The oldest surgery is 30,000 years old (and the patient survived)

The oldest surgery is 30,000 years old (and the patient survived)



The bones from this surgical operation were unearthed in March 2020 in the Liang Tebo limestone cave in Indonesia.

SCIENCE – Boy stepped over a pool table and survived an operation more than 30,000 years ago: the oldest evidence of surgical amputation found on a skeleton in a cave in Indonesia, says an expert study that reviews the history of the medicine.

Until now, the oldest testimony of a surgical intervention of this type dates back 7,000 years, updated in 2010 in a Neolithic site in France (Seine-et-Marne): the amputation of an old man’s arm, obviously successful because the image of the former the bones revealed signs of healing.

In general, scientists agree in linking the appearance of the first medical practices with the Neolithic revolution some 10,000 years ago, when agriculture and sedentarization brought to light hitherto unknown health problems.

But the excavation of human remains at least 31,000 years old in the Indonesian part of Borneo alters this view by revealing that hunter-gatherers performed the surgery thousands of years earlier than estimated.

The discovery “rewrites our understanding of this medical know-how”explained paleontologist Tim Maloney of Griffith University in Australia, who led the study published Wednesday in Nature.

The bones had been unearthed in 2020 in the imposing limestone cave of Liang Tebo, known for its cave paintings. Among the countless bats, terns, swifts and even some scorpions that inhabit the site, paleontologists delicately removed the sedimentary layers and found the burial of a remarkably preserved skeleton.

Only his left ankle and foot were missing. The end of the remaining leg bone showed a cut “sharp and oblique, which can be seen by looking through the bone”Tim Maloney described during a press conference. An appearance that would have been less regular if the amputation had been caused by a fall or an animal attack.

So many clues not to an accidental amputation, but to an actual medical choice.

anatomical knowledge

Even more surprising: the patient, who died in his early twenties, appears to have survived six to nine years after surgery, based on microscopic signs of bone repair. It is also unlikely that the amputation was performed as a punishment, as the child (or young adolescent) appears to have received careful treatment after surgery and at burial.

“It supposes a deep knowledge of the human anatomy, of the muscular and vascular system”analyzes the study. The people who operated on the young teenager had to “regularly clean, disinfect and dress the wound” to prevent postoperative bleeding or infection that could lead to death.

The handicapped and dependent young amputee’s physical condition probably also forced those around him to care for him for six to nine years, demonstrating altruistic behavior among this group of hunter-gatherers.

These works “shed new light on the care and treatment provided in the distant past, and altered our view that these matters were not considered in prehistoric times”Charlotte Ann Roberts, an archaeologist at Britain’s Durham University, reacted in a comment accompanying the study.

As for surgery, there are many prehistoric remains of trepanations or tooth extractions. But limb amputations are extremely rare, as they are difficult to identify in poorly preserved bones.

After the discovery of Borneo, many unanswered questions remain: how did they proceed? Was the practice common? How did they ease the pain?

In the tropics, the rapidity of infections may have spurred the development of antiseptic products that exploit the medicinal properties of Borneo’s rich vegetation, the authors argue. They also suggest the use of a cut stone blade to operate.

New excavations are scheduled for next year at Liang Tebo cave, in the hope of learning more about the humans who populated it. “Conditions are ripe for amazing new discoveries at this ‘hot spot’ of human evolution”says Renaud Joannes-Boyau, associate professor at Southern Cross University (Australia), who helped date the skeleton.

See also in The HuffPost : This ‘Vampire’ Skeleton Was Discovered With A Sickle To Its Throat To Prevent It From Resurrecting

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