Archaeologists have concluded that an amputation carried out by a skilled prehistoric surgeon on the lower leg of a child hunter-gatherer in Borneo around 31,000 years ago is the earliest medical amputation on record.
A radiocarbon dating performed by experts on the individual's tooth enamel revealed that the skill of the Stone Age surgeon must have been impressive as the patient lived an additional six to nine years after the surgery was carried out.
Bioarchaelogist and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney, Melandri Vlok, said in a statement: "It was a huge surprise that this ancient forager survived a very serious and life-threatening childhood operation, that the wound healed to form a stump, and that they then lived for years in mountainous terrain with altered mobility. This suggests a high degree of community care."
A group consisting of international archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of the youth inside a limestone cave known as Lian Tebo on the Indonesia portion of Borneo during an excavation in 2020.
The cave is extremely remote and can only be accessed by boat at certain times of the year.
The lower leg of the skeleton, including the foot, was "removed through deliberate surgical amputation" and "tell-tale bony growths related to healing" suggest that the limb was surgically amputated, and wasn't the result of an accident or animal attack.
Experts have not yet determined why the leg of the child had to be amputated.
Before this most recent discovery, the earliest evidence of a surgical amputation being carried out on a human involved an elderly Stone Age farmer around 7,000 years ago. According to a study published in the journal Nature Precedings in 2007, his forearm had been surgically removed.
Experts believed that prior to this humans did not possess the tools and knowledge to successfully perform such complex surgeries, which often required navigating away from nerves, muscles, and blood vessels.
According to the new study, this finding proves that humans "must have had detailed knowledge of limb anatomy and muscular and vascular systems to expose and negotiate the veins, vessels, and nerves and prevent fatal blood loss and infection."
Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia, said: "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."
Study lead author, Tim Maloney, a research fellow of archaeology at Griffith University, said: "In light of the much younger age of these prior findings, the discovery of a 31,000-year-old amputee in Borneo clearly has major implications for our understanding of the history of medicine."