1,500-Year-Old Prosthetic Foot Discovered in Austria

The skeleton of a middle-aged man may have been missing a lower limb but in its place researchers found a wooden ‘foot’

The 1,500-year-old skeleton of a man and his prosthesis was found in a grave next to medieval church in Hemmaberg, Austria. courtesy the Austrian Archaeology Institute

In 2013, archeologists working in southern Austria found the grave of a man who lived during the 6th century A.D. But they didn't publish one of the most fascinating parts of the find until now: The man wore a prosthetic left foot.

The prosthesis was crafted of wood and an iron ring, writes Elahe Izadi for The Washington Post, and the discovery marks one of the oldest examples of a prosthetic limb found in Europe. “When I saw that they had this prosthesis, I thought, ‘OK, this is something special,’” Michaela Binder, a bioarchaeologist with the Austrian Archaeological Institute, tells Megan Gannon for Atlas Obscura.

The man was probably between 35 and 50 years old and the artifacts he was buried with put his death between 536 and 600 A.D. A brooch and distinctive dagger, called a scramasax, identify him as part of the group of Germanic tribes known as the Franks.

1,500-Year-Old Prosthetic Foot Discovered in Austria
A closer view of the man's missing leg, where the iron ring used as part of his prosthetic is visible (left). The tibia and fibula (right). courtesy the Austrian Archaeology Institute

The researchers note that the lower parts of his tibia and fibula as well as his foot are missing, but signs of healing on the bone ends show that the man survived the amputation. Other signs in his joints suggest that he actually used the prostheses, and it was not just a cosmetic device, according to the study recently published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

He managed to not only survive the amputation but may have lived for at least two more years, walking pretty well with the implant, Sabine Ladstätter, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute tells a reporter with Agence France-Presse (via The Guardian)The find is especially surprising because preventing a deadly infection after such an amputation would have been very difficult. 

The use of prothesis dates back thousands of years, reports Gannon. In the paper, the researchers reference the iron arm that Roman general Marcus Sergius Silus wore in the 3rd century B.C., and the fact that Greek myths describe prostheses and crutches. One of the oldest prosthetics to survive the passage of time is  large toe found in Cairo, Egypt that may date back to 950 B.C., reports Megan Garber for The Atlantic

The circumstances surrounding the loss of this man's limb are likely to remain unclear—the amputation could have been an accident or a necessary medical intervention. Still, the discovery demonstrates that people have creatively designed prostheses for centuries, from the ancient, realistic Egyptian toe to modern artificial limbs that can mimic a sense of touch.

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