The first evidence of surgical amputation was discovered in an Indonesian cave.
Researchers have found the buried body of a 31,000-year-old young man showing evidence of leg amputation.
The finding reverses the origins of this complex surgery by more than 24,000 years.
After the procedure the person was cared for by his ancient community for years until his death, archaeologists say.
Dr Melandri Vlok, who examined the body, said it was “very clear” that surgery had been carried out.
The forensic examination of the ancient body, details of which are published in the journal Nature, was carried out when the person was a child. The growth and healing of their leg bone suggests that they recovered and lived for another six to nine years, possibly dying in their late teens or early twenties.
The tomb itself was excavated in a cave called Liang Tebo, in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, a place that has some of the oldest rock paintings in the world.
One of the three researchers who found and excavated the tomb, Dr Tim Maloney from Griffith University in Australia, said he was both “thrilled and terrified” to uncover the ancient bones.
“We looked very carefully at the deposits and recorded the lower half of the remains. We could see that the left foot was missing, but also that the rest of the bone fragments were unusual,” he told BBC News.
“So we were excited about the range of possibilities, including surgery, that had caused this.”
The excavation team then asked Dr Vlok, who is based at the University of Sydney, to examine the remains. “With a discovery like this,” he said, “it’s a mixture of excitement and sadness, because this happened to a human being.
“This person – a child – experienced so much pain, even if it was 31,000 years ago.”
Dr. Maloney explained that because this person showed signs of care during his recovery and for the rest of his life, archaeologists are confident that this was an operation and not any kind of punishment or ritual.
“For them to be allowed to live in this mountainous terrain, it’s very likely that the rest of their community invested in their care,” he explained.
Durham University archaeologist Professor Charlotte Robertson, who was not involved in the discovery but examined the findings, added that they challenged the view that medicine and surgery came late in human history.
“It shows us that caring is an innate part of being human,” he told the BBC. “We cannot underestimate our ancestors.”
Amputations, he pointed out, require a comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy and surgical hygiene, as well as significant technical skills.
“Today, you think about amputation in the Western context, it’s a very safe operation. The person is given anesthesia, sterile procedures are performed, bleeding is controlled, and pain is managed.
“Then you have 31,000 years ago, someone mutilates this person and it’s successful.”
Dr Maloney and his colleagues are now working to investigate what kind of stone surgical tools might have been used at the time.
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