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Humans Have Been Hacking Their Bodies for Thousands of Years

From lion men to medieval wingsuits, we've long tried to ditch our meatbags.

by Becky Ferreira
Apr 14 2015, 1:30pm

​Iron prosthetic hand believed to have been owned by Götz von Berlichingen (1480–1562). Credit: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg

Body hacking seems like a modern technological concept, buoyed on by advances in robotic prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, and cyborgian literary themes. But the integration of non-human hardware into the body is actually among humanity's most primordial obsessions, and it has dominated our imaginations for tens of thousands of years.

For starters, take the "Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel," thought to be the oldest zoomorphic sculpture ever found. It was carved about 40,000 years ago in Germany, and depicts a human body casually topped off with lion's head.

The Lion Man. Credit: ​storebukkebruse

Concept pieces like this seem to indicate that our early ancestors were as restless about the limitations of the human body as we are today, and enjoyed beta-testing wildly imaginative hybrid species in their artwork and stories.

To that point, the Lion Man is far from the only zoomorphic figure that pops up in prehistoric artwork. From bison-men to the bizarre, multi-animal mashup known as the Sorcerer, pushing the limits of the human body—if only conceptually—has been a preoccupation of our species for a very long time.

Sketch of The Sorcerer. Credit. Clottes, J y Lewis-Williams/Breuil

The confidence to act on this urge also has deep roots in prehistory. There is, for example, the cross-cultural idea that wearing parts of an animal can confer its powers onto a person. This trope is called therianthropy, and it surfaces in everything from Navajo skinchanger tales to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus.

Indeed, the sheer pervasiveness of therianthropes across cultures, eras, and regions suggests that early humans were universally inspired to imitate other creatures. It's no wonder, then, that the first body hacks our species ever attempted involved appropriating the body parts of dead animals into clothing and weaponry.

For example, wearing wolf pelts or deer hides allowed for warmth and stealth in our pre-agricultural years, while wearing antlers and other decorative animal parts was common in shamanic and religious rituals involving zoomorphic transmutation. This was the definitely the most primitive version of body hacking, to be sure, but for early humans, it demonstrated an important truth—the performance of the human body could be enhanced with non-human accoutrements.

This idea was taken to its next logical conclusion with the advent of prosthetics, which dates back about 2,600 years to ancient Egypt. Recently, scientists confirmed that an artificial toe belonging to an Egyptian noblewoman named Tabeketenmut is the world's oldest prosthetic. Estimated to have been crafted sometime between 950 to 710 BC, the wooden toe was found strapped to Tabeketenmut's mummified foot.

The oldest prosthetic. Credit: Jon Bodsworth

It's likely that the original toe was lost to gangrene, and she wore the prosthetic to stabilize her gait. This technological fix appears to have been somewhat common in ancient Egypt, because other similarly designed foot prosthetics have been found by archeologists from the same period.

Once this prosthetic foot was in the door, so to speak, other body part replacements begin to turn up in historical accounts from the ancient world. For instance, Pliny the Elder wrote an incredibly badass account of the Roman general Marcus Sergius, who fought against Hannibal's forces in the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BCE).

"Nobody—at least in my opinion—can rightly rank any man above Marcus Sergius," wrote Pliny in his book Natural History.

"In his second campaign, Sergius lost his right hand," he continues. "He had a right hand made of iron for him and, going into battle with this bound to his arm, raised the siege of Cremona, saved Placentia, and captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul."

In his account, Pliny describes Sergius's life as if it's a ready-made Zack Snyder action sequence, complete with horses being stabbed out from underneath him and death-defying escapes from Hannibal himself, who Pliny correctly pegs as "no ordinary foe."

But it is the detail about Sergius's iron hand that really makes the general's life story pop. Not only does it mark the first account of a prosthetic hand in history, but Pliny seems to suggest that this body enhancement is an asset—perhaps even superior to the flesh-and-bone appendage that preceded it. Plus, it is evocative as hell to imagine Sergius running out onto the battlefield equipped with his skull-crushing, shield-wielding metal hand like a Roman riff on Evil Dead's Ash.

The fact that Pliny seems so starstruck by Sergius suggests that a latent fascination with metal-flesh interfaces was developing in the ancient world. This spilled over from prosthetics into armored exoskeletons—humanity's first stab at mech suits. Ranging in complexity from chainmail to the hulking full plate armor associated with medieval knights, the advent of sophisticated armor further validated of the idea that our meatbag bodies can be made less vulnerable with a technological boost.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone applied this train of thought to flight. If the human body could be augmented with prosthetics and strengthened with armor, then why treat the sky as a limit? Many early engineers tried to emulate the flight of birds by building feathered wingsuits, and testing their capabilities by base-jumping off of towers.

The first recorded attempt to achieve flight with scaled-up wings occurred in 852, when the daredevil Armen Firman cinched himself into a wingsuit made of vulture feathers and jumped off a tower in Cordoba, Spain. The wings didn't work as smoothly as he would have liked, but they broke his fall somewhat, and Firman is said to have sustained only minor injuries.

The English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury also attempted to pull a Daedalus in the 11th century, which was deemed "a deed of remarkable boldness" by William of Malmesbury (1095-1143).

Stained glass portrait of Eilmer of Malmesbury. Credit: Radicalrobbo

"He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong," Malmesbury explains in his book The Chronicles of the Kings of England.

"But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after," he continues. "He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail."

If only we could send some videos of these insane modern wingsuits back in time to Eilmer of Malmesbury, he might not have been quite so discouraged.

All of these diverse attempts to improve upon the natural human continued to mature significantly over the centuries, as did the fictional narratives surrounding them. One particularly pertinent example is Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Man That Was Used Up," which is about a war hero composed entirely of prosthetics. It is one of the first stories to toy with the cyborgian idea of differentiating human from machine.

But even so, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that the idea of actually integrating technology into the body, as opposed to bolstering the body with exterior hardware, began to take hold as the central crux of modern body hacking.

This idea is a natural extension of several groundbreaking technologies, ranging from organ and joint transplants to humanoid robotic displays and advances in genetics and computer science. All of these new industries and ideas have produced a cacophony of interest in body enhancement that has since diversified into countless individual movements and communities, from cyborgian transhumanists to DIY biohackers to the weird world of plastic surgery novelties (looking at you, bagelheads).

(In fact, contemporary body hacking has become so expansive and that it is impossible to sum it all up in one article, which is why Motherboard has been featuring a whole spread of articles about this brave new world this week.)

From transplanting heads to hacking our bodies for outer space, the body enhancements that will be made possible by modern technology are truly beyond the scope of our ancestors' wildest dreams—and that is saying something, because as you'll recall, they were dreaming up all kinds of weird stuff.

Humanity has come a long way from wooden toes and vulture wingsuits. Now, after tens of thousands of years of experimentation, the twilight years of our natural meatbag bodies may finally be upon us.

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.

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