Researchers in Austria have found Europe's oldest functional prosthesis, according to analysis of a 1,500-year-old skeleton buried with a wooden foot.
Belonging to an adult male between the age of 35 and 50, the skeleton was unearthed in 2009 in Hemmaberg, in southern Austria. The site was an important center of early Christian pilgrimage, with several churches built there between the end of the Roman Empire and the Early Medieval period (4th–7th century AD).
The remains were unearthed in a small cemetery of 29 graves from the Frankish period, running between the defeat of Ostrogoth Empire in 536 AD and the movement of pagan Slavic groups around 600 AD.
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Buried near a post-medieval church, with a brooch and a scramasax (a single-edged knife), the skeleton was found missing the left foot from above the ankle.
"In its place, an iron-ring and wooden remains were recovered and interpreted as a prosthesis replacing the lost foot," bioarchaeologist Michaela Binder of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, and colleagues wrote in a paper which will be published in the March issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology.
Radiography and CT-scanning revealed healing of the wound after loss of the foot and ankle joint.
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"Despite the severity of the injury, the person survived for at least one or two years," Binder told Discovery News.
The prosthesis, which basically consisted of a wooden peg with an iron ring on the basis, wasn't just a simple cosmetic device. The man was able to use the leg together with the device, perhaps through the use of a crutch.
"The prosthesis would have been fixed to the leg via a leather or textile pouch or straps. Unfortunately, none of the organic substance was preserved but dark staining on the bones of the left leg indicates their presence," Binder said.
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The researchers tried to determine what caused the injury by examining the three major causes for archaeological cases of amputation: medical treatment, mutilation and accidental or violent trauma.
They found medical amputation unlikely as such surgeries were usually done at the joint, rather than cutting through long bones, as seen in the man from Hemmaberg.
Binder and colleagues ruled out mutilation as punishment, which, until the beginning of the 7th century, was only applied to vassals and not free citizens.
The way the individual was buried - next to a church and with grave goods - indicates he had a high social status.
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"It appears highly unlikely that a convicted criminal, easily identifiable through his mutilation, would have been buried in such a prominent location," the researchers wrote.
The more likely scenario is that the injury was caused by accidental or violent trauma.
"The location of the cut on the lower leg may provide an indication towards a violent origin," Binder and colleagues wrote.
Since osteological analysis provided evidence suggesting the man was used to riding horseback, the researchers speculate he might have been a cavalryman who was injured by a soldier on foot.
"Several bioarchaeological studies of war-related trauma in Medieval cemeteries and mass graves have found the tibia [or shankbone] to be a common site of sharp force trauma and have been interpreted as being inflicted by men on foot to mounted men," the researchers wrote.