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31,000-Year-Old Skeleton Bears Evidence of Surgery

A young hunter-gatherer whose lower leg was amputated
31,000-Year-Old Skeleton Bares Evidence of Surgery Credit: Tim Maloney / Australia’s Griffith University

A thirty-one thousand-year-old skeleton found in a remote Indonesian cave is believed to be the earliest discovery bearing evidence of surgery.

According to a peer-reviewed study, the skeleton is missing its lower left leg. Experts say this rewrites the understanding of medicine and surgery.

A team led by Australian and Indonesian archeologists stumbled upon the skeletal remains during excavations at a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The team was looking for ancient rock art.

The discovery provided evidence of the earliest known surgical amputation. It is tens of thousands of years older than other Eurasian discoveries of complicated medical procedures.

With the use of radioisotope dating to measure the ages of a tooth and burial sediment, the scientists approximated the remains to be about thirty-one thousand years old.

Using paleopathological analysis, the remains revealed bony growths on the lower left leg indicative of healing. This implies that the leg was surgically amputated several years prior to burial.

31,000-year-old skeleton discovery an “absolute dream for an archeologist”

Dr. Tim Maloney, a researcher at Australia’s Griffith University who oversaw the excavation, said the research team was examining ancient cultural deposits when they crossed stone markers in the ground. A burial site was revealed.

He further noted that the discovery by a team including scientists from the Indonesian Institution for Archaeology and Conservation was an “absolute dream for an archeologist.”

The skeleton of the young hunter-gatherer with a healed stump—where its lower left leg and foot had been severed—was found after eleven days of excavation.

Maloney said, “[The hunter] survived not just as a child, but as an adult amputee in this rainforest environment, […and] not only does [the stump] lack infection, but it also lacks distinctive crushing.”

Before this discovery, Maloney said it had been widely accepted that amputation was a guaranteed death sentence until about ten thousand years ago when surgical procedures advanced with the development of large settled agricultural societies.

A seven thousand-year-old skeleton of an elderly farmer from Stone Age France was previously the oldest evidence of a successful amputation. The left arm was amputated just above the elbow.

Following the discovery, Maloney noted that the nature of healing, including the clean stump, was proof that it was the result of amputation rather than an accident or animal attack.

“This finding very much changes the known history of medical intervention and knowledge of humanity [and implies] that early people…had mastered complex surgical procedures allowing this person to survive after the removal of a foot and leg,” he noted.

Maloney said the Stone Age surgeon must have had detailed knowledge of anatomy, including veins, vessels, and nerves to avoid causing fatal blood loss and infection, and the successful operation suggested some form of intensive care, including regular disinfection post-operation.

Archaeologists at work in Liang Tebo cave
Archeologists at work in the Liang Tebo cave, where the skeleton with surgical evidence was discovered. Credit: Tim Maloney / Australia’s Griffith University

Surgical evidence proves our ancestors were smart

Prof Matthew Spriggs, a former professor of the Australian National University School of Archaeology and Anthropology, was not involved in the study but says that the discovery was “an important rewrite of our species history” that emphasizes yet again “that our ancestors were as smart as we are, with or without the technologies we take for granted today.”

According to Professor Spriggs, it is quite surprising that Stone Age people could have developed an understanding of the internal workings of mammals through hunting and even had treatments for infection and injury.

“We tend to forget that modern humans like us [thirty thousand] years ago…would have had their intellectuals, their doctors, their inventors,” he said and noted they would have had to experiment with plant medicines and other treatments to remain alive.

Professor Spriggs further said that “any inhabitants of tropical rainforests today, usually now mixing hunting and gathering with forms of agriculture, have a large pharmacopeia that would have to have been developed over millennia.”

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