NEW YORK (AP) — The skeleton of a 31,000-year-old young adult found in an Indonesian cave that is missing its left leg and part of its left foot reveals the oldest known evidence of mutilation, a new study says.
Scientists say the mutilation took place when the person was a child – and that the “patient” went on to live for years as an amputee. Prehistoric surgery could show that humans made medical advances much earlier than previously thought, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Researchers were exploring a cave in Borneo, an area of rainforest known for having some of the world’s oldest petroglyphs, when they found the tomb, said Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and lead researcher on the study.
Although much of the skeleton was intact, his left leg and lower left leg were missing, he explained. After examining the remains, the researchers concluded that the leg bones were not missing from the grave or lost in some accident – they were carefully removed.
The remaining leg bone showed a clean, oblique cut that healed, Maloney said. There were no signs of infection, which would be expected if the child had been bitten on the leg by a creature like a crocodile. And there was also no evidence of a crushed fracture, which would be expected if the leg had been snapped in an accident.
The person appears to have lived for about six to nine years after losing the limb, eventually dying of unknown causes as a young adult, researchers say.
This shows that the prehistoric foragers knew enough medicine to perform the surgery without fatal blood loss or infection, the authors concluded. The researchers don’t know what kind of tool was used to amputate the limb or how infection was avoided — but they speculate that a sharp stone tool may have made the cut, and note that some of the area’s rich plants have medicinal properties.
Also, the community would have to care for the child for years afterwards, as surviving the rough terrain as an amputee would not be easy.
This early surgery is “rewriting the history of human medical knowledge and development,” Maloney said at a news conference.
Before this find, the first example of amputation was of a French farmer 7,000 years ago who had part of his forearm removed. Scientists had thought that advanced medical practices developed about 10,000 years ago, as humans settled into agricultural societies, the study authors said.
But this study adds to growing evidence that humans began caring for each other’s health much earlier in history, said Alecia Schrenk, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not involved in the study.
“We have long assumed that health care is a newer invention,” Schrenk said in an email. “Research like this paper demonstrates that prehistoric peoples weren’t just left to fend for themselves.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Section is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Division. AP is solely responsible for all content.