An ancient prosthetic leg with unique design discovered in China


The core technological value of mechanical science was not really lost on our ancestors, as is evident from numerous historical applications ranging from advanced weaponry to robust automatons. But this time around things take a more conscientious turn with archaeologists excavating a 2,200-year old prosthetic leg specimen that was specially furnished for its user with a deformed knee. Found in an ancient cemetery near Turpan (or Turfan), a prefecture-level city in the very north-eastern part of China, the mechanized object was also accompanied by the remains of its male owner and another female who might have been unrelated to the handicapped man.

Assessing the bone structure of the male, the researchers (from the Academia Turfanica insititute) found that – ‘the left leg of the male occupant is deformed, with the patella, femur and tibia [fused] together and fixed at 80 [degrees]’. The very nature of this ‘fused knee’ of the left leg surely made it difficult for the man to walk or even ride a horse. And this is where the prosthetic leg might have come in handy – with its incredible design tailored to provide optimized support to the left leg, especially when in motion, like walking. As the experts wrote (in a paper published recently in the journal Chinese Archaeology) –

[The prosthetic leg] is made of poplar wood; it has seven holes along the two sides with leather tapes for attaching it to the deformed leg. The lower part of the prosthetic leg is rendered into a cylindrical shape, wrapped with a scrapped ox horn and tipped with a horsehoof, which is meant to augment its adhesion and abrasion.


Now analysis by radiocarbon dating has already established that the tomb near Turpan is almost 2,200 years. So in terms of history, this is one of the first extant examples of prosthetic limbs used in our ancient world, with the only other over-2,000 years old prosthetic leg (which was made of bronze) being salvaged from Capua, Italy – and it belonged to a time corresponding to the Roman Republic. But even that specimen got destroyed in the bombing raids during World War II.

Interestingly, the man found in the tomb was probably of humble origins, as opposed to a noble buried with his special contraption. This can be credibly hypothesized from the accompanying ‘non-opulent’ objects found inside the burial ground, like ceramic cups and jar, wooden plate and unadorned bows. Furthermore, the prosthetic leg in question here was not just a showpiece, but rather an essential component for the man’s mobility – as can be implied from the severe wear of the top part of the object.

Lastly, the archaeologists have also assessed and found that the handicapped man (and the other occupant) inside the tomb belonged to the so-called Gushi, an ancient culture that thrived around the Ayding Lake in the Turpan basin. Not much is known about these people, except for that they were probably semi-nomadic and had considerable expertise in both pastoral activities and agriculture. Intriguingly enough, archaeologists had previously salvaged almost 1 kg of cannabis from a 2,700-years old tomb of a Gushi shaman. In any case, the Gushi state at the edge of present-day China was finally conquered by the burgeoning Han Dynasty armies in about 60 BC.


The study and its findings were originally published in 2013, in Chinese, in the journal Kaogu. That paper was recently translated and published in the journal Chinese Archaeology.

The entire article was originally published in our sister site Realm of History.

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