Tim Maloney/Griffith University via AP
NEW YORK — The 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult found in a cave in Indonesia missing his left foot and part of his left leg reveals 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 the ‘patient’ continued to live for years as an amputee. Prehistoric surgery could show humans were making medical advances much earlier than previously thought, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Researchers were exploring a cave in Borneo, in a region of rainforest known for having some of the world’s earliest rock art, when they came across the tomb, said Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and principal investigator of the study.
Although much of the skeleton was intact, he was missing his left foot and the lower part of his left leg, he explained. After examining the remains, the researchers concluded that the foot bones were not missing from the grave, nor lost in an accident – they were carefully removed.
The remaining leg bone showed a clean, angled cut that healed, Maloney said. There were no signs of infection, as you would expect if the child had had his leg bitten by a creature like a crocodile. And there was also no sign of a crush fracture, which one would have expected if the leg had broken in an accident.
The person lived for years after losing the limb
The person appears to have lived around six to nine years after losing the limb, eventually dying of unknown causes as a young adult, the researchers said.
This shows that prehistoric foragers knew enough about medicine to perform the operation without fatal blood loss or infection, the authors concluded. Researchers don’t know what type of tool was used to amputate the limb, or how infection was prevented – but they believe a sharp stone tool may have made the cut and point out that some of the plants rich in the region have medical properties.
Moreover, the community would have had to care for the child for years, as surviving the rough terrain as an amputee would not have been easy.
This early surgery “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and development,” Maloney said during a press briefing.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest example of amputation had been in a French farmer 7,000 years ago, who had part of his forearm removed. Scientists believed that advanced medical practices developed around 10,000 years ago, when humans settled in agricultural societies, the study authors said.
But this study adds to growing evidence that humans began taking care of their health much earlier in their history, said Alecia Schrenk, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not involved in the study. study.
“It was long assumed that health care was a newer invention,” Schrenk said in an email. “Research like this article demonstrates that prehistoric peoples were not left to fend for themselves.”