Ancient Surgery (And Post-Operative Care)

One of the most tantalizing aspects of human history is how little we know about our ancient forebears. Once you go back more than 5,000 or 10,000 years, to the period before written records and the age of surviving structures like the Sphinx and the pyramids of Egypt, there is little specific evidence of what humans did or how they lived. And the great length of that unknown period of human prehistory, stretching back tens of thousands of years, dwarfs the length of the historical record.

We tend to assume that our prehistoric ancestors were crude, ignorant people who hunted, ate, reproduced, and lived short, dangerous, violent lives. Every once in a while, however, scientists uncover something that challenges that assumption. The latest evidence that the ancients were more knowledgeable and more capable than we might have thought comes from a cave in Borneo, where scientists unearthed a 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult. The remarkable feature of the skeleton was that the bones revealed a successful amputation of the individual’s ankle–and that the patient then lived for years afterward.

Successful amputations require significant medical knowledge. Practitioners must know about the structure of bones, blood vessels, and muscle tissue, where and how to cut to remove the ruined bone and flesh, the need to leave flaps of skin to cover the remaining exposed bone, and how to close the wound, stop the bleeding, and avoid infection. Before this recent discovery, the oldest known evidence of an amputation dated to 7,000 years ago in France. The Borneo discovery pushes that medical knowledge back to a point more than 20,000 years earlier, and indicates that, in at least some areas, ancient humans were much more medically sophisticated that we believed. It makes you wonder: if Borneo communities had knowledgeable doctors 31,000 years ago, what other medical knowledge did they possess, and for that matter how sophisticated were their scientific, religious, philosophical, and political beliefs?

There is another, equally compelling conclusion to be drawn from the Borneo discovery. The wound healed, and the patient, who scientists believed was a child when the injury occurred, lived for years afterward. Given the rugged local terrain, like that shown in the photo above, surviving with only one working leg would have been impossible without the help of caregivers–and in all likelihood the entire tribe or local community. That necessary reality confirms that our ancestors weren’t thoughtless savages, but were decent, generous people who took care of each other. That conclusion also makes me feel better about our species.

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