On a shelf in Panama City, a human skeleton was bundled into a bag within a cardboard box for 46 years. Or part of a skeleton, anyway. The bones had been looked at once in 1991 and then shelved again. Then one day Nicole Smith-Guzmán, a bioarchaeologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) opened the box and noticed that there was something a little bit different about these bones. The humerus of one arm featured a lumpy calcified mass.
This turned out to be the oldest known case of cancer in Central America.
The bones had been excavated in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro in 1970 by the now-deceased archaeologist Olga Linares, who had set out to study the agricultural practices of people in the area.
Story: Jackson Landers, Smithsonian | Photo: Nicole E. Smith-Guzmán