Stone Age Borneo skeleton missing foot shows oldest amputation: study

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. The prehistoric surgery could show that humans were making medical advances much earlier than previously thought, said the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

Dr Tim Maloney (right) and Andika Priyatno work at the site in a cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo, in 2020. The remains, which have been dated to 31,000 years old, mark the oldest evidence for amputation yet discovered.Credit:Tim Maloney/Griffith University via AP

Researchers were exploring a cave in East Kalimantan Borneo in 2020, in a rainforest region known for having some of the earliest rock art in the world, when they came across the grave, said Dr Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland and the study’s lead researcher.

Though much of the skeleton was intact, it was missing its left foot and the lower part of its left leg, he said. After examining the remains, the researchers concluded the foot bones weren’t missing from the grave, or lost in an accident — they had been carefully removed.

The remaining leg bone showed a clean, slanted cut that healed over, Maloney said. There were no signs of infection, which would be expected if the child’s leg had been bitten off by a creature such as a crocodile. And there were also no signs of a crushing fracture, which would have been expected if the leg had snapped off in an accident.

The person appears to have lived for about six to nine more years after losing the limb, eventually dying from unknown causes as a young adult, researchers say.

The human skeleton dated to about 31,000 years ago, pictured in a cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo.Credit:Tim Maloney/Griffith University via AP

This shows that the Stone Age foragers knew enough about medicine to perform the surgery without fatal blood loss or infection, the authors concluded.

Researchers do not know what kind of tool was used to amputate the limb, nor 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.

Also, the community would have had to care for the child for years afterward, since surviving the rugged terrain as an amputee wouldn’t have been easy.

This early surgery “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and developments”, Maloney said at a press briefing.

Before this find, the earliest example of amputation had been in a French farmer from 7000 years ago, who had part of his forearm removed. Scientists had thought that advanced medical practices developed about 10,000 years ago, as humans settled down into agricultural societies, the study authors said.

But this study adds to growing evidence that humans started caring for each other’s health much earlier in their history, said Alecia Schrenk, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not involved with the study.

“It had long been assumed healthcare is a newer invention,” Schrenk said. “Research like this article demonstrates that prehistoric peoples were not just left to fend for themselves.”


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