Early humans performed surgical amputation

A team of Indonesian and Australian researchers has discovered the oldest case of surgical amputation to date in Borneo. The find is a remarkable achievement in human prehistory.

The discovery, published in Nature, describes the skeletal remains of a young adult found in a cave in Borneo who had part of the lower left leg and foot amputated, probably as a child, at least 31,000 years ago. The person survived the surgery and lived for at least another six to nine years.

The find is a remarkable achievement. It is notoriously difficult to prevent infections in surgical amputations, even to this day. But 30,000 years ago, a community was able to successfully navigate veins, arteries, nerves and tissue and keep the wound clean so that it healed successfully. The individual continued to live into adulthood where an unknown cause eventually led to their death.

Bioarchaeologist and expert in ancient skeletons, Dr. Melandri Vlok, from the University of Sydney, said the find is “incredibly exciting and unexpected”.

“The discovery implies that at least some modern human foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed advanced medical knowledge and skills long before the Neolithic agricultural transition,” said Dr Vlok, co-lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral research associate in Sydney. Southeast Asia Center.

Studying Bones

The skeleton of the young adult, possibly in their twenties when they died, was carefully buried in the LiangTebo Cave – located in Borneo in East Kalimantan, in a limestone karst area that is home to some of the world’s earliest dated petroglyphs.

The bones were discovered by archaeologists from Griffith University and University of Western Australia (UWA) just days before the borders closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team was led by Professor Maxime Aubert and Dr Tim Maloney (Griffith University), Dr India Dilkes-Hall (UWA) and Mr Andika Priyatno from the Kalimantan Timur Cultural Heritage Preservation Center.

dr. Vlok from the University of Sydney was invited to study the bones when they were brought back to Australia.

“Nobody told me they didn’t find the left foot in the grave,” said Dr Vlok. “They hid it from me to see what I would find.”

When Dr. Vlok laid down the bones, the left leg looked withered and the size of a child’s, but the individual was an adult. She opened the part of the leg that contained the stump and found that the cut was clean, healed well and showed no signs of infection. “The chance that the amputation was an accident was so infinitesimally small,” said Dr Vlok. “The only conclusion was that this was a Stone Age operation.”

dr. Vlok ran to the office to tell her research colleagues what she’d found. “I told them I thought it looked like a surgical amputation,” she said. “Only then did they say they already knew the foot was missing.” dr. Vlok had just confirmed their suspicions. The foot was never placed in the grave to begin with.

An accident

While it’s not entirely clear what led to the amputation, the individual also had a very well-healed neck fracture and trauma to their collarbone that may have occurred during the same event, Dr Vlok said.

“An accident, such as a fall from a rock, could have caused the injuries, and it was clearly recognized by the community that the foot had to be removed for the child to survive,” she said.

“It’s an extremely rugged environment with steep mountains dotted with caves containing some of the oldest paintings made by our species,” said Professor Aubert.

Archaeologists, including excavations, led Dr. Tim Maloney had to kayak into the valley and climb the huge cliff to get into the cave.

“This unique find challenges the assumptions of humanity’s past capabilities and will greatly advance our understanding of human life in tropical rainforests,” said Dr. Dilkes-Hall.