31,000-Year-Old Skeleton May Be Earliest Known Human Amputee

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

The skeleton found in 2020 in Liang Tebo, a limestone cave in Indonesian 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, unlike a bone that had been crushed, leading researchers to conclude it was removed “through 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 the person received community care after the treatment. The surgery happened when the person was a child, and they went on to live 6 to 9 more years as an amputee.

The finding has scientists rethinking the idea that medical knowledge advanced when people switched from foraging to farming societies at the end of the Ice Age. The people who lived in Borneo 31,000 years ago were foragers.

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

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

The finding suggests that “at least some modern human foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills long before the Neolithic farming transition,” Nature reported.

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

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