A discovery pushes the earliest known medical amputation back 31,000 years

Our ancestors' medical knowledge is better than we thought.
Nergis Firtina
The skeletal remain of a man's amputated leg.
The skeletal remain of a man's amputated leg.

The Griffith University 

Archaeologists from various universities have revealed that the leg of someone who lived in Borneo 31,000 years ago was amputated.

It reveals one of the oldest methods of amputation identified so far. The result was also published in Nature on September 7.

Researchers said that the cause of this amputation was probably health issues. In addition, the researchers attribute the man's survival to advanced medical knowledge in the community.

A group of archaeologists from Australia and Indonesia discovered it in 2020. They discovered the skeleton in the isolated mountainous regions of the Liang Tebo limestone cave in East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the island of Borneo.

The team was shocked to discover bony growths, indicating that the leg had long since recovered from whatever caused the amputation, even though the lower third of the left leg was missing.

A discovery pushes the earliest known medical amputation back 31,000 years
The jaw of the amputated man

Was it a wild animal attack or a punishment?

Archaeologists thought the missing leg may have first been severed in a wild animal attack. In addition, archaeologists, who evaluated the possibility of being cut off as a punishment, gave up their idea after they determined that the tomb belonged to a well-respected individual.

Then only one thing remained - an amputation.

“It rewrites our understanding of the development of this medical knowledge,” said Tim Maloney, an archaeologist and research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, who led the research.

The discovery reveals a wealth of information on man's hunter-gatherer society, according to the authors.

He avoided problems like fatal blood loss that could have occurred as a result of the operation, indicating that the leg had been carefully amputated during his boyhood.

The team also claims that in order to expose and navigate the veins, vessels, and nerves and prevent deadly blood loss and infection, the surgeon or surgeons who carried out the operation 31,000 years ago must have had an in-depth understanding of limb anatomy and the muscular and circulatory systems.

Study abstract

The prevailing view regarding the evolution of medicine is that the emergence of settled agricultural societies around 10,000 years ago (the Neolithic Revolution) gave rise to a host of health problems that had previously been unknown among non-sedentary foraging populations, stimulating the first major innovations in prehistoric medical practices. Such changes included the development of more advanced surgical procedures, with the oldest known indication of an ‘operation’ formerly thought to have consisted of the skeletal remains of a European Neolithic farmer (found in Buthiers-Boulancourt, France) whose left forearm had been surgically removed and then partially healed. Dating to around 7,000 years ago, this accepted case of amputation would have required comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy and considerable technical skill, and has thus been viewed as the earliest evidence of a complex medical act. Here, however, we report the discovery of skeletal remains of a young individual from Borneo who had the distal third of their left lower leg surgically amputated, probably as a child, at least 31,000 years ago. The individual survived the procedure and lived for another 6–9 years, before their remains were intentionally buried in Liang Tebo cave, which is located in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, in a limestone karst area that contains some of the world’s earliest dated rock art. This unexpectedly early evidence of a successful limb amputation 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.

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