31,000-year-old ago human skeleton found in Borneo

(Credits: Maloney, T.R., Dilkes-Hall, I.E., Vlok, M. et al.)

Imagine relentlessly working on an intricate jigsaw puzzle for eleven days and nearing the end, only to realise that the puzzle box always had one missing piece! That is exactly how an excited team of archaeologists must have initially felt when they uncovered every part of a child’s skeleton belonging to the stone age era, but could not find the bones of the left foot.

So what exactly happened to this missing foot? Let’s find out!

Bumping into a 31,000-year-old skeleton

Surgical amputation of a limb 31,000 years ago in Borneo (Credits: Maloney, T.R., Dilkes-Hall, I.E., Vlok, M. et al.)

The grave inside the Borneo cave.

(Credits: Maloney, T.R., Dilkes-Hall, I.E., Vlok, M. et al.)

In 2020, a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists set out on an expedition in Indonesia’s Borneo rainforest in search of a cave which most likely housed the earliest rock art. Little did they know that they would be in for a bigger surprise.

On reaching the cave after a tedious hike and days of canoeing, they bumped into an ancient grave. The team then began the process of retrieving the skeleton in the absence of any electricity or cellular network, amidst an environment that archaeologist Andika Priyatno (who first uncovered the skull) describes as “quite extreme”.

After their gruelling attempt, the team was able to retrieve all skeleton pieces in 32 stages; even the teeth, but not the left foot. Utterly curious about what may have happened to the foot, the skeleton was transported back to Queensland, Australia, and an expert was finally brought in.

Unravelling the mystery

Centre, skull (left red bounding box) and left femur (right red bounding box) under which amputated tibia and fibula lie.

(Credits: Maloney, T.R., Dilkes-Hall, I.E., Vlok, M. et al.)

For starters, bioarchaeologist Melandri Vlok — who studies evidence of disease and trauma in prehistoric human skeletons — began reassembling the skeleton. But the hazy picture was almost immediately clear once she laid out all the parts on the table.

No, the leg hadn’t been bitten off by a crocodile or disjointed due to a fracture, but cut off cleanly, which clearly meant it had been surgically amputated and healed over time!

“When a rockfall happens or when there’s an animal attack, the bone tends to get crushed. It doesn’t get cut cleanly. So it’s very different from what you would expect in an accident,” said Vlok. “It should be relatively obvious, even to the public, that this is a case of someone having their leg chopped off,” she elaborated.

Further analysis of the outward bony growths on the remaining portion of the leg bone indicated that the limb was surgically amputated when the individual was a child, but the kid survived even as an adult.

“t was a huge surprise that this ancient forager survived a very serious and life-threatening childhood operation, that the wound healed to form a stump, and that they then lived for years in mountainous terrain with altered mobility — suggesting a high degree of community care,” Vlok added.

Tracing the origin of amputations

About 31,000 years ago, the late Pleistocene land was a tropical rainforest. Surviving rough terrains, and that too amidst the humidity and heat, would have been an invitation to infection on open wounds.

Therefore, it’s highly likely that the “surgeon” who executed the amputation must have understood the repercussions of gangrene, and would have also been well-versed with the anatomy and muscular and vascular systems to prevent fatal blood loss during the “surgery”.

Does this mean that some of the hunter-gatherers were also doctors? While this assumption would be too far-fetched, the medicine that exists today may have evolved from the prehistoric “medical” tactics.

The researchers still don’t know what tool our long-gone ancestors must have used to amputate or how post-operation infection was prevented. However, they suspect that a sharp stone tool may have made the initial slit, and the region’s rich plant diversity may have prompted the people to study the medicinal properties of the botanical resources.

This new finding has also revealed that amputations were carried out long before hunter-gatherers began farming and lived in permanent settlements. Until now, scientists believed that the shift to the sedentary lifestyle during the end of the ice age gave rise to health problems which stimulated medical advances like amputation.

“This is also in keeping with the evidence that ice age foragers in Indonesia had sophisticated cultural lifeways, as demonstrated from the early dates on cave art in Borneo and the adjacent island of Sulawesi,” said Adhi Agus Oktaviana, a PhD student at the Griffith University and a member of the research team.

This isn’t the first evidence of amputation from humanity’s long and glorious history, but certainly the oldest. Before this discovery, scientists had found a 7,000-year-old amputated forearm that belonged to a French farmer.

Doesn’t this say a lot about humanity, as well as the capability of mankind, even during the Paleolithic era?

The findings of this study are detailed in Nature and can be accessed here

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