Humans are amazing creatures, but we aren’t invulnerable, and every so often, we lose a piece of ourselves to accident, attack or disease: a finger, a toe, a hand, a foot, or even an entire limb. And sometimes, of course, due to a genetic problem, we’re even born without a particular appendage.

This is hardly unique to our era. People have suffered birth defects or lost pieces of themselves down through the ages–and for much of recorded history, they’ve done their best to use technology to replace those pieces.

Just this week, scientists discovered what they believe may be the oldest-known functional prosthetic body part on the foot of an ancient Egyptian mummy.

Researchers at the University of Manchester believe that the wood-and-leather big-toe, currently in the Cairo Museum, not only improved the aesthetics of the wearer’s feet, but also helped her to walk better.

The scientists are looking for volunteers who have lost their right big toes to wear exact replicas of the ancient artifact. They’re also going to test a model of a second false Egyptian toe that has been on display in the British Museum since 1881, but they don’t think that one was functional: made of cartonnage, a kind of papier mache of linen, glue and plaster, it does not bend (unlike the Cairo artifact), and so may have been purely cosmetic.

Both toes date to between 1000 and 600 B.C. If either is found to be functional, it will push back the dawn of the crafting of prosthetic body parts by as much as 700 years, because the previous record-holder for oldest-known functional artificial body part is an artificial leg made of copper and wood dated to 300 B.C. (Found in a tomb in Capua, Italy, it was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.)

The earliest known written description of an artificial limb appears in Herodotus’s The Histories, written in 484 B.C. He tells of a Persian soldier, Hegesistratus, who cut off part of his own foot to escape from the stocks, and later wore a wooden replacement.

Prosthetic technology didn’t much advance for a couple of millennia. In the 16th century Ambroise Pare, a French army surgeon, developed better methods of amputation and also designed the first known artificial leg with an articulated knee joint.

As the industrial and scientific revolutions took hold in the 19th century, great strides were made (so to speak). Wood supplanted iron as the material of choice. In 1800, James Potts designed a wooden leg which lifted the toe with artificial tendons when the knee was bent. An 1812 design for an arm prosthesis produced movement in the arm and hand using straps connected to the opposite shoulder.

Anesthetics allowed for longer surgeries during which amputation stumps could be more carefully crafted to fit more comfortably into prosthetic devices.

War has always produced a surfeit of soldiers and civilians in need of artificial limbs. The U.S. Civil War in the United Sates resulted in many advances, and after the Second World War, the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. established an Artificial Limb Program to promote and coordinate scientific research into improving prosthetic design.

New materials such as plastic and carbon fiber, plus computer-aided design and manufacturing, microelectronics and other advances make today’s prosthetic limbs a vast improvement over those of even a few years ago. Possible developments in years ahead include routine direct skeletal attachment of prostheses, artificial lambs with microprocessor control built in that makes them capable of finely tuned movements, and most excitingly, ways to transmit the brain’s signals to an artificial limb so that it behaves, and feels, almost like the original body part.

But some of the advances may also be less high-tech than that. Jacky Finch is leading the study of the ancient Egyptian toes at the University of Manchester. “If either one is functional it may be interesting to manufacture it with modern materials and trial it for use on people with missing toes,” she says.

Who knows? Maybe 2,000-year-old Egyptian technology still has a thing or toe…er, two…to teach us today.

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