When does the history of surgery begin? On the island of Borneo, Indonesia, archaeologists discovered, in 2020, the skeleton of an individual amputated from the lower left leg. This individual would have lived nearly 31,000 years ago and survived several years after his operation. Details of this discovery have just been published in the journal Nature.
The excavations were not easy to carry out: they took place in the Liang Tebo cave, located in the eastern part of the Indonesian island, accessible by canoe only part of the year, during the rainy season. “We knew there were cave paintings in this area, but they had never been dated and we had no information about the people who made these paintings, so we decided to dig there.”explains Maxime Aubert, Canadian archaeologist, professor at Griffith University (Queensland, Australia) and one of the authors of the study.
The team of archaeologists found cave paintings on the walls and excavated a burial containing a complete skeleton. Installed in the fetal position, the body was notably buried with a red ocher ball near the mouth, which links it to the era of the paintings found, according to the archaeologist.
In the laboratory, radiocarbon analysis then made it possible to date this discovery between 30,000 and 31,000 years ago. “It is the oldest burial ever found in the islands of Southeast Asia, where it is very rare to find human skeletons dating back to this age”explains Maxime Aubert. And what was their surprise, when they discovered this “complete” skeleton, to discover that part of his left leg and foot were missing. Specifically, only the upper portions of the left tibia and fibula were present, marked with a “very straight cut” as well as from traces of “remodeling” on the bone, i.e. a bone reorganization following an injury. In short, the evidence of an amputation that the individual would have suffered in the course of his life.
The analysis of the remaining bones by paleopathologists made it possible to learn more about its history. The individual would be a young adult amputated between six and nine years before his death, during his childhood. The bones of the amputated leg, in fact, are much less developed than those of the right leg: small, thin and fragile bones of a child, demonstrating that the leg has stopped growing after the amputation.
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