Drilling holes in the skulls of living people, known as trepanning, is one of the oldest, and most widely used surgical procedures in history. The earliest known example comes from a Neolithic burial site in France and dates to over 7,000 years old, but many variations of the technique have been identified in ancient civilisations as widespread as China and Peru.
Understandably, it’s a complex and highly risky procedure, and was often only employed as a medical practice to relieve pressure after an injury, or as spiritual procedure for the expulsion of demons. [See: Trepanation: A How-To Guide]
Now, a new study carried out by archaeologist Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute, claims another motive behind the practice, one that’s purely ‘ritual’.
Dating from 6,000-4,000 years old, the skulls of 13 individuals, each displaying surgical holes, were gathered from seven ancient sites in south west Russia. Each skull displayed a large, circular hole in exactly the same spot on the back of the head, but curiously CT scans and analyses of the bone found no evidence of injuries or medical conditions which could have led to the surgery, suggesting it could have been done for appearance alone.
The back of the skull isn’t typically an area that we see trepanations in ancient cultures, and would have been a dangerous and potentially fatal procedure. The surgeons would have needed to be extremely precise to avoid hitting major blood vessels and brain tissue, and had to know how to stop potentially fatal bleeding if they did!
The identical positioning of these holes, and the lack of injuries present, has led the researcher to speculate whether the holes were drilled for a symbolic purpose or as a marker for social status within the community.
Some of the individuals were interred in what could be interpreted as high status burials. The skulls of seven people at one site, five of which showed this form of trepanning, were buried grouped together in a pit near bundled fragments of limb bones, which had been placed in a special display. Incisions on the limb bones indicate that bodies had been dismembered after death before being ritually buried.
It’s entirely possible that this form of surgery served as a marker of social rank, or indicated a specific role within these societies. But, why use a potentially fatal method as an identifier? Were the people who underwent this surgery given a choice, or even expected to live afterwards?
Incredibly, though, it seems that many did survive! Out of the 13 skulls studied, 11 show signs of bone healing and regrowth after the operation. How long they survived after the surgery is unclear; most individuals in the sample died between the ages of 20 and 40, but had evidently lived long enough for the regrowth to occur.
One female is estimated to have died between the ages of 14 and 16, suggesting she may have been as young as 10 when the surgery took place. Could this perhaps indicate the process was part of a rite of passage?
Though the skulls show no tangible evidence for illness, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the trepanations were aimed at treating illnesses that leave no physical marker, like headaches, epilepsy, or psychological problems.
Gresky also suggests that trepanation may have originated as a medical procedure within these societies, and evolved over time into a symbolic treatment or marker of status.
As usual, a story like this has created more questions than it’s answered, but whatever the reason for these trepanations, it’s clear that these ancient societies were skilled at carrying out these highly complex procedures.
For those that lived, it’s possible that their status in society was in some way changed or enforced because of their very survival, whether the surgery was initially carried out for medical reasons or for motives less tangible. We may never know.
H/T: Science News
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