Archeologists discovered what they believe to be evidence of the oldest known surgical amputation: a 31,000-year-old one-legged skeleton, according to a paper published Wednesday.
Australian and Indonesian researchers excavated the skeleton in 2020 from a limestone cave in the Indonesian section of Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The skeleton, missing its lower left leg, is the oldest known example of surgical amputation, according to a report published in Nature.
“It was a huge surprise that this ancient forager survived a very serious and life threatening childhood operation,” University of Sydney bioarchaeologist Melandri Vlok said, adding “that the wound healed to form a stump, and that they lived for years in mountainous terrain with altered mobility – suggesting a high degree of community care.”
Researchers say the amputation was successfully performed on a child, who likely lived between 6 and 9 years after the procedure. The report called the discovery “unexpectedly early evidence” of a successful operation of its kind, leading researchers to believe people of the time, at least in tropical Asia, had medical knowledge and skills not previously attributed to the time period.
The body’s remains were placed in the Liang Tebo cave on Indonesian Borneo, the third largest island in the world, in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. The area is also known for having some of the earliest-dated rock art in the world.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest known evidence of an amputation “operation” was a 7,000-year-old skeleton of a European farmer’s left forearm, just above the elbow, which was found in France. According to the report, this amputation partially healed and would have required technical skills and knowledge of human anatomy.
The shift of populations to settled agricultural societies from hunter-gatherer lifestyles, known as the Neolithic Revolution, has been attributed as the beginning of the evolution of medical knowledge because the introduction of new health problems required evolving practices in medicine. This revolution occurred nearly 10,000 years ago, far more recent than the 31,000-year-old amputee.
“It had long been assumed healthcare is a newer invention,” anthropologist Alecia Schrenk told NBC News in an email. “Research like this article demonstrates that prehistoric peoples were not left to fend for themselves.”
Researchers previously thought amputations occurred on fingers and were strictly for either punishment or ceremonial purposes. The discovery of the 31,000-year-old successful amputee is significant, considering successful surgical amputation didn’t become a medical norm in Western societies until the last 100 years, the report said.
Scientists ruled out the possibility that the amputation was a punishment based on the care given in burial and the treatment of the amputee for the remainder of their life. The skeleton was aged using radiation levels in its tooth enamel, then matching the results to the radiocarbon dating of the rocks and sediment the body was buried in, Science Alert reported.
Researchers said the excavation was careful and that the skeleton’s right leg had all bones intact. The “trauma pattern observed is not consistent with clinical descriptions of non-surgical amputation,” meaning the bone had clean cuts, the paper explained.
Archeologist Tim Maloney, one of the project’s leaders, said at a press conference that the discovery “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and developments.”