An amputation on a young hunter-gatherer was carried out 31,000 years ago on the island of Borneo

When does the history of surgery begin? On the island of Borneo, in Indonesia, archaeologists discovered, in 2020, the skeleton of an individual amputated from the bottom of his left leg. This individual would have lived almost 31,000 years ago and would have survived several years after his operation. The details of this discovery have just been published in the journal Nature.

The excavations were not easy to carry out: they took place in the cave of Liang Tebo, located in the east of the Indonesian island, which is accessible by canoe only part of the year, during the rainy season. “We knew there were cave paintings in this area, but they had never been dated and we had no information about the people who had made these paintings, so we decided to carry out excavations there”explains Maxime Aubert, Canadian archaeologist, professor at Griffith University (Queensland, Australia) and one of the authors of the study.

The team of archaeologists found cave paintings on the walls and excavated a burial containing a complete skeleton. Installed in the fetal position, the body was notably buried with a ball of red ocher near the mouth, which links it to the time of the paintings found, believes the archaeologist.

Childhood amputee

In the laboratory, radiocarbon analysis then made it possible to date this discovery between 30,000 and 31,000 years ago. “It is the oldest burial ever found in the islands of Southeast Asia, where it is very rare to find human skeletons dating from this age”explains Maxime Aubert. And what was their surprise, when they discovered this “complete” skeleton, to find that part of his left leg and his foot were missing. Specifically, only the upper portions of the left tibia and fibula were present, and these were marked with a “very straight cut” as well as by traces of “remodeling” on the bone, that is to say a bone reorganization following a lesion. In short, evidence of an amputation that the individual would have suffered during his life.

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The analysis of the remaining bones by paleopathologists has made it possible to learn more about its history. The individual would be a young adult amputated between six and nine years before his death, during his childhood. Indeed, the bones of the amputated leg are much less developed than those of the right leg: small, thin and fragile bones of a child, showing that the leg stopped growing after the amputation.

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