Oldest amputated body in history challenges Paleolithic medical knowledge

Oldest amputated body in history challenges Neolithic medical knowledge


Found in a single tomb, inside the Liang Tebo cave in the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat region, the remains belong to a young man in his twenties. It is one of the very few human remains from the Paleolithic of Southeast Asia, as well as the oldest burial ever found in the region.

Lying on the back, the legs gathered against the torso, the body of the deceased is practically aligned on the North-South axis. Carefully buried in a tomb that remained untouched for tens of thousands of years, the skeleton presents, given its age, an exceptional state of preservation. It was accompanied by ocher and a carved stone tool, but lacked a left foot.

“The find is very rare,” says Maloney, a paleontologist at Griffith University, Australia. “Bone showing signs of pathological damage are less likely to be preserved. »

The amputated tibia, remarkably preserved, presents an oblique, frank and clean cut, devoid of traces of breakage or crushing, thus eliminating the hypothesis of an accidental loss. Moreover, the cut covered by the bone matrix implies that the individual would have survived between six and nine years after the amputation, and that the latter would have been carried out during his childhood. This hypothesis is corroborated by the interrupted development of the left tibia, still infantile while that of the valid leg is mature, indicating that the deceased used the latter during his lifetime, perhaps with the help of a tool.

“We don’t know if he was supported, if he had a crutch or someone to help him,” wonders Dilkes-Hall. “We are going to get closer to experts in disability and prosthetics in order to imagine what they might have looked like 31,000 years ago”.

Liang Tebo’s deceased is also an important medical and cultural testimony, and raises many questions.

The first naturally concerns the feasibility of the operation itself. Carried out several thousand years before the first uses of the metal, the amputation was probably carried out using one or more stone tools, the nature of which is still unknown. If one can instinctively think of the use of obsidian, still used today to create high performance scalpels, the excavations of the cave quickly invalidated this hypothesis. Furthermore, since the operation was performed almost a decade before the subject’s death, there is very little chance of determining what equipment was used.

“The tools found in the cave are still being analyzed and several types of tools can be considered, but we will certainly never have the answer to this question,” says Maloney.

The problem of the risks of infection, for its part, seems to find its answer in the use of medicinal plants. Located in the heart of the rainforest, the cave is surrounded by an environment of extremely rich biodiversity, including plants with antiseptic and medicinal properties, such as mosses of the genus Sphagnumused even on the battlefield.

Still present in the jungle of Borneo, the local native communities still preserve today an important ethnobotanical knowledge dating back nearly 200 years. Although the ecosystem surrounding the dig site may have varied over the tens of thousands of years that have passed, and archaeobotanical research is still needed, the conservation of these skills appears to support this theory.

Maloney points out, however, that despite the groundbreaking nature of the discovery, it remains difficult to determine whether this knowledge is specific to local populations at the time or whether it was more widespread across the world.

“The local populations had a flourishing cultural activity and were linked to the very first sailors, who left for the islands and Australia”, he adds. “The region could very well have been a hotbed of innovation. »


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