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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 Nov 11;94(23):12728-31.

Ethnohistory, genetics, and cancer mortality in Europeans.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5245, USA.


Geographic variation in cancer rates is thought to be the result of two major factors: environmental agents varying spatially and the attributes, genetic or cultural, of the populations inhabiting the areas studied. These attributes in turn result from the history of the populations in question. We had previously constructed an ethnohistorical database for Europe since 2200 B.C., permitting estimates of the ethnic composition of modern European populations. We were able to show that these estimates correlate with genetic distances. In this study, we wanted to see whether they also correlate with cancer rates. We employed two data sets of cancer mortalities from 42 types of cancer for the European Economic Community and for Central Europe. We subjected spatial differences in cancer mortalities, genetic, ethnohistorical, and geographic distances to matrix permutation tests to determine the magnitude and significance of their association. Our findings are that distances in cancer mortalities are correlated more with ethnohistorical distances than with genetic distances. Possibly the cancer rates may be affected by loci other than the genetic systems available to us, and/or by cultural factors mediated by the ethnohistorical differences. We find it remarkable that patterns of frequently ancient ethnic admixture are still reflected in modern cancer mortalities. Partial correlations with geography suggest that local environmental factors affect the mortalities as well.

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