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?

fun stuff, world

Old Books on Language

In the last couple of weeks, I have learnt about the existence of three Very Old Books – all of which have an interesting history and share the theme of language. In order of increasing age they are:

I. The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg (~20 years old)

Found this at a second-hand book fair. Outlines how English emerged and evolved from 500AD to present day.

Fun facts:

• Experts in linguistics believe that if you travel to Friesland, Netherlands and listen to the locals talk, you will hear something that closely resembles the ancestor of English.

•Apparently and very importantly, the word ‘cake’ is Old Norse in origin.

• The first English dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall and appeared in 1604. Which brings me to…

II. This tattered dictionary (~32 years)

Almost as old as A Table Alphabeticall me, this was left at our house by a Roommate of Years Past and appeared during a spring clean.

Going through it, I have learnt that a hyponym is a word for something which falls under a broader category (eg a poodle is a hyponym of dog), and that Dunlop is a Scottish cheese. Sounds yum. Maybe some fellow bloggers have tried it?

III. The Voynich Manuscript (~600 years old)

One of the world’s unsolved mysteries. I learnt about this one while traversing an internet rabbit hole. This book is therefore not in my possession, but rather sitting in a library of ye olde manuscripts and books at Yale University.

Image credit: wikimedia commons

You may have heard about it, as it is a famous world mystery. The Voynich Manuscript is a handwritten, hand-drawn handbook and resembles (probably loosely) a Girl Scout’s log of plants and star signs, and written in a weird code, dubbed Voynichese, that linguists and cryptologists have been trying to crack for over five centuries.

The majority of it still remains untranslated, but people have made a tiny bit of progress. I enjoyed the late Professor’s Stephen Bax’s explanations on how how he decoded the word Hellebore, and a few words from there.

This is a very interesting topic to delve into, if you have the time.


Know any fun facts about English/another language? Do you like codes? If you’ve tried Dunlop cheese, would you recommend it, or rather another kind? Have you heard about the Voynich Manuscript? What’s the oldest book you own?

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.

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.

journal, university, world

People, people, people

Some of my learnings this week:

• #1

The first two episodes of “Servant of the People” (‘Слуга народу’) are really, really funny.

This is a charming TV series from 2015-2019 that follows the story of a straight-laced high school History teacher in Ukraine named Vasily Goloborodko. Just before the country’s election, he goes on an expletive-filled rant to a colleague about the corrupt nature of all the politicians in Ukraine. One of his students secretly films him and uploads the video to YouTube. The virality of his foul-mouthed tirade catapults Goloborodko to meteoric popularity and Ukrainian Presidency.

Overnight, he is transformed from an ordinary broke guy, worrying over fines of 17 Ukrainian Hyrvnia ($0.77 AUD), to a President living a life of exaggerated opulence and where everyone fawns over him and his family.

The show was produced and starred by none other than the real Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy himself. How life imitates art imitates life!

There is so much irony that is brilliantly executed (“There was a sale! 100% off everything! We almost felt bad…” – the poor women in family, going shopping for the first time after he is elected).

It is satire that touches on issues in society and politics. However given certain world events (like the 45th POTUS, and the fact Zelenskyy used to be a comedian) I find the events of the show just about believable.

It’s in Russian and Ukrainian, you are comfortable with following subtitles. If you are in Australia with a TV, the show is available on SBS.

• #2

Don’t wander into comment sections when you know the content from the blog post upsets you.

Won’t reveal too much the specifics. I had discovered a site which, on the surface, had all this content I liked. But I found the comment sections often had people who relished trashing those they disagreed with, using bullying tactics and occasional ad hominem attacks.

Thankfully nobody used me as target practice, even after I had contributed my own views which weren’t mainstream in the discussion (Why did I even go there? I almost never do that). But I can say the sheer meanness of people towards other people weighed on my mind this week.

• #3

If someone or something is Ethnocentric means they evaluate other cultures using attitudes and moral standards which arose from their own. It does not mean the same thing as racism, but does describe the conditions which underpin it. The opposite to ethnocentric bias is cultural relativism, which what anthropologists can aim for if they want to evaluate cultures impartially.


Re: Archaeology – I am writing another assignment. It is on Ethics, which should be my jam, but I seem to be suffering from some sort of weird word congestion, at least for school.

How are you this week? Do you like watching foreign shows? Are you comfortable airing views that don’t conform? Anything you’ve discovered this week?

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.