Stone Age Cancer: lessons for us

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2005

Stone Agers usually didn't live long enough to get the kinds of cancers that have become the second leading cause of death in the United States. Even so, it's reasonable to conclude that life 50,000 years ago was nearly cancer free. If that's true we should be able to draw some lessons from it.

The fossil record isn't too helpful on this point. Although there are hundreds of prehistoric skeletons that scientists have examined for causes of death, bone doesn't always tell the story. Several types of cancer invade bone but only if the victim can survive long enough with the help of radiation, chemotherapy and antibiotics.

Present-day hunter-gatherers who have little contact with the modern world would seem to be good candidates for study but there aren't many of them. They are rapidly dying off or being assimilated into the cultural groups that surround them. Few of them have ever been studied to determine what causes their death. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the renowned medical missionary of the early 20th century stated that he rarely saw cancer among African natives. A physician who studied the Inuit of Alaska and Canada found only one case of cancer in 49 years.

Did colon cancer exist in the Stone Age? It's one of the most common forms of cancer in the United States but we know that both family history and diet play major roles, especially the latter. Where the intake of red meat is high the rate of colon cancer is also high. In those people who have a high intake of fruits and vegetables the rate is low. Stone Agers may have avoided colon cancer by eating plenty of plant foods that were rich in fiber, antioxidants and natural salicylates, all of which are cancer-protective.

Hunter-gatherers of today use the same technique for cooking meat that Stone Age hunters did. They use a pit that contains hot coals and cover the meat with vegetation. Such a low-heat method produces fewer cancer-causing chemicals than frying or barbecuing, both of which are modern inventions.

Lung cancer was certainly rare thousands of years ago. As recently as the early twentieth century, lung cancer was so uncommon in the United States that it didn't even merit a separate category in textbooks of the time. My oldest medical text, published in 1908, has no entry for cancer of the lung. Where there is no exposure to tobacco or industrial pollutants there is almost no lung cancer.

Women in the Stone Age probably rarely developed breast cancer and it wasn't just because they didn't live many years beyond menopause. Almost all women of that age bore children and nursed them for 2 to 4 years, just as modern hunter-gatherer females do. They were almost never obese, and plant foods comprised half their caloric intake, or more. All these factors are protective against breast cancer.

In summary, a relatively short life span and a healthy diet resulted in a small likelihood of cancer during the Stone Age. Still, we can do better at preventing it by following some principles from that ancient lifestyle.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at