One need not look further than Giza's pyramids to see that the ancient Egyptians were a sophisticated lot. Now it appears that they may have even pioneered amputation and prosthetic surgery. According to a report in the December 23/30 issue of the Lancet, researchers studying an Egyptian mummy dated to between 1550 and 700 B.C. have found direct evidence of such practices.

A paleopathological examination of the mummy, carried out by Andreas G. Nerlich and his colleagues at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, revealed that the big toe on the right foot had been amputated. This toe removal clearly took place when the patient was alive, the team reports, because an intact layer of soft tissue covered the amputation site. What is more, the patient's missing toe had been replaced by a carefully crafted wooden toe, which attached to the foot and was kept in place by way of a series of wooden plates and leather strings. Previous research had uncovered other ancient Egyptian prostheses, but these were thought to have been used only in preparing the mummy for the afterlife.

"The observations provide compelling evidence that the surgical expertise to carry out toe, and possibly other, amputations, sometimes followed by prosthetic replacement, was present in Egypt during this period," Nerlich says. "The loss of this digit results in a transfer of weight to the end of the first metatarsal, resulting in instability while standing and in limping when attempting to run," he remarks. "The use of a prosthesis would have solved these problems."