The discovery challenges scientific assumptions that cancers and tumours are a result of modern lifestyles and environment.
Scientists have found the oldest known example of cancer in the foot bone of an early human dating back around 1.7 million years.
The study team, which included researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), also found evidence of the oldest tumour in the vertebrae of a child.
The finds challenge the established theory that cancer is a disease caused by modern life.
The discoveries were made at two sites in South Africa and are more than 1.6 million years earlier than the previous find – a tumour discovered in the rib of a Neanderthal dated to around 120,000-years-old.
Edward Odes, from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said: “Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumours in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments.
“Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed.”
Dr Bernhard Zipfel, an expert on the foot and movement of human relatives, said: “Due to its preservation, we don’t know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual.
“But we can tell this would have affected the individual’s ability to walk or run – in short, it would have been painful.”
On the child vertebrae find, lead author Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, from UCLan, said: “The presence of a benign tumour in Australopithecus sediba is fascinating not only because it is found in the back, an extremely rare place for such a disease to manifest in modern humans, but also because it is found in a child.
“This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record.”
He went on to tell Sky News: “This discovery stops us thinking of cancer as a monolithic entity. We know that so many cancers are a product of modern life but this in fact shows us that our capacity for cancer is very old. These bones reveal that cancer is actually part of our evolutionary history rather than just a bi-product of our modern lifestyles.
“We used the latest imaging techniques to help us analyse the specimens and identify these cancerous tumours. There is potential that similar discoveries may have been missed in historic archeological digs and so this technology could also be used to check the fossil records for other ancient evidence of cancer.”