HISTORY LESSON

So You Wanna Buy a Fake Leg?

An ancient prosthesis found in China is an old reminder of just how far things have come in the technology for fake body parts.

01.17.16 5:15 AM ET

Excavations of an ancient tomb near Turpan, China, have uncovered the 2,200-year-old remains of a man buried with a hoof-tipped prosthetic limb. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Chinese Archeology, researchers wrote that the man’s natural leg had become deformed so that the bones were fused together at an angle of 80 degrees and could not be straightened. The unusual poplar wood prosthesis allowed the wearer to walk and, perhaps, even ride a horse.

The discovery offers a rare glimpse into the technology of prosthesis in the ancient world. The lack of antibiotics in the pre-modern world meant that numerous infections and accidents resulted in amputation. While as many people died during treatment as did from their initial injury, this meant that many people lived their lives absent a hand, leg, or foot. 

For the wealthy, there were prosthetic options. The Roman historian Pliny tells us that the hero M. Sergius Silus lost his right hand in battle and replaced it with an iron hand before proceeding with his glittering military career. And at least one example of an elaborate bronze prosthetic leg—known as the Capua leg—has survived from antiquity. But for the majority of people, the only options were peg-legs and crutches. Even the wheelchair is associated with the wealthy: the first recorded example was constructed for Philip II of Spain. One of the wealthiest men in the American colonies, George Washington, was able to build his famed dentures from teeth bought from African slaves.

The technology of prosthesis has developed rapidly in the past 200 years. Amputations performed as the result of injuries in the Civil War propelled the prosthetics industry forward. The government’s commitment to providing prostheses for all veterans led to a very particular kind of “arms race.” The introduction of rubber in the manufacturing of hands in 1863 and the use of hinges by veteran confederate soldier turned entrepreneur Edward Hanger, led to light, more useful prostheses. By the 1960s, artificial limbs were operated by carbon dioxide cylinders. Today, companies like Altimate Medical manufacture “standers” to assist wheelchair users with standing and “gliding”; and the i-limb, a bionic prosthetic arm, almost perfectly replicates the function of biological hands. Each finger operates independently and the thumb is rotatable through 90 degrees. It is controlled by electrical impulses created by contracting muscles. Recent candidates for its use include those who had lost the use of a hand and elected to have their hand amputated and replaced by this bionic version. There are now even functional bionic penises.

That people are electing to have their hands removed in favor of bionic alternatives raises interesting questions about the purpose of prosthesis and the differences between remedying functional impairments and producing super-abilities. If the purpose of prosthesis is to improve bodily functionality, can we think of Viagra as a kind of prosthesis? 

Prosthesis is valorized by Iron Man, but raises anxiety about man ceding control to machine in Robocop. Even biological prostheses like organ transplants cause anxieties about identity and “interfering” in the divine plan. There’s no shortage of B-movies in which transplanted limbs take on a murderous life of their own (full disclosure: I’m a kidney transplant recipient. My kidney has not killed anyone, yet).

Then there’s the larger question of whether or not prosthesis is about functionality at all. Many modern prostheses—wheelchairs, ventilators, artificial limbs, iphones, etc.—are about improving functionality, but others are about aesthetics. This was the case even in the ancient world.  While some ancient prosthetics—like the recently discovered prosthetic from China or a papier-mâché toe from ancient Egypt—show signs of wear and tear, others, like the ancient artificial bronze leg from Capua, Italy, seem to have been constructed purely for show. 

And there’s no shortage of medical bodily modifications today that are about aesthetics. Breast augmentation is, medically speaking, unnecessary. It can be enormously positive for those who undergo it, but in terms of functionality it is rarely about enabling a person to accomplish a task that was previously impossible. Rather, it is about reassurance, individual comfort, and conforming the body to a socially constructed “norm.” These are critically important things for those who elect to undergo the surgery, but they also raise questions. Are silicone implants about the patient or society? The same thing can be said about those in the ancient world who used non-functioning prostheses or those today who have ocular implants to replace damaged eyeballs. Is what disables these people their own bodies or a broader culturally derived sense of what a normal body should be? It seems to me that it’s often the latter. 

This might all seem abstract or remote. After all, for the majority of us the world of prosthesis might seem far away—a sort of curiosity or exercise in human ingenuity. The unsettling reality is that we are all dependent on technology in ways that we weren’t 20 years ago. Take smartphones, Fitbits, and other technological devices that render us more knowledgeable and “hooked in.” Skills like map-reading, memorization, accumulation of knowledge, and so forth are rendered moot through the combined powers of Google and unlimited data plans. There’s no shortage of those of us who say, somewhat flippantly, that we “can’t live” without our phones. The existential angst caused by lost Fitbit steps is not to be underestimated. And there’s an unsettling truth to the memes that rank WiFi and battery life alongside oxygen as a basic need. Ultimately, maybe we live in the age of prostheses.