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How Much Did Prehistoric People Know About Surgery?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Scientists used to think that advanced medical practices developed around 7,000 - 10,000 years ago, give or take, pegging the date to the remains of a French farmer whose forearm was amputated. Experts theorized that around this time, humans began to settle down into agricultural societies. But a recent discovery at a cave in Borneo knocked that theory for a loop.

Archaeologists exploring a cave in the rainforests of Indonesian Borneo – known for some of the earliest rock art in the world - found a grave that contained a child who lived around 31,000 years ago. The skeleton revealed that the left foot and part of the left leg had been carefully removed in the earliest example of amputation ever discovered.

Stone Age surgery:

  • The researchers concluded that the foot bones weren't simply missing from the grave. They had been deliberately removed with a clean, slanted cut that had healed over. There were no signs of infection, which ruled out an accident or animal attack.

  • The individual appears to have lived six to nine years after losing the limb. Scientists say this means that prehistoric foragers were capable of performing surgery without causing fatal blood loss. They were also able to prevent the amputation site from becoming infected. The researchers speculate that a sharp stone tool was used to perform the amputation.

  • Perhaps an even more noteworthy aspect of the discovery is that the community would have had to care for the child for years afterward, since surviving the area’s rugged terrain as an amputee would have been extremely difficult. This early surgery, experts say, “rewrites the history of human medical knowledge and developments.”

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