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Archaeologists announced they found the remains of a Samaritan warrior who likely died as a result of brain surgery that apparently failed. Brain surgery is performed for many reasons, whether to remove a tumor or relieve pressure on the brain, and it’s a scary procedure for all patients, even in today’s technologically advanced world. With little knowledge of anatomy or how to prevent infection, could you imagine what our ancient ancestors thought when doctors of their time wanted to drill holes into their patients’ skulls for medical or ritual reasons?
The procedure, called trepanning (also trepanation), involves drilling or scraping holes into the skull at various locations depending on the reason for the procedure. Archaeologists have found evidence of trepanation for both medical reasons and mystical reasons in skulls recovered from sites worldwide including South America, China, Russia, Europe, Scandinavia, and even North America. This most recent find is from Russia.
Researchers say between 5 and 10 percent of skulls they’ve found during the Neolithic period contain evidence of trepanation. The Neolithic period dates from about 12,000 and 4,000 years ago.
Today, surgeons call the procedure a craniotomy. although it’s done a bit differently. Instead of drilling a hole, surgeons remove a piece of bone and replace it as soon as possible afterward. The procedure is performed in modern times to treat such conditions as brain tumors, lesions, and even aneurysms.
The current find came as the result of a landowner in the Astrakhan region of Russia who decided to dig a pit for garbage on his land. He found a bronze pot, and gold and silver artifacts. When archaeologists began excavating the site, they found two graves. One of an adult male and another of a toddler.
The remains date to about 200 C.E., and the man’s grave contained:
“…A short sword with no hilt in a sheath made of orange-coloured leather, and a quiver with a set of arrowheads.”
The child buried next to him was wearing gold earrings, as well as necklaces and a bracelet, both made with precious stones and the necklace also with glass, coral, and cornelian. This is in addition to the other artifacts inside this grave that weren’t worn.
The researchers believe the two to be “elites,” or of a royal Samaritan lineage, even though the adult was a warrior. The Samaritans were a nomadic people who lived in the Eurasian Steppes and “regularly raided the Roman Empire” with their heavy cavalry. When archaeologists found the graves, they had initially thought that the adult was killed as a result of battle, and that was where the holes in his skull came from. When examined closer, they concluded that a failed brain surgery was the likely culprit.
Damir Solovyev, an archaeologist, said:
“The edges of the hole have no traces of bone tissue regrowth, which means that the man likely died during the operation.”
However, while the trepanation may have been initially performed on people for medical reasons, as this one likely was, one archaeologist, Dr. Julie Gresky, believes the reason behind the surgeries likely changed over time. She believes they may have been performed as symbolic treatments.
Surprisingly, in Paracas, in southern Peru, survival rates were about 40 percent, and in other areas of Peru, survival rates pushed over 70 percent, according to Tulane University’s John Verano, who wrote a book on the procedure. Overall, the survival rate was between 40 and 65 percent worldwide. They came to this conclusion because, at various sites worldwide, skulls show evidence that the patients often survived the surgeries, as the bone showed signs of having healed. In fact, some skulls had multiple, healed, holes in them.
The earliest written account of the procedure shows up in the Hippocratic corpus. Archaeologists and surgeons continue to be surprised at how the ancients performed the procedure in a remarkably similar way as was described. The earliest trepanations were performed using various objects to create the holes. Some cultures used obsidian and flint others used shells. Peruvian surgeons used a knife called a tumi. These objects were used until Hippocratic school invented a drill, called a trepine, with which to perform the procedure.
According to Russian research, cannabis and “magic mushrooms” were likely used as a sort of anesthetic, indicating that those who underwent the procedure were likely awake throughout. The use of the substances is also evidence of ritualistic reasons for the surgery.
Although the earliest known trepanations in Russia date to about 4,000 years ago, evidence shows that the procedure was performed thousands of years before that. Archaeologists so far date the earliest known skull with evidence of trepanation to about 11,000 years ago. These skulls were found at the excavation site of Asikli Hoyuk, which is in Turkey, in 2014.
More on ancient brain surgery from Weird World:
Image by Jordiferrer via Wikimedia Commons/CC-by-4.0