An astonishing insight on Prehistoric life has
been recently revealed by archaeologists at the excavations of Tell Yunatsite (Bulgaria). The Balkan Heritage Field School has been conducting a field school project there since 2013.
An osteoarchaeological study of human remains from the site’s Chalcolithic
layers, conducted by German scientists Steve Zäuner and Joachim Wahl
(University of Tübingen), has confirmed the possibly earliest case of
successful amputation in Southeastern Europe. The osteological discovery was
made by the team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Yavor Boyadzhiev (National
Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) and Dr. Ioannis
Aslanis (Institute of Greek and Roman Antiquity, Greece), near the Southeastern
border of Late Chalcolithic Building Horizon No. 1, dated to 4200-4000 BC.
The feature, “Grave 105”, contained the remains
of a woman in her early 60s – a remarkably advanced age, considering the usual
lifespan of populations in Southeastern Europe during the period, rarely
exceeding 50-55 years. The individual herself most probably lost her life in a
violent manner, during an enemy assault on the Tell, when the entire settlement
was burned to the ground.
The skeletal remains of the Chalcolithic lady
in Grave 105 were in discovered in good condition. She showed no indications of
disease or illness and had a flawless “dental record”, with no signs of caries
or pеriodontites. The attention of scientists was drawn to her right arm - the
entire hand was missing and the ulna
and radius bones had grown together
before the wrist. These were clear indications that the hand had been removed pre mortem and the wound had healed
successfully, long before the individual passed away.
But how did the lady from Grave 105 loose her
hand? It could not have been the result of violent assault, because cut and
slash weapons of the time (limited to copper bludgeons and axes) could not
provide such a clear cut. Trauma and successive removal of the limb were also
ruled out after closer examination. The only plausible explanation that
remained was surgical amputation.
Individual 105 from Tell Yunatsite showed signs
of advanced surgical treatment. The procedure was most probably conducted via a
long flint blade, such as the so-called “super-blades”, or several flint blades,
incorporated in a wooden or osseous frame. Such a tool would have provided the
prehistoric surgeon with the ability to saw through flesh and bones at the high
speeds necessary for the operation to be successful. The wound appears to have
healed well, with no visible signs of inflammation. Anesthesia should have been
available in the form of alcohol, or possibly black henbane (hyosciamus niger) –
known to have been used by prehistoric populations on the Balkans, as recently
proved by the excavations at Ilindentsi, Bulgaria.
Amputations in Europe before the Bronze Age are
quite rare. The oldest confirmed surgical case in Europe, known so far, was
found in a Neolithic site in France, dating back to 4900–4700 BC. The Yunatsite
individual No. 105 is the only reported case of surgical amputation in the Chalcolithic
of Bulgaria so far. According to some anomalies in the development of the 14C
dates for the Balkan’s Late Chalcolithic, the discussed amputation appears to
be one of the oldest ascertained cases in Southeastern Europe.
This article is based on: Zäuner S. P., J. Wahl, Y. Boyadziev and I. Aslanis. A 6000-Year-Old Hand Amputation from Bulgaria — The Oldest Case from South-East Europe. In: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Volume 23, Issue 5, pages 618–625, September/October 2013