The oldest known surgical amputation took place 31,000 years ago

A child who lived on the Indonesian island of Borneo around 31,000 years ago underwent the oldest known surgery, an amputation of the lower left leg, researchers say.

One or more hunter-gatherers who performed the operation had detailed knowledge of human anatomy and considerable technical skill, enabling the youngster to avoid fatal blood loss and infection, says archaeologist Tim Maloney of the Griffith University in Southport, Australia, and colleagues.

healed bone where the lower leg was amputated indicates that the former youngster survived for at least six to nine years after the surgery before dying at the age of 19 or 20, investigators report September 7 to Nature. Since there is no evidence of crushing due to an accident or animal bite at the site of the amputation, researchers suspect that an unidentified medical issue led to the operation.

Maloney’s team excavated the remains of this individual in 2020 in a grave inside a large three-chambered cave. Radiocarbon dating of burnt pieces of wood just below the grave along with another dating technique on a tooth in the youngster’s lower jaw allowed researchers to estimate when the operation took place.

Until now, the oldest known amputation involved a French farmer whose left forearm was surgically removed nearly 7,000 years ago. In North Africa, surgical procedures to create cranial openings may have taken place as early as 13,000 years ago (SN: 03/31/22).

Faced with rapid wound infections in a tropical region, the ancients of Borneo developed antiseptic treatments from local plants, Maloney’s group suspects. It is unclear what type of tool was used in the Stone Age operation or if the patient was sedated with an herbal concoction.

Christine E. Phillips