When a person’s arm or a leg is seriously injured, an amputation can save that person’s life from deadly infections. Amputation has been practiced crudely in warfare or as punishment. It is sometimes a natural consequence of disease or damage.
But, when practiced as a medical procedure, it can provide lasting evidence of surgical skill and medical knowledge. A skilled amputating surgeon navigates critical veins, arteries, nerves, and muscles, and keeps the wound clean long enough for it to heal. So, evidence of successful surgical amputation, can be evidence of a society with sophisticated medical knowledge.
Researchers didn’t think this kind of knowledge emerged until after humans invented agriculture and started living in settled communities about ten thousand years ago. The oldest known instance of successful surgical amputation came from the skeletal remains of a farmer who lived seven thousand years ago.
In 2022 a team of Indonesian and Australian archaeologists found surprising evidence that the traditional view was wrong. The researchers discovered a grave on an island that is today part of Indonesian Borneo. The grave was over thirty thousand years old, and contained the skeletal remains of a young adult. The skeleton showed clear evidence that the person’s lower left leg had been surgically amputated, probably when they were a child.
The key evidence of surgical skill was provided by the cut marks. The operation was a success, since the bone gave evidence that the person had lived on for at least another six to nine years afterwards, to die of some other cause. At least some nomadic foraging groups had surprisingly sophisticated medical knowledge long before our ancestors settled down to become farmers.