Dr Jacky Finch at the University of Manchester has been studying a couple ancient Egyptian wooden toes to find out whether they are the world’s oldest known prostheses or are simply aesthetic devices from a time when everyone wore sandals. One of the toes, made of leather and wood found on a female mummy, is dated between 950 and 710 BC, while another that’s composed of linen, glue and plaster goes back to at least 600 BC.
Dr Finch and her team made replicas of the devices and found a couple volunteers with missing toes for whom such prostheses might be useful. They then had the subjects use the artificial toes while wearing their own shoes as well as sandals similar to those worn in ancient Egypt. By filming the volunteers’ walking gait using 10 video cameras and then questioning them about the perceived benefit of the prostheses, the team has concluded that these devices actually helped their wearers walk with more ease and comfort.
From University of Manchester:
It was surprising how well both volunteers were able to walk using these devices although one volunteer performed much better than the other. The camera footage revealed that when wearing the sandals with the cartonnage replica, one of the volunteers achieved 87% of the flexion achieved by their normal left toe. The three part wood and leather design producing nearly 78%. Interestingly the ability to push off using the prosthetic toe was not as good when this volunteer wasn’t wearing the sandals. The second volunteer was still able to produce between 60-63% flexion wearing the replicas with or without the sandals.
When wearing the replicas the pressure measurements showed that for both volunteers there were no overly high pressure points. This indicated that the false toes were not causing any undue discomfort or possible tissue damage. However, when the volunteers wore just the replica sandals without the false toes the pressure being applied under the foot rose sharply.
Alongside the test data Dr Finch also asked her volunteers to fill in a questionnaire about how they felt when doing the trials in the gait laboratory. Despite it having performed well the comfort scores for the cartonnage replica were disappointing although it was felt to be an excellent cosmetic replacement. Describing the performance of the three part wooden and leather toe both volunteers found this one to be extremely comfortable, scoring it highly, one volunteer commenting that with time he could get used to walking in it.
University of Manchester: Egyptian Toes Likely to be the World’s Oldest Prosthetics
Study abstract in Journal of Prosthetics and Orthotics: Biomechanical Assessment of Two Artificial Big Toe Restorations From Ancient Egypt and Their Significance to the History of Prosthetics