The skeleton, with the knife and buckle displayed.
Image: Ileana Micarelli et al., 2018

Italian anthropologists have documented a remarkable case in which a Medieval-era Italian male not only managed to survive the amputation of his right hand, he also used a bladed weapon as a prosthetic limb.

Over 160 tombs have been excavated at the Longobard necropolis of Povegliano Veronese in Veneto, Northern Italy, but this skeleton, pulled from the ground in 1996, is entirely unique. Dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries, the specimen, dubbed T US 380, is an older male who survived long after the amputation of his right hand. But as new research published in Journal of Anthropological Sciences now shows, he replaced the missing appendage with a knife, which he attached to the stump with a cap, buckle, and leather straps. What’s more, dental analysis shows he tied it on with his teeth.

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The updated analysis of the skeleton, led by anthropologist Ileana Micarelli from the University of Rome, suggests the man’s right hand was removed by a single blow. Many Longobard males were involved in warfare, so it’s possible he lost it during combat. It’s also possible that it was surgically removed as part of some medical intervention, or it may have been chopped off as a judicial form of punishment, a behavior known among the Medieval Italian Lombards.

Regardless of what happened, it’s clear from the paleontological evidence that T US 380 survived the amputation, and the injury healed rather nicely. In fact, he managed to live for a very long time afterwards. Micarelli and her colleagues say it’s a remarkable example of a human surviving the loss of a limb prior to the introduction of sterilization techniques and antibiotics. The case suggests the presence of community-level support and an environment in which intensive care and healing could take place. It also shows that Longobard medics, or whoever performed the procedure, knew a thing or two about preventing blood loss.

Further analysis of the man’s bones points to the use of a prosthesis. Bony healing tissue called callus formed around the ends of the bone, which likely formed as the result of frequent biomechanical force. Supporting archaeological evidence exists in the form of a knife, a cap on the stump, and a D-shaped buckle with decomposed organic material around it, likely leather. Other male skeletons found at the site were buried with their arms by their sides, but T US 380 had his right arm placed across his torso, and a knife blade with the butt aligned with his amputated wrist.

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But there’s other evidence as well. The specimen’s teeth exhibited signs of “considerable” weathering, which the researchers say “points to dental use in attaching the prosthesis to the limb.” Finally, CT scans revealed cortical bone loss, which often happens with the presence of a prosthesis.

“This Longobard male shows a remarkable survival after a forelimb amputation during pre-antibiotic era,” write the researchers in the study. “Not only did he adjust very well to his condition, he did so with the use of a culturally-derived device, along with considerable community support. Most likely, he had a prosthesis that was used to protect the stump.”

Not enough evidence exists to show how T US 380 used the knife, but it may have served multiple purposes, such as a visual display, self-defense, or a useful tool to perform daily routines, such as eating or manipulating other objects.

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“The survival of this Longobard male testifies to community care, family compassion and a high value given to human life,” conclude the researchers. “A variety of interpretations and implications from skeletal evidence of injury such as this can inform us the motivations of others as they care for disabled individuals.”

[Journal of Anthropological Sciences via ScienceAlert]