31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation Is the Earliest Known Surgery

A child living 31,000 years ago had their left foot amputated and lived to tell the tale. This moves the record for oldest known amputation way back in history making it the earliest known surgery. The previous example happened 7,000 years ago in France. Other known successful ancient surgeries date to within the last 10,000 years, thought to coincide with human settlements. The skeleton was found in the Indonesia portion of the island of Borneo, an area home to ancient hunter-gatherer societies. The scientific team highlighted the implied level of medical advancement needed to avoid infection, much less in a tropical location and in a civilization often on the move.

The skeleton of a young man from 31,000 years ago are missing the left foot, set on a black background
TR Maloney et al, Nature (2022)

Indonesian archaeologists discovered cave paintings from nearly 40,000 years ago in the area and teamed up with Australian scientists to excavate the limestone cave. The skeleton was remarkably intact, except for the missing lower third of the left leg. The bones below the knee were smaller, indicating that the injury happened during childhood. But the individual was roughly 20 years old when they died, so clearly survived the procedure.

The scientists ruled out an accident or animal attack because those would leave different marks on the bones. The fibula and tibia ended in a clean cut with no signs of infection. This also means the amputee received help getting around the uneven terrain, as the groups in that area didn’t settle in one area. The research is published in the preeminent peer-reviewed journal Nature. We saw it thanks to Gizmodo. There are more videos and photos from the excavation site as part of the news report below. 

This timing may line up with the first humans coming to North America, based on recent evidence. But we’re still learning about human history and what our early ancestors were capable of.

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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