Tim Maloney / Griffith University via AP
NEW YORK – The 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young man found in a cave in Indonesia missing a left foot and part of his left leg reveals the oldest evidence of amputation, according to a new study.
The leg amputation was performed when the person was a child – and the “patient” lived for many years as an amputee, the scientists said. Prehistoric surgery may show humans made medical advances much earlier than previously thought, according to a new study. The study was published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Researchers were exploring a cave in Borneo, in an area of rainforest known for some of the world’s earliest rock art, when they came across the tomb, Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and lead researcher, said.
He explained: “Although most of the skeleton is intact, it is missing the left foot and the lower part of the left leg. After examining the remains, the researchers concluded that the foot bones weren’t missing in the grave, or lost in an accident – they were carefully removed.
The remaining leg bone shows a clean diagonal cut that has healed, Maloney said. There are no signs of infection, which can happen if the child is bitten off by a creature such as an alligator. And there was also no sign of a fracture fracture, which would be expected if the leg was broken in an accident.
The person who lived many years after losing a limb
The person appeared to have lived for about six to nine years after losing a limb, the researchers said, eventually dying of unknown causes at a young age.
This suggests that prehistoric foragers knew enough medically to perform surgery without blood loss or fatal infection, the authors concluded. The researchers don’t know what type of tool was used to amputate the limb, or how to prevent infection – but they speculate that a sharp stone tool may have made the cut, and indicates that several plant species abundant in the area have medicinal properties.
In addition, the community will have to take care of the child for many years to come, as surviving the difficult terrain with an amputee is not easy.
Maloney said at a press conference ahead of this initial surgery “rewrites the history of human development and medical knowledge”.
Prior to this discovery, earliest example of amputation was in a French farmer 7,000 years ago who had part of his forearm amputated. Scientists think advanced medical methods evolved about 10,000 years ago, when humans settled into agrarian societies, the study authors said.
But this study adds to growing evidence that people started caring about each other’s health much earlier in their history, said Alecia Schrenk, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who were not involved in the study, said.
It has long been assumed that healthcare is a newer invention, Schrenk said in an email. “Research like this one demonstrates that prehistoric peoples weren’t just about defending themselves.”