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.
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.
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.
• 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.
And that was my homework!
How are you? Would you have believed that humans were capable of performing surgery 31000 years ago?