Prosthetics in Ancient Egypt

Today, prosthetics is a booming research area, as scientists are edging us closer to a Star Wars future of fully functional artificial hands, but the field has a long history, too. In fact, it may have just gotten a little longer. Scientists from the University of Manchester in England report that an artificial toe attached to the foot of a mummy in the Cairo Museum could be the oldest known functional prosthetic body part.

Previously, an artificial leg dating to 300 BC held that honor, but this ancient construction, known as the Greville Chester Great Toe, could be as many as 700 years older. Attached to the mummy's foot via leather, the toe itself is a cosmetically impressive creation of a kind of paper mache. And though it does look realistic, the Manchester scientists think it may have been functional, too. The toe itself shows some wear, suggesting that the mummified female, who was roughly 60 when she died, used it for some time.

To test this part of their theory, the group is working with the Human Performance Laboratory at the nearby University of Salford. They will test precise replicas on human subjects with missing toes, and determine based on that whether this ancient prosthetic was used for more than just looks.—Gregory Mone

(Image credit: University of Manchester)