forensics, fun stuff, lithics, news, university, world

Lithics and Lost Limbs

This is Part IV of a series on a short intensive class I did on Lithics.

Q: When was the earliest known successful surgical amputation?

A) 700 years ago

B) 3100 years ago

C) 7000 years ago

D) 31000 years ago


If you chose option C, you were almost correct. Up until recently, the earliest known amputation of a limb was dated to 7000 years ago, courtesy of a Neolithic farmer in France who’d had his arm cut off.

The information has now been updated with a recent discovery. At the time of writing this blog post, the correct answer is Option D.

In 2020, a group of researchers went to a cave in Indonesian Borneo and found a skeleton they named “TB1” with a missing left lower leg.

Image credit: cropped from

They took, dated and analysed it and were astonished. The skeleton was 31000 years old, and the bones in the left leg had been cleanly “obliquely sectioned” ie sliced diagonally, and healed, with no signs of infection.

This showed that the cut was intentional as it ruled out the individual losing their leg by being mauled by a prehistoric animal.

So it suggested that people were practicing amputations in the Late Pleistocene, and had some idea about using plants to prevent infection.

Read about it here!

This story is what I did my assignment on. The task was to analyse and fact-check a media article about lithics.

I must say, before embarking on the homework assignment, I thought it was complete bunk.

A picture of a complete bunk. Image credit: wikimedia

Reasoning: surgery has only been consistently successful since we became aware of germ theory and anti-microbial management; we didn’t discover lenses for magnification until Anton Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)… and yet we are expected to believe that a prehistoric hunter-gatherer was able to:

“…successfully navigate veins, arteries, nerves, and tissue, and keep the wound clean so that it healed successfully.” Source: (University of Sydney)


Well, after doing the research (as our lecturer intended) you could knock me down with a microlith. The discovery was actually made by a team of archaeologists with different specialist backgrounds (from geophysics and geochemistry to paleopathology) and published in peer-reviewed Nature in September this year.

Which makes it all look pretty darn legitimate.

My mind changed completely as I did the assignment. An interesting bending of reality.

Other fun facts:

• A strong contender for the stone that was used for surgery is obsidian, which is dark and shiny and looks like glass. It is sterile when first cut and extremely sharp – some surgeons today have experimented with it but it’s not FDA approved for actual cutting up of people in 2022.

An obsidian arrowhead from Wikimedia Commons

• Obsidian was mentioned in the media articles/interviews but not the scientific paper. This is likely because the surgery was done on TB1 6-9 years before they died – the surgical scalpel was not buried with them, and so the choice of obsidian is actually speculation not science.

• The other possible reason that TB1 had their leg amputated was as punishment, rather than life-saving surgery. However…

• The authors suggested that TB1 would have needed super careful and an inordinate amount of care by a lot of people as they healed. Also, when they died, they were buried in a careful, respected way. This suggested that they weren’t a social deviant and so punishment was considered unlikely.

• “Stone Age” is really a broad term used by laypeople, and archaeologists actually mean a very specific time in African prehistory when they use these words! But for the purposes of describing TB1’s story to the public, the words “Stone Age surgery” were thrown around a lot.

Link to the original Nature article if you want to have a read.

Surgery! Image credit: pexels.con

And that was my homework!

How are you? Would you have believed that humans were capable of performing surgery 31000 years ago?

news, world

Princess Elizabeth’s Speech

Queen Elizabeth II has just passed. She was the world’s second longest reigning monarch.

It feels surreal. In Australia and New Zealand at least, every time someone holds money, we hold an image of her in our hands. Now suddenly a huge part of Commonwealth history has left us.

She seemed like a very sweet person. This was then-Princess Elizabeth’s first speech from 1940. She was sending a message of love and support to children across the Commonwealth, many of whom evacuated, during World War II. She was well-spoken then, and it’s strangely comforting.

Have a listen:

Rest In Peace, Your Majesty.

Australia, news

Mystery Men

Today marks the end of Missing Persons Week in Australia. This is the week when the police pour extra money into campaigns re: finding folk who went walkabout one day and never returned, and there are extra adverts around the place to raise awareness.

Coincidentally, there have recently developments regarding two big mysteries that received a lot of public attention:

Somerton Man

On December 1st 1948, a well-dressed gentleman was found dead on Somerton Beach, in Adelaide, South Australia. Nobody came forth to identify him, and piece of paper with the words ‘Tamam Shud’, which is Persian for “It is over/it is finished”, was found in his pocket.

It transpired that the paper came from a rare edition of a book of poetry, the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Get this – there appeared to be some scribbled code in the book that the page was torn from.

Conspiracy theories went rampant as these all details were appearing at the start of the Cold War, and people believed he was a murdered Russian spy. The gent was buried in a respectable but nameless grave for a while.

He was exhumed again for more forensic investigations.

Apparently as of last week, the case has finally been cracked. Other interesting elements:

• he had legs sculpted like a ballet dancer’s;

• his wife filed for divorce on grounds of desertion (instead of, y’know, actually reporting him missing);

• the lead researcher on this case married a woman who was hypothesised to be Somerton Man’s granddaughter (which he only later ruled out).

• it turned out that Somerton Man had the same occupation as the lead researcher, whose daytime job was electrical engineering.

Read about it here!

So many twists! I remember some years back going to a local Escape Room that was themed with Somerton Man’s case, which was where I first learnt about him. I would not be surprised if they made a movie out of everything that happened.

Image credits: wiki commons and borrowed from the article.

‘The Gentleman’

In July 1994, another also well-dressed gentleman was found – pulled out of the North Sea. He too, had nothing to identify him, and who he was has remained a mystery for 28 years.

The man was wearing had a wool tie, and a diverse range of fancy clothes from all over Europe: British shoes and French pants. His body showed signs of having been physically beaten, and so foul play was suspected.

Image from Murdoch University

For his nice attire, he was dubbed ‘The Gentleman’ – and for a long time, the German police were looking for clues around Europe to identify him.

Researchers from Murdoch University recently conducted isotope analysis of his bones and teeth … and determined that the man had likely been from Australia. This shed a completely new light on the case, which is still to be cracked.

Wiki page

Article on it here.

Reading all these fascinating cases has me wondering what life might for a forensic pathologist, who works out cause of death by looking at soft tissues. This is different to the forensic anthropologist, who does the same but looks at bones. I imagine the former must be a much … oozier … job than the latter.

Had you heard of Somerton Man and The Gentleman? Do the police raise awareness on missing people in your area? What are some interesting historical cases you know of?

fun stuff, journal, news

Shining some Light

Recently, a serendipitous discovery was made at Cincinnati museum. There was a (in my opinion) fairly ordinary looking plate from the century with engravings of the Buddha’s name, that was kept in storage for the last six-ish decades.

The curator, Dr Sung, found that if light was shone and reflected off in a certain way, it depicted a meditating Buddha. Which I reckon is terribly clever on the part of the artist, who lived in the 15th-16th century and likely never looked up ways to make this happen on WikiHow.

The reflection in question:

Above images: Rob Deslongchamps from Cincinnati Art Museum

Quite cool!

I first saw this article on Good News Network, which is a network with only good news – a lot of which is relevant to historical discoveries (I’ve taken to blocking most news sites on my phone in the last few weeks because the headlines are all doom and gloom.*)

On the subject of light, there is currently an event this week/month across central city that is showcasing different light effects/art made by people, which is awesome.


Some fun stuff related to light:

• In ancient China, people believed that solar eclipses were happening because a giant dragon was eating the sun (talk about high on the Scoville scale 🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶)

• On Wikipedia, Nikola Tesla’s name does not come up on the list of scientists who contributed to the incandescent light bulb. (I wasn’t sure if it was one of the things he and Thomas Edison had competing bragging rights over so I checked).

• By a small degree, green light relaxes the eye muscles for focusing, more so than yellow or red light.


I briefly did some homework about rock art while deciding on topics, but eventually decided to select the topic on looking at stone tools in Australia. This actually came down to scheduling, as it fits much better with everything else in my life. This particular topic is a short intensive that starts toward the end of the year.

Perhaps this means I will restructure this blog and/or diversify content – have to decide!

How are you? Do you peruse or avoid the news? What your tolerance level for spicy food? (Mine: mild) Has your blog changed as you changed, and how?

* I saw this quote the other day, and quite liked it:

news, world

Pestilence and Patient Zero

Pestilence: a topic we can all relate to.

In the mid fourteenth century, a tiny organism (bacteria) hitchhiked on another tiny organism (flea) which hitchhiked on another smallish organism (rat).

Image credit:

This little road trip was a costly one, as it happened everywhere in Europe and killed anywhere between 75 to 200 million people.

Of course, I am writing about the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and got its name from “Bubo”, which refers a lump that arises from lymph nodes in an infected individual. Not unlike today, people were checking their bodies for lumps because they were worried about what it meant for their health.

Other interesting facts:

• The Plague also presents in other ways – pneumonic (lungs) and septicaemiac (blood infection). Bumps and lumps are simply the most common way it turns up.

• If a group of 100 infected people were left untreated, the disease would kill between 30-100 of them.

• It was also known as the “Black Death” (mors atra in Latin) to refer to the darkness of how lethal it was, and the term was used to describe such diseases in Homer’s Odyssey.

• This disease still crops up in several thousand people each year across the world. In 2020, one such case was confirmed in California, a first since 2015.

I was interested in this again because it was reported in the news only recently that researchers have found the earliest tombstones in present day Kyrgyzstan, pointing to where the Bubonic Plague first started. This was determined by an uptick in the number of deaths after 1338 and the word “Pestilence” was etched in some of the gravestones. They also excavated skeletons and checked their teeth, and confirmed presence of Yersinia pestis (Link is to the article in The Guardian).

It’s sort of like discovering who Patient Zero was, only seven centuries after the fact. Wild huh?

Image credit:

Nowadays I get the impression that people have paid a bit of thought to how they want to be remembered after they die, and I would guess that most people would rather their epitaphs to mention good qualities rather than cause of death. Which is fair enough.

Just for interest – Do you care about what words might be used on your headstone, hypothetically?


Stenseth, N., Atshabar, B., Begon, M., Belmain, S., Bertherat, E., Carniel, E., Gage, K., Leirs, H. and Rahalison, L., 2008. Plague: Past, Present, and Future. PLoS Medicine, 5(1):3.

news, world

A Snowman from Ukraine in Peacetime

I woke up this morning filled with stress from the night before, and surprised to find my eyes were leaking as I read about world events.

It is so senseless.

A close friend of mine lives in Ukraine. I can’t overstate how surreal it is to be reading and hearing about these events, or thinking of the innocent people involved, or the worry.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and has shrunk down to seconds and minutes the kind of information that once took traditional pen pals months or years to divulge. It is because of this friend that I know some Russian phrases. To me this further highlights how ridiculous war is – both nations are home to people who have friends, relatives and ties to the other.

My WordPress Reader seems oddly divorced from the sombre tone of the world news – people are still posting about ordinary things. I suppose blogging is not like other social media, and people’s websites have their own dedicated topics. Or perhaps we come here to escape.

Well, this blog is about history, and our place in the the world as humans. I had another post about other things with stacks of photos lined up, but just don’t have the heart to be writing about that or anything else.

Here is a snow friend, frozen in peacetime, from Ukraine, thirteen months ago when none of this was happening. I post this in fervent hopes that peacetime comes to Ukraine again very, very soon.

A cool buddy made by my friend, Odessa, Ukraine. 29th January 2021. Posted with permission.

Слава Украине.


Digging in Space

At last:

1) I have, belatedly, worked out how to receive emails at my new student email address. I was forwarded some news that…

2) The first Archaeologists ever have just gone to space!

Image credit:


Here is the link to the NASA space station highlights.

The space project is called Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment, aka SQuARE.

It looks as though the Archaeologists go and assess how man-made materials alter in space over time.

To be methodical, the materials are assessed in a 1m x 1m area of a space station wall and many photos are taken and compared over time… hence the name. You have got to hand it to the sense of humour of scientists sometimes.

According to that page, the archaeologists will look at how astronauts relate to objects when they are not on Earth. And also, at methods of excavation in space.

I suppose when we finally touch down on another planet and start doing things to its surface, the very first interaction that we will have with said planet would be to dig.


How cool is that? I think I wouldn’t mind going to space and trying zero-gravity. Although I would want to come back to Earth rather quick-ish to where all the food is real and not served in tubes.

Anyone have thoughts on this? Or know a good acronym? Would you work in space if given the chance?


RIP Richard Leakey

Fossil finder Richard Leakey has just passed away. His was a big name in the world of Archaeology and Conservation.

Richard Leakey (1944 – 2022, aged 77) was a staunch defender of elephants and waged war against poaching in Africa. A wild fact about him is that he pulled major publicity stunts to set tonnes and tonnes of poached elephant tusks on fire, to show that ivory taken from creatures has no intrinsic value. Text links to fascinating interview.

The same fire burning the seized elephant tusks. Image Source: Wiki Commons

• He, with Kamoya Kimeu, found a near-complete skeleton of an 11-year old boy in the 1980s in Africa.

• To be clear, the skeleton was 1.6 million years old, and is dubbed ‘Turkana Boy’, widely accepted to be a Homo erectus specimen.

• His daughter Louise de Merode is a famous palaeontologist in her own right… and she (and her daughters) are Princesses. This is through marriage into the Belgian monarchy. I know these days it is just a title, but I like fairytales, and can’t help but regard this as charming.


I pulled this quote by him from the Scientific American article:

When I studied fossils, I was dealing with species that became extinct because of climate change, because of over-predation. Today, when I stand on the magnificent Kenyan landscape in the midst of so many of their successors, the survivors—now different species—it’s a very powerful experience. I feel I’m at home with them. I understand myself better. I sense my place within the larger continuum of life. So the paleontology is not separate from my concern for wildlife, it is very much a part of it.

Rest In Peace Richard Leakey. I hope your example shows many more people how we are all on that Continuum and how we should defend it. May elephants guard you on your walk to the next world.