September 15, 2022

Located toward the back of the front section of Sunday’s newspaper was a story about an archeological excavation that was changing the way we interpret history.  A team of Indonesian and Australian researchers were working in the Liang Tebo cave in eastern Kalimantan province in Borneo when they found the bones of a young individual buried in a shallow grave.  Scientists used radiocarbon dating to estimate the date of burial at 31,000 years ago.  The most striking aspect of the discovery was that the young person was missing their lower left leg.  Signs indicated it had been carefully amputated as a pre-teen or early teen before their death from unknown causes between 19 and 21.  The otherwise remarkably intact skeleton was found in 2020 by the archaeologists, who say the amputated limb indicates considerable surgical skill.  This is the earliest example of such surgery in the archeological record and shakes our understanding of the sophistication of Stone Age humans. 

When I looked online, I found the archaeologists who uncovered the burial indicated the surgeon or surgeons who performed the operation (with stone knives and scalpels) must have had a detailed knowledge of anatomy and muscular and vascular systems to negotiate the veins, vessels, and nerves, and to prevent fatal blood loss and infection.  Experts had thought humans lacked the expertise to perform procedures like amputation until the emergence of agriculture and permanent settlements transformed human society within the last 10,000 years (Neolithic).  Prior to this discovery, the oldest known amputee was an elderly farmer whose left forearm had been removed just above the elbow 7,000 years ago in what is now France.  It was only 100 years ago that surgical amputation became a norm in Western medicine, and before the development of antibiotics most people would have died at the time of amputation from blood loss, shock, or subsequent infection.  There was no trace of infection and new bone growth had formed over the amputated area.

While the rest of the skeleton was adult sized, the amputated bones stopped growing and retained their child size.  The child had survived six to nine years after the surgery.  After the amputation, intensive nursing and care would have been vital, and the wound would have had to have been regularly cleaned and disinfected.  To live for years with an amputated leg in mountainous terrain, the individual would have needed a lot of ongoing help and care from the community.  The burial was also the oldest known deliberate burial in the islands of Southeast Asia, with limestone markers placed on top of the burial, the body placed in a flexed, fetal position, and a large ball of mineral pigment used in Stone Age cave art (ocher) as a grave good.  Liang Tebo cave also has human hand stencils on the walls. 

THOUGHTS:  The world’s oldest rock art figures (not just handprints) have been found in caves elsewhere in Indonesia.  This is the area that humans departed by boat to cross Island South Asia to reach the mainland of Papua and Australia, making the first successful major maritime voyage.  The amputated limb was only one of the advanced discoveries made by the peoples of Borneo.  They were advanced artists, had advanced medical knowledge, and navigated the ocean, all at a time when humans in Europe were struggling to survive the ice age.  It was not until 30,000 years later that Europeans “discovered” their descendants and provided civilization.  Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.

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