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Surgeons performed a successful amputation 31,000 years ago in Borneo

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of Tebo 1 in life. (credit: Jose Garcia (Garciartist) and Griffith University.)

Archaeologists recently unearthed the remains of a young adult buried 31,000 years ago in a cave called Liang Tebo. Surprisingly, the person’s left leg ended a few inches above the ankle, with clean diagonal cuts severing the ends of the tibia and fibula (the two bones of the lower leg). This is the oldest evidence of surgical amputation ever found—and it suggests that the patient survived for years afterward.

Clear-cut evidence for Stone Age surgery

We don’t know the young person’s name (archaeologists have dubbed the patient Tebo 1), and the bones offer no clues about biological sex. What we do know is that injuries must have been a common fact of life in the young person’s community. Hunting, especially in mountainous terrain, is a dangerous way to make a living; the bones of Neanderthals and ancient members of our own species reveal that people got banged up fairly often during the Pleistocene.

Although falling rocks or the chomping jaws of a large animal can definitely remove a leg, that kind of trauma crushes or shatters the bone. It doesn’t leave neatly angled edges—and the smoothly sliced ends of Tebo 1’s leg bones look like the work of sharp instruments in skilled hands.

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