A superbly preserved artificial big toe found strapped to the mummified remains of an Egyptian woman is the oldest functional prosthesis ever found, experts said Monday.
Discovered in 2000 near Luxor in the necropolis of Thebes, the wood-and-leather device belonged to Tabaketenmut, a high priest's daughter who lived between 950 and 710 BC.
That would easily make it the most ancient replacement limb known, several centuries older that the Roman-era bronze-and-wood leg unearthed from a burial site near Capua, Italy.
But only testing on live patients could confirm that it was a genuine prosthesis - designed not just as an ornament for the afterlife, but as a practical aide for walking.
Jacqueline Finch, a researcher at the University of Manchester, did just that with two volunteers with disabilities not unlike that of Tabaketenmut, who may have lost her right big toe to gangrene caused by diabetes.
Finch made reproductions of the ersatz big toe, as well as second one from the Thebes site confected from papier mache, plaster and animal glue.
Wearing replicas of ancient Egyptian sandals, the volunteers - fitted with highly sensitive pressure gauges - then strode down a special walkway monitored by a battery of video cameras.
"The big toe is thought to carry some 40 percent of the body's weight and is responsible for forward propulsion," Finch explained in statement.
"To accurately determine any level of function requires the application of gait analysis techniques."
The results were nothing short of spectacular. Each of the toe testers said one or the other of the prostheses was "highly efficient," and both of them praised the wooden one as especially comfortable.
Tabaketenmut's toe was composed of two pieces of form-fitted wood drilled with small lacing holes and stitched together with leather thread, showing a keen awareness of anatomy.
"Whoever made such devices in ancient times would have also discussed the fit and feel in consultation with their 'patients'," Finch concluded.
"It would appear that the first glimmers of this branch of medicine should be firmly laid at the feet of the ancient Egyptians."
The study was published in the British medical journal The Lancet.