Pierpaolo Petruzziello’s head is bowed in concentration. The desk before him is littered with wires and miscellaneous plastic connectors. Away, more than a body length away, a robotic hand is slowly opening and closing in various gestures. A closed fist, an open palm, a peace sign, an okay gesture. It’s powered only through Petruzziello’s thoughts. The whole scene seems oddly calm for what is actually one of the most exciting medical projects ever undertaken.
Neuroprosthetics are revolutionizing the idea of limb replacement therapy. Awkward mechanical gestures can be replaced through nervous impulse, opening up incredible ranges of dexterity and even returning a sense of touch. Furthermore, transhumanists have embraced these projects as examples of what further human-computer synergies can accomplish.
It is easy to assume, then, that prosthetics are a new development. However, they are as old as medicine itself.
The earliest records come from the Sanskrit Vedas of India. In Book 1, Hymn 116 it is said:
When in the time of night, in Khela’s battle, a leg was severed like a wild bird’s pinion,
Straight ye gave Viśpalā a leg of iron that she might move what time the conflict opened.
If this is true then this artificial lower leg would have to be nearly four thousand years old; the Rig Veda was compiled between 3,500 and 1,800 BC. However, even though it was made of heavy iron, there is no physical evidence to back up this claim, leaving this in the realm of fiction. However, it does show that people were thinking of replacing lost limbs, even then.
For physical evidence we’ll have to turn to the Egyptians. Similar to the Indian’s, they had great skill at medical procedures. Amputations were well-known and practiced if gangrene or traumatic injury occurred. Sometimes replacement limbs were placed in tombs or graves in the hope that the real limb would be reunited or recreated in the afterlife. However, one specific mummy from the New Kingdom (circa 800 BC) near Luxor was actually found wearing a working artificial toe.
These are the two earliest known accounts of prostheses. From here both the frequency and geographic range of reports expand. Herodotus (424 BC) wrote about a Persian prisoner who was forced to amputate his own foot and fashion a crude prosthetic in order to escape the Spartans. A wood, bronze, and iron leg known as the Capua Leg was unearthed in Italy dating back to 300 BC. And during the Second Punic War (218-210 BC) one particular general, sans arm, marched into battle with an iron one instead (it even had a shield attached).
After the fall of the Roman Empire prosthetics, like most sciences, stagnated. Hook hands and peg legs were the name of the game, although these were restricted to those that could afford them. Some impressive works of craftsmanship did occur, but it wasn’t until the Renaissance that major leaps were seen. Here is where we see actual articulation and mobility enter into the picture. Straps, latches, and springs allowed artificial limbs to perform simple actions. From here major advances continued to be made, more of which can be read about here at the Amputee Coalation’s website and amazing pictures can be found here at the BBC, including the aforementioned Luxor toe and Capua leg.
We take our bodies for granted. But when trauma or sickness removes our physical agency the reality of our dependence returns. Our arms and legs are an intimate part of us and we miss them when they are gone. This feeling must be both ancient and true in every culture. It is not hard to understand why prosthetics have been around since we could even imagine their existence.