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Stone Age Surgery Was a Cut Above

By John Salak


Do you have problems with the current state of healthcare? You’re not alone. A recent Gallup poll found just over a third of Americans had a positive view of the industry, while just over 40 percent see it negatively. None of this is surprising, given rising costs and overcrowded facilities. But admittedly, healthcare has progressed in many respects in recent centuries and millennia.

But that doesn’t mean significant healthcare was poking around longer than many realize. Back further than feelgood Roman and Greek mineral baths, ancient Chinese and Indian acupuncture treatments, bloodletting European doctors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and even mandated smallpox inoculations for Continental Army in 1777.

Now a team of Indonesian and Australian researchers claims to have discovered the oldest case of amputation on a living person in history—and it’s 31,000 years old. The group discovered skeletal evidence, a lower left leg and foot of a person, probably a child, in a cave in Borneo.

What’s startling is that the person lived at least another six to nine years after the surgery. It is no small feat today, but whoever performed the surgery had to navigate around veins, arteries, nerves, and tissues; and keep the wound clean and infection free.

“The discovery implies that at least some modern human foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills long before the Neolithic farming transition,” explained the paper’s co-lead author Dr. Melandri Vlok. “The chances the amputation was an accident was so infinitely small. The only conclusion was this was stone age surgery.”

It is, of course, not possible to know what led to the amputation. But the individual also had a well-healed neck fracture and trauma to their collar bone, which may have occurred around the foot and leg injury. It meant the surrounding community had developed the knowledge and skillset to respond to such a wide-ranging trauma.

“An accident, such as a rock fall, may have caused the injuries, and the community recognized that the foot had to be taken off for the child to survive,” Vlok said.

“This unique find challenges assumptions of humanity’s capabilities in the past and will advance our understanding of human lifeways in tropical rainforests,” added team co-leader Dr. Dilkes-Hall of the University of Western Australia.

Does this mean medical care was better 200, 2,000 or 30,000 years ago? Of course not. But the recent find in Borneo does help place current conditions in perspective.

 

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