Evidence of what appears to be the earliest known surgical amputation of a limb, dating to c.31,000 years ago, has been identified in Borneo.
The discovery was made during excavations in Liang Tebo cave, in East Kalimantan, where archaeologists uncovered a burial belonging to a young adult, aged 19-20 years old, who was missing the bottom third of their left lower leg. Further examination confirmed that this was likely the result of a deliberate surgical amputation, as the clean, oblique cut, severing both the tibia and the fibula, does not match the pattern that would result from an accident or animal attack.
Researchers also identified bony growth at the distal end of the remaining tibia and fibula bones that indicates the patient lived for at least six to nine years after the surgery. This suggests that the injured individual received a great deal of care from their community, both in the immediate aftermath of the event and for the remainder of their life, in order to survive in such a rugged, mountainous area with reduced mobility.
The burial has been dated to between 31,000 and 30,000 years ago, making it significantly older than the previous earliest known evidence of surgical limb amputation – a Neolithic farmer in France, dating to 7,000 years ago. The discovery in Borneo dramatically changes our understanding of the development of such medical traditions, and reveals that non-sedentary foraging groups living in this region in the Late Pleistocene possessed a comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy and were able to carry out complex medical procedures.
The research has been published in Nature.