“It rewrites our understanding of the development of this medical knowledge,” said Tim Maloney.
Ancient skeleton reveals amputation surgery 31,000 years ago. A skeleton discovered in a remote corner of Borneo rewrites the history of ancient medicine and proves amputation surgery was successfully carried out about 31,000 years ago, scientists said Wednesday.
Previously, the earliest known amputation involved a 7,000-year-old skeleton found in France, and experts believed such operations only emerged in settled agricultural societies.
The finding also suggests that Stone Age hunter-gatherers living in what is now Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province had sophisticated medical knowledge of anatomy and wound treatment.
“It rewrites our understanding of the development of this medical knowledge,” said Tim Maloney, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, who led the work.
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The skeleton was uncovered in 2020 in the imposing Liang Tebo cave known for its wall paintings dating back 40,000 years.
Surrounded by bats, terns and swiftlets, and interrupted by the occasional scorpion, scientists painstakingly removed sediment to reveal an astoundingly well-preserved skeleton.
It was missing just one notable feature: its left ankle and foot.
The base of the remaining leg bone had a surprising shape, with knobbly regrowth over an apparently clean break, strongly indicating that the ankle and foot were removed deliberately.
“It’s very neat and oblique, you can actually see the surface and shape of the incision through the bone,” Maloney told a press briefing.
Other explanations, like an animal attack, crushing injury, or fall, would have created bone fractures and healing different from those seen in the skeleton’s leg.
A tooth and surrounding sediment showed the skeleton is at least 31,000 years old and belongs to a person who died at around 20 years old.
Despite the incredible trauma of amputation, they appear to have survived six to nine years after the operation, based on the regrowth on the leg bone, and suffered no major post-operative infection.
That suggests “detailed knowledge of limb anatomy and muscular and vascular systems,” the research team wrote in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“Intensive post-operative nursing and care would have been vital… the wound would have regularly been cleaned, dressed and disinfected.”