Science feature | Stone age surgery to modern medicine

When we talk about surgery and medicine, it’s usually in the context of here and now, and the future. Deep down we know curiosity and exploration of the human anatomy has existed as long as humankind. Evidence of tools, organ extractions, preservation, and medicines have been discovered dating back through ancient history but we often think of these practices as ceremonial. 
Sheanna recently had the chance to chat about ancient history and how it has shaped modern medicine for a packed audience at the World Science Festival in Brisbane. While her surgical knowledge and expertise comes as no surprise as a perfect fit for this discussion, it might interest you to know that in another life, Sheanna studied to became a palaeontologist.

“Obviously, archaeology is very different to palaeontology. I was not really interested in humans at that time, I was all about the animals. Looking at old bones is cool.” she said.

“It was so much fun, and you’d go out and do the digs and bring your specimens back to the lab to see what you had. You’d recreate the animal based upon the bones. So, I loved bone anatomy and I think part of what I do now does relate back to that.”
The festival seminar discussed the discovery of skeletal remains of a person in Borneo who is thought to be the earliest known recipient of an amputation. When examined under a microscope, the end of the bone showed serration marks; signs consistent with surgical amputation.
The panel looked at the science behind the amputation, the possible reasons behind it, what it meant for the culture at that time and how the surgery has evolved.
“How the procedure of an amputation has developed from what they would have had back then in terms of anaesthesia and tools and the environment compared with what we have today.
“The process and the argument of that discovery is a lot to talk about. It’s extremely interesting and, without a doubt, you can say that this patient would have required a level of care that shows compassion and certainly a need for a community and group involvement of the patient at that time because they survived following some sort of event,” she said.
What we learn from these discoveries is where we come from as a civilisation.
“The fact that in those days we had a society which demonstrated a high level of care and compassion might tell us a bit about the hierarchy of the society at the time and that there’s always been an interest in medical care.
“Comparing surgery from the 1800s when the techniques where not too dissimilar to what we have now but the quality of surgery and the goals of surgery where very different. At a time where the mortality rate was 1 in 4 amputations, methods were tailored for speed in order to prevent death from shock or blood loss.
“What has evolved and continues to evolve is a greater understanding of our bodies, the way they work and how ours differ from other animals.”
The World Science Festival Brisbane is an annual celebration bringing science out of the laboratory and into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and performing arts venues of Brisbane and regional Queensland! Sheanna was honoured to be invited to speak and thoroughly enjoyed the discussion.
If you’re interested in reading more about the discovery, take a look at this article from The Conversation.
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