At the beginning of the last Ice Age, 31,000 years ago, a community in what’s now Eastern Indonesia buried a young person in the dry floor of a mountainside cave painted with handprints. The people lived on the edge of what was then a low continent called Sunda, and they were likely part of the same group of early seafarers who crossed to Australia. They were sophisticated in other ways, too: According to a description of the burial published today in the journal Nature
, the young adult is the oldest human known to have survived a surgical amputation.
As Maloney and his team excavated the burial site, hoping to learn more about the people who had painted the cave at least 40,000 years ago, they noticed something odd: The skeleton was missing its left foot, while the delicate bones of the right foot were well-preserved. When they looked closer at the tip of the left leg, they saw that the tibia and fibula had been cut off, and the ends of the bone healed over.
When the researchers examined the tips of the bones, they didn’t find signs of an animal attack or rockfall, which would have left fracture or crush marks around the edges. The wound’s clean nature suggested that it had been made intentionally. Based on the age of the skeleton—about 19 at death—and the healed-over bone, the researchers believe that the surgery happened when the individual was a preteen, six to nine years before their death. Not only did they survive, but they managed to keep living in their rugged mountain home.
The surgeons had to control bleeding, either with pressure bandages, tourniquets, or cauterization. The researchers believe that the cut was made with stone tools, which, though fragile, can be incredibly sharp—obsidian scalpels are used in some specialized medical procedures even today.
Maybe most surprisingly, the bone showed no signs of infection in an environment where it’s hard to avoid—even the excavation team regularly dealt with infected cuts. The answer might have to do with knowledge of medicinal plants.