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Cairo Toe

False toes helped ancient Egyptians walk again

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Two artificial big toes – one found attached to the foot of an ancient Egyptian mummy – may have been the world’s earliest functional prosthetic body parts.

Dr Jacky Finch holding the two replicas. Credit: University of Manchester

Dr Jacky Finch holding the two replicas. Credit: University of Manchester

University of Manchester researcher, Dr Jacky Finch, has shown that a three-part wood and leather artefact housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, along with a second one, the Greville Chester artificial toe on display in the British Museum, not only looked the part but also helped their toe-less owners walk.

The toes date from before 600 BCE, pre-dating what was hitherto thought to be the earliest known practical prosthesis, the Roman Capua leg which dated to c. 300 BCE.  Unfortunately, the Capua leg was burned when the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons was bombed in World War II.

Dr Finch, who is based in the University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, recruited two volunteers whose right big toe had been lost in order to test replicas of the artificial toes in the Gait Laboratory at Salford University’s Centre for Rehabilitation and Human Performance Research.

Writing in the Lancet, Dr Finch said: “To be classed as true prosthetic devices any replacement must satisfy several criteria. The material must withstand bodily forces so that it does not snap or crack with use. Proportion is important and the appearance must be sufficiently lifelike as to be acceptable to both the wearer and those around them. The stump must also be kept clean, so it must be easy to take on and off. But most importantly it must assist walking.”

The three-part wood and leather artefact housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Credit: Egyptian Museum

The three-part wood and leather artefact housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Credit: Egyptian Museum


The big toe is thought to carry some 40% of the bodyweight and is responsible for forward propulsion, although those without it can adapt their movement.  To accurately determine a level of function requires the application of gait analysis techniques involving integrated cameras and pressure devices placed along a walkway in the laboratory.

The volunteers were asked to wear the toes with replica Egyptian sandals and, while neither design was expected to perform exactly like a real big toe, one of the volunteers was able to walk extremely well with both artificial toes.  No significant elevation in pressure under the foot was recorded for either toe, although both volunteers said they found the Cairo toe particularly comfortable.

Greville Chester artificial toe from the British Museum. Credit: University of Manchester

Greville Chester artificial toe from the British Museum. Credit: University of Manchester

The Greville Chester toe which even includes an indentation that likely held an ornamental toenail is made from cartonnage – a kind of papier mâché made of linen and animal glue covered in tinted plaster -  and shows considerable signs of wear, while the Cairo toe has specific design features, such as a simple hinge, a chamfered front edge and a flattened underside.

The wear on the Greville Chester toe and the important design features on the Cairo toe led Finch to speculate that these toes were perhaps worn by their owners in life and not simply attached to the foot during mummification for religious or ritual reasons.

Although these prosthetics have been known for many years,  it was only when they were able to test replicas of both toes using volunteers under laboratory conditions, that it was proved they could indeed help their owners to walk and be used in life as functional items.

Finch’s  findings strongly suggest that both of these designs were capable of functioning as replacements for the lost toe and so could indeed be classed as prosthetic devices.

Both prostheses allowed the volunteers to walk, and although the wooden toe provided more comfort, the cartonnage toe granted greater mobility.

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