer-Free?

 

“I have not in my seven years experience in the north seen a single case of  malignancy in either Eskimo or Indian.”

 – JA Urquhart, M.D.

 

Were Cavemen Cancer-Free?

 
There is not a large amount of conclusive data on the subject of cancer rates among cavemen for many reasons. The obvious first reason is that cavemen lived thousands to millions of years ago, leaving us with very little evidence of their cancer rates. Secondly, archaeological findings are representative of a small proportion of the community and not necessarily reflective of the entire society. Lastly, an often-repeated theory is that cavemen supposedly had a relatively short lifespan, and therefore, they did not get cancer as it is a disease of the elderly. Cavemen were busy getting eaten by saber tooth tigers before they could develop cancers.
 
However, several societies in the world continued to follow a hunter gatherer lifestyle as late as the 1900s, and provide us with insight into cancer rates among primitive man. These societies ate similar diets as our caveman ancestors, hunting and gathering their food, and consumed hefty amounts of fat and protein with leafy vegetables and berries. Many of these groups were conveniently studied by European physicians during the expansion of European societies throughout the world, and lucky for us, they often documented their findings and for this we thank them.
 
J.A. Urquhart, a physician who practiced medicine in Northern Canada in the early 1900’s, described in detail the health and lifestyle of the Inuit people that he lived alongside for seven years. These hunter-gatherers still followed a near identical caveman diet. 65-100% of their diet was made up of fat and protein from wild animals, fish, and whale blubber. He practiced medicine with the same equipment, imaging, and operating rooms as his contemporaries in the first world, therefore he could diagnose cancer with an accuracy comparable to Western medicine. Yet, when describing his encounter with cancer in the Eskimo people he states:

“First, as regards cancer, I have not in my seven years’ experience in the north seen a single case of malignancy in either Eskimo or Indian. It has been suggested to me that perhaps I have not met enough of the older, cancer-age people, or that perhaps the natives do not come to the hospitals as readily as in other parts of Canada. To this I may reply that my practice takes in amongst the tribes very intimately, and I frequently have to live in their campments while making my patrols among them. I therefore meet all types and ages. As for the hospitals, the natives appreciate them to the utmost and use them freely. It is for someone else to explain this absence of cancer amongst these people.”1

 
His treatment of all ages, including the elderly, punches holes in the theory that the Eskimos were simply not living long enough to get cancer.
 
In the early 1900s, as English missionaries set out to spread Christianity to these “third-world” peoples, they took meticulous records. Other expeditions, including physicians, recorded the medical and physiologic data from several hunter gathers in existence. In fact, Dr. F. P. Fouché, who was a surgeon stationed in Africa, was quoted in the British Medical Journal in 1923:

“For six and a half years I was District Surgeon in the Orange Free State. The district in which I practised had a native population of 14,000, the large majority of the Basuto race. During the whole of that period I never saw a single case of gastric or duodenal ulcer, colitis, appendicitis, or cancer in any form, in a native, although these diseases were frequently seen amongst the white or European population.”2

It is important to note that the cancers in this location were not merely going undiagnosed, as European populations living in the same areas were being diagnosed with cancer. Also, records have shown similar lifespans between the natives as the English and other “civilized” cultures, therefore it was not just a matter of the Europeans living longer to get cancer. Interestingly, Dr. Fouché later discussed his encounter with an African woman who had adopted a Westernized lifestyle in South Africa, and undoubtedly ate a “civilized” diet including sugar and grains:

“Whilst, however, acting as locumtenent for a colleague in the Western Province of South Africa, I saw two cases of carcinoma of the breast in native women. They both belonged to the coloured race peculiar to that part, a race which has lived under civilized conditions for the last 300 years at least.”

The evidence is mounting. Our diet is leading to our disease. Unfortunately, these trends may be worsening as cancer rates continue to rise throughout the world as undeveloped countries become westernized.3
 

 

References:

1. Urquhart JA: The most northerly practice in Canada. 1935. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne 147:1193-6, 1992
2. Fouché FP: Freedom of Negro Races from Cancer. Br Med J 1, 1923
3. Kanavos P: The rising burden of cancer in the developing world. Annals of oncology : official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology / ESMO 17 Suppl 8:viii15-viii23, 2006

 
© 2015 CDR Health and Nutrition, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

11 Comments

  1. mjh011

    Great post, thought-provoking for sure. Would be interesting to look at their longevity, and to compare their stress level to ours (ie, intermittent, high stress situations versus constant daily grind and steady release of cortisol). Keep it coming!

    Reply
    1. CavemanDoctor (Post author)

      Thanks!

      Reply
  2. CN

    Dr. Champ,

    Could you please write about the link between psychological stress and cancer? Can stress increase a person’s risk of developing cancer?

    Thanks!
    CN

    Reply
    1. CavemanDoctor (Post author)

      There isn’t great data on this but it would definitely be a good post. Thanks for the comment!

      -CD

      Reply
    1. CavemanDoctor (Post author)

      Interesting article. Thanks for the link!

      -CD

      Reply
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  5. david

    I’m a starting anthro student starting college next month, so I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge on how caveman dealt with diseases, or even had diseases for that matter. My question is how did they perceive disease? did they make it as a biological thing, or more of a supernatural thing?

    Reply
    1. cavemandoctor (Post author)

      It’s a great question and I’m not so sure we know the answer to it. I would guess it varied based on the culture, but this is way outside of my knowledge-base.

      Reply
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