We have found a 31,000 year old skeleton with one leg amputated. That rewrites the history of surgery

  • 18

We don’t know if it was due to a fall, a bite or a cut that ended up getting complicated, but around 31,000 years ago, in the late Pleistocene, one of the children who lived on what we now know as the Indonesian island of Borneo suffered the which was probably the worst drink of his short existence: such a serious problem in one leg that they had to amputate the foot.

The trance must have been incredibly hard, but against all odds it turned out well. The boy lived another eight years, enough for the incision to heal and for him to reach turn 19 or 20.

Until now, such a scene would have sounded almost like science fiction to any archaeologist or doctor. A surgical amputation 31,000 years ago? And successfully, too? How, if the oldest known intervention of this type is much later, several tens of thousands of years later? How would the surgeon have managed the operation? And how was the patient to survive under such circumstances, without bleeding out or suffering a serious infection?

That, of course, was until now.

A group of Australian and Indonesian researchers have discovered in the remote Liang Tebo cave, a limestone rock formation located in the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat rainforest, a unique treasure: a skeleton of 31,000 years missing the left foot, part of the tibia and fibula.

Bones with a lot of history


The discovery was made some years ago, in 2000, but it was only now that the team published a peer-reviewed article in Nature which indicates it as the oldest amputation of which we have evidence. So surprising is it that, in a way, he rewrites the initial chapters of the history of medicine and forces us to extend the surgical chronicle by a few millennia.

Until now, the oldest openwork “operation” of which we were aware dated back 7,000 years, period in which the bones of a European Neolithic farmer located in Buthiers-Boulancourt, northern France, are dated. As with the Borneo skeleton, the Gaul is severed: missing left forearmamputated more or less above the elbow.

In its day that finding was news of scope.

Today it seems to fall short.

The discovery of Borneo forces us to advance the chronicle of complex medical procedures several tens of millennia. Examining the remains, located at a depth of 1.5 m, experts have verified “characteristic signs” that indicate that the wound was already healed. It is not a minor fact. The remains show us that the young patient survived the operation for more than five years before dying at the age of 20 and ending up buried in Liang Tebo.

“He survived with impaired mobility and lived another six to nine years. Timothy Maloney explains, from Griffith University. In the same mountains, he recalls, 40,000-year-old cave paintings were found, which also reveals “one of the oldest known artistic communities.”


The other great fact is left by the severed bone, with marks “not compatible” with other explanations, such as chance, an attack or an accident. Experts have appreciated “a clean oblique cut”, not the “crushed and crushed fractures” that might be expected, for example, from a fight with a beast.

The idea that the young man from Borneo had part of his left leg amputated around 31,000 years ago is fascinating, but it opens almost more questions than it closes.

Until now –the researchers detail— scientists believed that the rise of settled agricultural societies 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic Revolution, led to communities encountering a series of previously unknown health problems and ultimately spurred “the first major innovations in prehistoric medical practices” . The result of this development would be, for example, the documented amputation in France around 7,000 years.

The Indonesian discovery forces rethink that story historical.

“The discovery of a 31,000-year-old amputee in Borneo has important implications for our understanding of the history of medicine,” reflects Maloney. Whoever was in charge of the operation had to handle advanced knowledge for his time, for example, from being aware of the importance of amputation to save the life of the patient to the distribution of veins, muscles and nerves in the leg. This is the only way to explain why he did not bleed to death after the cut.

The bones also do not show serious signs of infection, another fascinating fact, especially considering the hot and humid climate in which it had to be done. The explanation: that when taking care of the little one after the operation, plants with medicinal properties.

The drifts of the discovery could go even further.

There are already those who see in it historical evidence that the figure of the doctor existed 31,000 years ago or a surprising display of “empathy” in the midst of the Stone Age. After all, they remember, if the young man survived during and after the amputation it was thanks to the care of those around him.

Images | Joel Abroad (Flickr) Y Nature

We don’t know if it was due to a fall, a bite or a cut that ended up getting complicated,…

We don’t know if it was due to a fall, a bite or a cut that ended up getting complicated,…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.