Stone Age skeleton missing a foot might be proof of the world’s oldest amputation
The prehistoric surgery could show that humans were making medical advances much earlier than previously thought and “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and developments.”
The 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult found in a cave in Indonesia that’s missing its left foot and part of its left leg offers the oldest-known evidence of an amputation, according to a new study.
Scientists say the amputation was performed when the person was a child — and that the “patient” went on to live for years as an amputee.
The prehistoric surgery could show that humans were making medical advances much earlier than previously thought, according to the study published in the journal Nature.
Researchers were exploring a cave in Borneo, in a rainforest region known for having some of the earliest rock art in the world, when they came across the grave, according to Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia who was the study’s lead researcher.
Though much of the skeleton was intact, it was missing its left foot and the lower part of its left leg, Maloney said.
After examining the remains, the researchers concluded that the foot bones weren’t missing from the grave or lost in an accident — that instead they were carefully removed.
The remaining leg bone showed a clean, slanted cut that was healed over, Maloney said. There were no signs of infection, which would be expected if the child had gotten its leg bitten off by an animal, such as a crocodile. And there were no signs of a crushing fracture, which would have been expected if the leg had snapped off in an accident.
The person appears to have lived for about six to nine more years after losing the limb, eventually dying from unknown causes as a young adult, according to the researchers.
This shows that the prehistoric foragers knew enough about medicine to perform the surgery without fatal blood loss or infection, the researchers said. They don’t know what kind of tool was used to amputate the limb or how infection was prevented but speculated that a sharp stone tool might have made the cut and noted that some of the rich plant life in the region has medicinal properties.
The researchers said the community would have had to care for the child for years afterward, since surviving the rugged terrain as an amputee wouldn’t have been easy.
This early surgery “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and developments,” Maloney said.
Before this find, the earliest example of amputation had been in a French farmer from 7,000 years ago who had part of his forearm removed. Scientists had thought that advanced medical practices developed around 10,000 years ago, as humans settled into agricultural societies, the study authors said.
But this study adds to growing evidence that humans started caring for each other’s health much earlier in their history, said Alecia Schrenk, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“It had long been assumed healthcare is a newer invention,” said Schrenk, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Research like this article demonstrates that prehistoric peoples were not just left to fend for themselves.”