31,000-year-old skeleton may be earliest known human amputee

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September 9, 2022 – A 31,000-year-old skeleton discovered in a cave in Borneo may be the earliest evidence of surgical amputation in humans.

The skeleton, found in 2020 in Liang Tebo, a limestone cave in Indonesia’s Borneo, was missing its left foot and part of its left leg, according to a study published in the journal Nature.

The leg bone had a clean cut, as opposed to a shattered bone, leading researchers to conclude that it was removed “by deliberate surgical amputation at the position of the distal tibia and fibula shafts.” Nature reported.

There were no signs of infection, ruling out an animal attack and showing that the individual received community care after treatment. The operation took place when the person was a child and they lived another 6 to 9 years as an amputee.

The finding prompts scientists to reconsider the idea that medical knowledge evolved as humans transitioned from foraging to agricultural societies at the end of the Ice Age. The people who lived on Borneo 31,000 years ago were gatherers.

Previously, the earliest known evidence of an amputation in France was found in the 7,000-year-old skeleton of a Stone Age farmer whose left forearm was amputated above the elbow, according to a press release from Griffith University in Australia. (The university worked on the project with the Indonesian Center for Archaeology, Language and History.)

“What the new find in Borneo shows is that humans already had the ability to successfully amputate diseased or damaged limbs long before we began farming and living in permanent settlements,” says Maxime Aubert, PhD, an archaeologist at the Griffith University and co-leaders of the project, the press release said.

The finding suggests that “at least some modern human food groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills well before the transition to Neolithic agriculture.” Nature reported.

The researchers determined that the skeleton was 31,000 years old by comparing teeth and burial sediment using radioisotope dating. The area where the skeleton was found features some of the earliest known human rock art.



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