The oldest allusion to a prosthesis is found in the Rigveda, a collection of Sanskrit songs that was probably composed sometime between 1700 and 1100 B.C., making it one of the oldest extant texts of any Indo-European language. The story of Vishpala is told, in which the woman warrior loses a leg during a night-time battle, and she is given a “leg of iron” so that she can continue running. The Egyptians used them, as did Romans and Greeks; jointed prostheses began to appear surprisingly early, with functional extremities appearing as early as the 1500s, though the definition of “functional” is a loose one… it may simply mean that it enabled them to become mobile again, or at least appear physically “whole”. Considering the fact that even up into the 18th century the most common way of treating an injury (mangling, or injury from a gunshot wound or ship’s accident) was to saw the limb off (and usually without any anesthetic except a bottle of rum), it’s a good thing they developed a way of compensation, though usually only the more wealthy could afford a limb that would actually do them any good.
I speak from personal experience, having had a rib removed for major surgeries as a child: a missing limb that was once linked to the brain through the nervous system is missed indeed; phantom pains are unstoppable by conventional medicine because the nerve irritated might by signaled from the bottom of a foot that no longer exists to be massaged, or for medication to reach. While the examples below are surprisingly complex ones, keep in mind that during periods of upheaval such as war or natural disaster when large numbers of amputees occurred at once, the demand far outstripped the production and cheap solutions (read “wooden peg”) were far more common.
With that in mind, enjoy a few historical images of prostheses. And attached to each of the images is a video, taking you back in time through the history of prosthetics and the people who have made and worn them.
A shy woman and her full artificial leg (1890-1900)
An antique prosthetic leg
Artificial legs, UK, ca. 1890
Wooden prosthetic hand (1800)