When a disease or injury is serious enough to warrant amputation of a limb, it’s pretty serious. These days it requires complex surgery with anaesthetic, painkillers and antibiotics. But what about people from thousands of years ago?
The earliest previous evidence for such surgery was from 7,000 years ago. An elderly Stone Age farmer from France had his left forearm carefully amputated just above the elbow.
But new evidence from Borneo has changed everything. Researchers from Griffith University, University of Western Australia, Southern Cross University and Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya have discovered the skeleton of a young hunter-gatherer whose lower left leg was amputated by a skilled prehistoric surgeon 31,000 years ago.
That is long before anyone considered it possible for complex surgery and has huge implications for the history of medicine.
The researchers say the surgeon(s) who performed the operation must have had detailed knowledge of limb anatomy and muscular and vascular systems. They needed to expose and negotiate many veins, vessels and nerves and prevent fatal blood loss and infection.
The young patient would also have needed intensive post-operative care, such as regular wound cleaning and disinfection.
It is possible that rapid rates of infection in the hot and humid tropics prompted early foragers to use the medicinal plants in the rainforest, leading to the use of anaesthetics, antiseptics and other treatments.