Humans have been getting medical amputations for a lot longer than we thought, new research this week indicates. Scientists say they’ve found a skeleton in Borneo dating to 31,000 years ago of a young man who seemingly had his left foot amputated for health reasons. Remarkably, the man recovered and likely survived for years afterward, suggesting his community possessed impressive medical knowledge.
The discovery was made by a team of Indonesian and Australian archaeologists in 2020. They found the skeleton in the remote mountainous areas of the Liang Tebo limestone cave in East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the island of Borneo. It was clearly missing the lower third of the left leg, but the team was surprised to find bony growths there, indicating that the leg had long since healed from whatever caused the amputation. Testing of the man’s tooth enamel would later indicate that he lived around 31,000 years ago.
The scientists soon ruled out the possibility that the foot was lost in an accident or animal attack, since those events would probably have caused easily distinguishable crushed bones. And they argue that the leg wasn’t removed as a form of punishment, either, because the man’s body was seemingly treated with respect after the procedure and in his burial. As far as they can tell, the amputation must have been done to save or otherwise improve the man’s life. And if so, it would set a new precedent for the earliest known medical amputation in humans by tens of thousands of years. The previous oldest example of amputation came from an elderly male Stone Age farmer in France roughly 7,000 years ago, who had his left forearm amputated just above the elbow. The findings were published in Nature this week.
The discovery suggests plenty about the hunter-gatherer society that the man lived in, the authors say. The amputation likely occurred during his childhood, and he avoided complications like fatal blood loss that could have resulted from the procedure, meaning the limb had been carefully cut off. Since modern-day surgeries rely on antiseptics and antibiotics to ward off infection, it’s possible that this group identified natural precursors to these in the rich plant diversity of Borneo, perhaps in response to common infections they would have faced in the tropical rainforest environment. Lastly, given the difficult-to-traverse terrain of the area and that the man probably lived another six to nine years before he died, it’s likely that his people cared deeply about him and tried to accommodate his particular needs—and all of this happened roughly 20,000 years before humans were regularly creating permanent settlements.
“This is a really strong case that this individual and their community had developed advanced medical understandings to be able to successfully amputate the lower left leg of a child and enabling them to not only survive the procedure, but live quite a thriving life in this environment into their adulthood,” said study author Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Australia’s Griffith University, in a media briefing announcing the findings.
The team next hopes to investigate whether this group’s skill at amputation was something unique to people in this part of Southeast Asia or an example of complex medical knowledge that was more widespread among humans of this time.