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An ‘Ancient’ Amputation

A group of archaeologists recently claimed that a human being underwent surgical amputation of a limb in Indonesia 31,000 years ago, as they discovered the skeleton signifying that. They mentioned in a report that the left foot of that person was surgically amputated. This is the earliest-known case of a successful major limb amputation. The earliest evidence of amputation surgery till date has been the one discovered in France, where a farmer’s hand was surgically amputated 7,000 years ago.

As per a report published in The Guardian in September 2022, the skeleton has been discovered inside an ancient limestone cave in Borneo. The skeleton is believed to be that of a young man. Archaeologists are of the opinion that the surgery was performed on the man’s left leg when he was young. Thereafter, the young man spent some years with his amputated leg. Experts have opined that such a complex surgery is not possible without a highly developed healthcare system. Surprisingly, people used to receive such an advanced medical service in Indonesia 31,000 years ago, as suggested by the skeleton of the hunter-gatherer that does not have the lower third of the left leg. It appeared to be chopped off by a sharp stone tool, when he was a child.

Study co-authors Andika Priyatno and Tim Maloney excavating the remains (Courtesy: Tim Maloney)

The Guardian report stated that it is the first evidence of a prehistoric surgery. This skeleton is the proof of how advanced the ancient people were in Medical Science. This new discovery has changed the perception of historians about prehistoric times.

Talking to the media, archaeologists Andika Priyatno and Tim Maloney said that the ends of the left lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula, looked like they were cut with something sharp, but had healed well. Dr Maloney stressed: “Typically when bone fractures in, say, in a rock fall event or the, I presume, quite powerful jaws of a large reptile, like a crocodile or anaconda, or any such Borneo critter… they do not match the signature we have from the Liang Tebo individual’s left leg.

Watch: Stone-age amputation: History revised

For his part, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, a Southern Cross University Geochemist who dated the tooth of the skeleton, stated that the surgeon or surgeons had seemingly used a scalpel – a sharpened handheld piece of rock, perhaps something like obsidian – to perform the surgery. He added: “People have found obsidian blades from prehistory that are still so sharp that you could cut yourself. And when you go through cutting ligaments and cutting between bones and so on, you probably would need other tools as well. But, we have no real clue what they used.

The British daily further reported that archaeologists found the skeleton in a vast, airy limestone cave, called Liang Tebo in eastern Kalimantan. Interestingly, there are no sores or signs of infection on the amputated leg. According to researchers, the amputation was performed in a planned manner. According to archaeologists, those healed sections suggested the leg was lopped off maybe six-eight years before the individual passed away. It means that the person was a child or a teenager when he underwent the operation. However, it is still unknown how the infection was prevented. It is believed that the infection was prevented with the help of a plant, with high Ayurvedic properties. It may be noted that Ayurveda is an alternative medicine system with historical roots in the Indian Subcontinent.

The pelvis, legs & remaining foot from the earliest-known amputation patient (Courtesy: Tim Maloney)

No wonder, this proof of amputation has made this rare find rarer.

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