A skeleton who has gone through the world’s earliest limb amputation

The world’s earliest limb amputation — dating back 31,000 years — has been discovered in Borneo. 
The surgery was performed on a child who went on to live for six to nine years. 
It gives a fascinating insight into the medical abilities of people in the Stone Age. 

The world’s earliest limb amputation — dating back 31,000 years — has been discovered in Borneo. 

In a study published in the journal Nature, a group of archaeologists and palaeopathologists from Australia and Indonesia detailed their findings of the Stone Age skeletal remains of a young person found in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, missing their tibia and fibula, the bones between the knee and ankle.

The precision with which the bones were cut off means they were surgically amputated. 

Studies on the skeleton buried in a cave found that, after the surgery, they went on to live for six to nine years. 

While the researchers couldn’t determine the sex of the skeleton, they know that the surgery was during childhood, approximately between the ages of 10-14. 

The researchers explain that the findings show that foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge, including surgery and aftercare, many thousands of years before was initially thought. Previously, the earliest recorded amputation was carried out 7,000 years ago on a Neolithic farmer from France.

The rainforest’s natural pharmacy
The skeleton being discovered

The authors wrote, “the surrounding tissue, including veins, vessels, and nerves, were exposed and negotiated in such a way that allowed this individual to not only survive but also continue living with altered mobility.”

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They explained that intensive post-operative care of the patient, including temperature regulation, bathing, wound care, and disinfection, would have been vital for the patient.

“It was a huge surprise that this ancient forager survived a severe and life-threatening childhood operation, that the wound healed to form a stump, and that they then lived for years in mountainous terrain with altered mobility – suggesting a high degree of community care,” Co-author Dr. Melandri Vlok a palaeopathologist from the University of Sydney said, in a press release.

Co-author Dr. India Ella Dilkes-Hall from the University of Western Australia highlighted how the ancient people tapped into the rainforest’s natural pharmacy of medicinal plants to heal the sick and combat rapid infection rates in the hot and humid tropics.

There was an early flourishing in applying botanical resources for anesthetics, antiseptics, and other wound-healing treatments, said Dr. Dilkes-Hall.

The study changed our perception of the past, believes Dr. Dilkes-Hall. Archaeologists have previously described southeast Asia “as a cultural backwater” and that “there’s always been this trope that not a lot happened there” — these findings now change that, she said.

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