A boy who lived on the Indonesian island of Borneo about 31,000 years ago underwent the oldest known surgical operation, an amputation of his lower left leg, researchers say.
One or more hunter-gatherers who carried out the operation possessed detailed knowledge of human anatomy and considerable technical skill, allowing the young man to avoid fatal blood loss and infection, says archaeologist Tim Maloney of Griffith University in Southport. , Australia, and colleagues.
healed bone where his lower leg was amputated indicates the former youth survived for at least six to nine years after surgery before dying at age 19 or 20, researchers report September 7 in Nature. Since there is no evidence of crushing from an accident or animal bite at the amputation site, investigators suspect that an unidentified medical problem led to the operation.
Maloney’s team excavated the remains of this individual in 2020 from a grave inside a large, three-chambered cave. Radiocarbon dating of burned pieces of wood just below the grave along with another dating technique on a tooth from the young man’s lower jaw allowed the researchers to estimate when the surgery took place.
Until now, the oldest known amputation involved a farmer from France whose left forearm was surgically removed nearly 7,000 years ago. In North Africa, surgeries to create skull openings may have occurred 13,000 years ago (Serial number: 03/31/22).
Faced with rapid wound infections in a tropical region, ancient Borneo peoples developed antiseptic treatments from local plants, Maloney’s group suspects. It is unknown what type of tool was used in the Stone Age operation or if the patient was sedated with a plant-based concoction.