Had it not been for the odd-looking big toe on her right foot, the 3,000-year-old female mummy from burial chamber TT-95 in the Egyptian necropolis at Thebes-West probably wouldn't have attracted much attention. She was elderly at the time of her death— about 50 years old— but not remarkably so, and only moderately well preserved. But that big toe, archaeologists soon realized, was extraordinary. It consisted of three pieces of carved wood fitted onto her foot with leather straps, making it by far the world's oldest known prosthesis.
A wooden toe— the world's oldest known prosthesis— is still lashed to the patient's mummified foot by a textile lace. Photo by Dale Durfee/Tony Stone
X rays revealed that the Egyptian woman's actual toe had been surgically removed— perhaps because artery disease, seen in CT scans of the mummy, had cut off circulation to the toe and it had turned gangrenous. Soft tissue and skin had overgrown the site where the toe had been taken off. "We know this was done at least several months or even several years before her death, because tissue remodeling is slow," says paleopathologist Andreas Nerlich of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, who led the analysis of the mummy.
Researchers had found other mummies buried with fake parts that look as though they were added after death, probably to make the body appear whole again before its journey into the afterlife. This prosthesis is quite different. Scuff marks on its underside indicate that the artificial toe assisted the woman for some time while she was alive. Without it, she would have been severely hobbled.
Skin regrew where the big toe was amputated, proving the surgery was a success.Photo by Dale Durfee/Tony Stone