NEW YORK — The 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult found in a cave in Indonesia that is missing its left foot and part of its left leg reveal the oldest known evidence of an amputation, according to a new study.
Scientists say the amputation was performed when the person was a child — and that the “patient” went on to live for years as an amputee. According to the study, published in Nature on Wednesday , the prehistoric surgical procedure could prove that human beings were making medical advancements much sooner than we thought.
Researchers were exploring a cave in Borneo, in a rainforest region known for having some of the earliest rock art in the world, when they came across the grave, said Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and the study’s lead researcher.
Although the majority of the skeleton was still intact, the left foot was missing and its lower leg was not functioning properly, he said. After examining the remains, the researchers concluded the foot bones weren’t missing from the grave, or lost in an accident — they were carefully removed.
The leg bone that was left showed a straight, clean cut, which healed well, Maloney stated. There were no signs of infection, which would be expected if the child had gotten its leg bitten off by a creature like a crocodile. There were no visible signs of fractures, as would be expected in the event that the leg was broken.
The person appears to have lived for around six to nine more years after losing the limb, eventually dying from unknown causes as a young adult, researchers say.
This shows that prehistoric foragers were well-versed in medicine and could perform the operation without causing serious blood loss or infection. Researchers don’t know what kind of tool was used to amputate the limb, or how infection was prevented — but they speculate that a sharp stone tool may have made the cut, and point out that some of the rich plant life in the region has medicinal properties.
The community would also have to take care of the child over the years, as it was difficult for an amputee to survive in the harsh terrain. Maloney stated that this early surgery “rewrites history of medical knowledge and advances.”
Before this find, the earliest example of amputation had been in a French farmer from 7,000 years ago, who had part of his forearm removed. Scientists had thought that advanced medical practices developed around 10,000 years ago, as humans settled down into agricultural societies, authors said. But this study confirms that human beings began caring about each other’s well-being much earlier than previously thought, according to Alecia Schrenk (an anthropologist at University of Nevada in Las Vegas), who wasn’t involved in the study.
“It had long been assumed healthcare is a newer invention,” Schrenk said in an email. “Research like this article demonstrates that prehistoric peoples were not just left to fend for themselves.”
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