WTF Fun Fact 12936 – Evidence for the First Amputation

Archaeologists have found a skeleton bearing the signs of a Stone Age amputation procedure. This evidence for the first amputation (that we know of) is significant because it’s much earlier than previous evidence and the person it was performed on survived the surgery.

Is this the first amputation?

We’ll never really know of this skeleton belongs to the first person to survive an amputation since we can’t possibly know when we’ve collected every archaeological sample.

But what we do know is that the skeleton was found in a cave in Borneo (in Indonesia) and is roughly 31,000 years old! It belonged to a young adult (the gender is uncertain), possibly around the age of 19-20.

When the child was roughly 10 – 12, their left leg was amputated below the knee, and they went on to live for years as an amputee.

Prehistoric surgery

It appears the child died 6 – 9 years after the left leg amputation. That’s pretty impressive considering it was done without modern painkillers and the blood loss was probably severe.

It’s proof that there was some way of controlling the bleeding and helping the patient survive tens of thousands of years earlier than we first thought.

Proof of the amputation was discovered when researchers came across a grave and found a skeleton missing the lower part of its left leg. Because there were no bones found nearby, it was clear that the person was buried without a leg.

Upon closer inspection, researchers realized the bones had been carefully removed. Enough healing had taken place to indicate that it was an intentional surgery that took place years before the person’s death.

Because there were no signs of infection, bone crushing, or other fracturing, it’s clear that the leg wasn’t bitten off (by a crocodile, for example) or lost in an accident.

The skeletal proof

As the researchers put it in their article in Nature (cited below):

“There is no evidence of infection in the left limb, the most common complication of an open wound without antimicrobial treatment. The lack of infection further rules out the probability of animal attack, such as a crocodile bite, because an attack has a very high probability of complications from infection owing to microorganisms from the animal’s teeth entering the wound. The partial consolidation of the bone between the left tibia and fibula and complete closure of the distal end of the left fibula are consistent with late-stage amputation changes. The small size of the left tibia and fibula compared with the right suggests a childhood injury, as the bones did not continue growing. The severe bone thinning of the left tibia and fibula is also suggestive of the heavily restricted use of the left leg resulting in musculoskeletal disuse atrophy. Some thinning of the cortical margins of the right tibia suggests that TB1 was rarely ambulatory owing to the incapacitating nature of the injury to the lower left leg.”

TB1 is the name of the specimen.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Surgical amputation of a limb 31,000 years ago in Borneo” — Nature


WTF Fun Fact 12704 – The World’s Oldest Wine

It turns out we’ve always loved fermenting grapes!

The evidence is an archaeological find around 20 miles away from Tbilisi, Georgia (the country!). Amidst low, mud-brick houses, there is a mound called Gadachrili Gora where Stone Age farmers lived around 8,000 years ago. Archaeologists found pottery decorated with grapes and a pollen analysis conducted on the surrounding hillsides found evidence that grape vines were grown there. (It turns out we’ve always liked to draw grapes on things as well!)

In a 2017 paper published in PNAS, called “Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus,” an international team of archaeologists laid out the proof that the people who lived around Gadachrili Gora were likely the world’s earliest vintners. And while we could have guessed the area, it was hard to believe how early in human history people were producing, storing, and enjoying wine on a large scale – since 6000 BCE! We were still prehistoric and used stone and bone tools (hopefully not while drinking).

National Geographic explained the evidence and talked to the archaeologists involved in the dig (which began in the 1960s but was only finished up recently):

“When the samples were analyzed by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern, he found tartaric acid, a chemical “fingerprint” that shows wine residues were present in fragments of pottery from both sites.

Combined with the grape decorations on the outside of the jars, ample grape pollen in the site’s fine soil, and radiocarbon dates from 5,800 B.C. to 6,000 B.C., the chemical analysis indicates the people at Gadachrili Gora were the world’s earliest winemakers. (Tipplers at a Chinese site called Jiahu were making fermented beverages from a mixture of grains and wild fruit a thousand years earlier.)

Because they didn’t find many grape seeds or stems preserved in the village’s soil, archaeologists think the wine was made in the nearby hills, close to where the grapes were grown.

“They were pressing it in cooler environments, fermenting it, and then pouring it into smaller jugs and transporting it to the villages when it was ready to drink,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk, who co-directed the joint expedition alongside archaeologist Mindia Jalabdze of the Georgian National Museum.” WTF fun facts

Source: “Oldest Evidence of Winemaking Discovered at 8,000-Year-Old Village” — National Geographic


WTF Fun Fact 12581 – The Shrinking Human Brain

All jokes about human intelligence these days aside, it’s true that humans have smaller brains than ever before.

The human brain has been shrinking in size for tens of thousands of years (so we can’t blame video games or reality TV or politics). According to anthropologists, the brain volume of Homo sapiens has decreased by about 10% over the last 40,000 years.

We’re used to hearing about the increasing size of brains as humans evolved, but that is a trend that goes back millions of years in human evolution.

And to be fair, our brains may be smaller today, but they are still about 3x bigger than other primates based on body weight.

Anthropologists estimate the brain sizes of our ancestors by measuring the amount of room in the skull. The oldest ancestors of humans had brains the size of a modern chimp’s. The skull cavity could hold about 1.5 cups (to put it in quantities that are easier to picture).

Then, between 2 and 4 million years ago, craniums (and therefore brains) got bigger, distinguishing humans from other primate ancestors. They could hold about 2 cups.

If you go back “just” 1 million years (to our ancestors Homo erectus), their brains could hold 4 cups. And Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (going back about 130,000 years) had craniums that could hold 6 cups.

So if you go back far enough, you see that brain size did increase, up to a point. After that, they began shrinking in size.

Today, the average human brain holds around 5.7 cups. But why? We can only make assumptions.

For starters, human bodies got smaller once the Ice Age was over, and so did skulls and brains.

But Discover Magazine claims that the most convincing hypothesis comes from anthropologist Brian Hare, which he calls “survival of the friendliest.”

This hypothesizes that Stone Age societies valued different, more domestic traits – specifically, ones that made humans more social. Social behavior is regulated by hormones that also affect brain and body size. So when we selected for these behaviors (by breeding with more social humans), we also chose genes that made bodies and brains smaller.

A reduction in skull and brain size isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may be that we needed less brain volume as we began to live in collectives, cooperate, and rely on our communities. In other words, now we share the burden of survival with others, so our brains don’t have to hold every element of survival. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The Human Brain Has been Getting Smaller Since the Stone Age” — Discover