Surgical amputation of a limb 31,000 years ago in Borneo

The prevailing view regarding the evolution of medicine is that the emergence of settled agricultural societies around 10,000 years ago (the Neolithic Revolution) gave rise to a host of health problems that had previously been unknown among non-sedentary

foraging populations, stimulating the first major innovations in prehistoric medical practices. Such changes included the development of more advanced surgical procedures, with the oldest known indication of an ‘operation’ formerly thought to have consisted of the skeletal remains of a European Neolithic farmer (found in Buthiers-Boulancourt, France) whose left forearm had been surgically removed and then partially healed. Dating to around 7,000 years ago, this accepted case of amputation would have required comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy and considerable technical skill, and has thus been viewed as the earliest evidence of a complex medical act. Here, however, we report the discovery of skeletal remains of a young individual from Borneo who had the distal third of their left lower leg surgically amputated, probably as a child, at least 31,000 years ago. The individual survived the procedure and lived for another 6–9 years, before their remains were intentionally buried in Liang Tebo cave, which is located in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, in a limestone karst area that contains some of the world’s earliest dated rock art. This unexpectedly early evidence of a successful limb amputation suggests that at least some modern human foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills long before the Neolithic farming transition.

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