An artificial big toe attached to the foot of an ancient Egyptian mummy in Cairo could prove to be the world's earliest functional prosthetic body part, say scientists. ((University of Manchester/Canadian Press) )

A British researcher is taking steps to prove whether an artificial big toe found attached to the foot of an ancient Egyptian mummy is actually the world's earliest known functional prosthetic body part.

Known as the "Cairo toe," the wooden and leather appendage was on the mummified body of a woman discovered in a tomb from ancient Thebes, now modern-day Luxor in Egypt. Tests suggested the woman was aged 50 to 60 at the time of her death and may have lost the big toe because of diabetes.

Items buried with the woman, the wife of a high priest, suggest she lived between 1069 and 664 BC.

Since being unearthed by archeologists in 2000, there has been hot debate as to the artificial toe's function: was it intended for cosmetic purposes or did it actually help its wearer walk better?

Jacky Finch, who is working on her PhD at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, wants to settle that question once and for all.

Finch, who examined the intricately crafted artifact at its home in the Cairo Museum in March, is planning to test replicas of the replacement digit on volunteers who are also missing their right big toe to see how the prosthetics function and if they show wear and tear consistent with use in daily life.

Copies of another ancient Egyptian fake appendage — named the Greville Chester Great Toe after the collector who acquired it for the British Museum in 1881 — will also be put through their paces by Finch and her team. That toe was made from linen, animal glue and plaster, but is not jointed like the Cairo toe.

"There is a long history with the ancient Egyptians that they actually restored body parts on death, so they went into the afterlife complete," Finch said Thursday from Manchester, England. "So both of these, or maybe one of them, may well be a post-mortem restoration."

She said Egyptologists have found restored hand-crafted body parts on mummies, including arms, legs, feet, noses — even penises. "It was important to be able to procreate in the afterlife."

"But the [toe] in Cairo is a little bit more interesting, being in three pieces, and it may well have been worn in life…. It's a very, very beautiful piece."

The earliest known practical prosthesis is the bronze and wood Roman Capua Leg from 300 BC, which was destroyed when the Royal College of Surgeons in London was bombed during the Second World War.