Oldest medical amputation on record was performed 31,000 years ago - study

This early evidence of successful limb amputation suggests, according to the study, that some human foraging groups in Asia had sophisticated medical knowledge earlier than scientists imagined.

 Surgery tools (illustrative) (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Surgery tools (illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Limb amputations are life-changing and life-saving procedures that are relatively common nowadays. While of course any amputation is a major invasive surgery, we generally do not worry about the patient surviving the procedures (barring any emergency situations) and living a full life beyond it, as we might worry for heart or brain surgery. This was not always the case; medical advances and the development of mobility aids have been a major boon for the amputee community in recent decades. However, according to a recent peer-reviewed Australian study, successful limb amputation is a phenomenon dating back more than 30,000 years. 

"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."

 Study lead author Tim Maloney, a research fellow of archaeology at Griffith University

The dominant view regarding the evolution of medicine until this point was that the establishment of settled agricultural societies in the Neolithic period (10,000 years ago) was the catalyst for a myriad of previously unknown health problems. This, in turn, spurred the earliest known innovations in prehistoric medical practice. The earliest known amputation (before September study published in Nature ) is based on the discovery of the remains of a European Neolithic farmer in France. The remains are thought to be about 7,000 years old; the farmer's left forearm appears to have been surgically removed and partially healed. 

However, the study reports discovering the remains of a young person from Borneo, who had the lower third section of their left leg amputated - probably during childhood- and lived for several more years. These remains date back at least 31,000 years, and were intentionally buried in Liang Tebo cave, located in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. 

"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," study co-author Melandri Vlok, a bioarchaeologist and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney," said in a statement. "[This suggests] a high degree of community care."

MOUNT KINABALU is a prominent peak on the island of Borneo. (credit: REUTERS)MOUNT KINABALU is a prominent peak on the island of Borneo. (credit: REUTERS)

Implications for the history of medicine

This shockingly early evidence of successful limb amputation suggests, according to the study, that some human foraging groups in Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge millennia before the Neolithic farming transition.  

Researchers pointed out that it is too soon to know if this operation was an isolated incident or if such procedures were performed elsewhere in Asia or around the world. However, the discovery opens up a world of possibilities. 

"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," study lead author Tim Maloney, a research fellow of archaeology at Griffith University, said in the statement.