Archeologists discovered what they believe to be evidence of the oldest known surgical amputation: a 31,000-year-old one-legged skeleton, according to a paper published Wednesday.
Australian and Indonesian researchers excavated the skeleton in 2020 from a limestone cave in the Indonesian section of Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The skeleton, missing its lower left leg, is the oldest known example of surgical amputation, according to a report published in Nature.
“It was a huge surprise that this ancient forager survived a very serious and life threatening childhood operation,” University of Sydney bioarchaeologist Melandri Vlok said, adding “that the wound healed to form a stump, and that they lived for years in mountainous terrain with altered mobility – suggesting a high degree of community care.”
Researchers say the amputation was successfully performed on a child, who likely lived between 6 and 9 years after the procedure. The report called the discovery “unexpectedly early evidence” of a successful operation of its kind, leading researchers to believe people of the time, at least in tropical Asia, had medical knowledge and skills not previously attributed to the time period.
The body’s remains were placed in the Liang Tebo cave on Indonesian Borneo, the third largest island in the world, in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. The area is also known for having some of the earliest-dated rock art in the world.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest known evidence of an amputation “operation” was a 7,000-year-old skeleton of a European farmer’s left forearm, just above the elbow, which was found in France. According to the report, this amputation partially healed and would have required technical skills and knowledge of human anatomy.