In the western world, amputations have only been part of the standard repertoire of surgeons for about 100 years. But now a new find shows that such surgeries already existed in the Stone Age.
In the history of medicine, the amputation of a body part has long meant certain death. So far, the forearm surgery of a farmer in France around 7000 years ago was considered the earliest evidence. But now researchers assume that they can prove an even older case. According to this, a skeleton found on Borneo with only one foot shows that an amputation was successfully carried out around 31,000 years ago. The team of scientists writes in the journal Nature that the prehistoric surgeon(s) already worked with a great deal of medical expertise.
"The new finding in Borneo shows that people could lose limbs that were already injured or affected by disease long before they had started farming and settled down," said co-study leader Maxime Aubert of Australia's Griffith University in a statement from the university . To determine the age of the skeleton, the researchers radiocarbon dated (C14) pieces of charcoal found near the grave. In addition, the age of a molar was determined using another technique.
The skeleton was found in the limestone cave of Liang Tebo in Indonesian Borneo. The cave consists of three chambers, is about 160 square meters and partly painted with rock art. During excavations in 2020, the fairly complete skeleton of a 20-year-old human (Homo sapiens) was discovered there who had been buried there. According to the researchers, it is not possible to say with certainty whether it is a woman or a man.
During the excavations, they discovered that the skeleton was missing its left foot. The researchers assume that Stone Age man lost about a third of his left leg during an operation. The way the tibia and fibula were severed does not indicate an accident or an animal attack, the scientists write.
The researchers also consider punishment to be unlikely, partly because the person was apparently well cared for after the operation and lived for at least six years. Unusual bone growth as a result of a healing process on the severed bones leads to the conclusion that the amputation took place in childhood.
The researchers emphasize that amputations have only been part of the standard repertoire of surgeons in the western world for about 100 years. The chances of survival were previously considered to be very low, partly because there were no antibiotics to prevent infections.
The researchers conclude that the Stone Age surgeon or surgeons must already have been very familiar with the anatomy of the human limbs, muscles and vascular system. Because they apparently operated without fatal blood loss and without the patient later dying of an infection. It was probably necessary to clean and disinfect the amputation wound regularly, possibly with local medicinal plants.
"It came as a great surprise that this early hunter survived a very serious and life-threatening operation in childhood," says co-author Melandri Vlok from the University of Sydney. "His wound healed to form a leg stump. And then for years this individual lived in mountainous terrain with limited mobility. This suggests a high level of community care." According to the study, the knowledge required for the procedure was probably created over a long period of time through trial and error and passed on through generations.
It is unclear why the leg had to be removed. One can only speculate about the type of tool, writes Charlotte Ann Roberts from Durham University in a comment on the study. The researchers assume a sharp object. "Another intriguing question is whether the child was given pain medication, such as herbal tranquilizers, for the surgery," Roberts writes.