An amputation performed 31,000 years ago is the oldest known surgery

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An amputation performed 31,000 years ago is the oldest known surgery

Image of the lower part of the skeleton showing the absence of part of the left leg.

Traces of a surgical amputation carried out 31,000 years ago have been observed on a human skeleton found in the Liang Tebo cave in Borneo, Indonesia, by Quebec archaeologist and geochemist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues from the University Griffith in Australia.

So far, the oldest evidence of such surgery has been detected in a 7,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 2010 at a Neolithic site in France.

Scientists also linked the emergence of medicine to the Neolithic revolution of about 10,000 years ago, during the advent of agriculture and sedentarization.

Maxime Aubert and his colleague Adam Brumm.

The present discovery, including details is published in the journal Nature (in English), thus turns knowledge on its head by revealing that hunter-gatherers practiced the surgery thousands of years earlier than what has been estimated to date.

Professor Aubert and his team had revealed in January 2021 the existence, also in Indonesia, of the oldest known figurative paintings: the image of a wild boar, painted on the wall of a cave on the island of Sulawesi there is 45,500 years old. He was also named Scientist of the Year 2021 for this discovery.

At the beginning of 2020, Maxime Aubert's team invested the cave of Liang Tebo to date the cave paintings there. It was on this occasion that she discovered the burial of a Homo sapiens.

It is very rare to find human skeletons of that age. He was laid out in a hole in a fetal position with objects around him, including a large ball of red ocher (used to make paintings on cave walls) near his mouth or in his mouth, explained Mr. Aubert to journalist Sophie-Andrée Blondin in an interview broadcast on the show Les Années lumièr on Sunday, September 11.

Enlarge image

Artistic depiction of a prehistoric individual whose lower left leg was amputated as a child.

Archaeologists quickly noticed that the skeleton was peculiar. Part of the leg was missing and the left foot was missing, notes the professor. It is possible to see a very clear straight cut and signs of bone repair are also observable under the microscope, which proves, according to the scientists, that it is a surgical amputation.

“This person was an adult in his early twenties, but the amputation had taken place at least 6-9 years before his death. »

— Maxime Aubert, archaeologist and geochemist.

According to Mr. Aubert, an amputation caused by a fall or an animal attack would not have been as regular.

Researchers do not know what type of instrument the procedure was performed with, but they believe it was a chipped stone tool.< /p>

Furthermore, this amputation shows that humans in this area at that early time had knowledge of anatomy, the human muscular and vascular system.

“They cut off the leg to ensure the survival of this individual. They had to know where to cut and how to negotiate seams. They also had to stop the blood. They must have had knowledge of medicinal plants since no trace of infection can be seen. »

— Maxime Aubert

The young teenager's wound had to be regularly cleaned and disinfected to prevent any postoperative bleeding or infection that could lead to death. This suggests that these people probably had a pharmacy, that they knew the local plants, added Maxime Aubert.

The skeleton has both male and female attributes. One of the hypotheses put forward by the researchers is that this person may have experienced a problem with the endocrine glands that secrete hormones, but this remains to be confirmed, estimates Mr. Aubert. The skeleton could belong to an intersex person who has the attributes of both sexes.

Archaeologists Tim Maloney and Andika Priyatno work in the limestone cave of Liang Tebo in Borneo, Indonesia, in March 2020.

In addition, the physical condition of the young amputee has probably forced those around them to take care of it, which testifies to an altruistic behavior among this group of hunter-gatherers.

This discovery sheds new light on the care and treatment lavished in the distant past, and upends our view that these questions were not considered in prehistoric times, says Charlotte Ann Roberts, an archaeologist at Durham University in the UK, in an accompanying commentary the study.

Maxime Aubert's team will carry out new excavations next year in the cave of Liang Tebo in order to learn more about the humans who inhabited it.

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