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Why Our Ancestors Drilled Holes in Each Other's Skulls

Photo by Disparkys (Flickr)

by Natalia Dec

Human prehistory is characterised by its many uncommon medical practices, and one of the most  well-known is trepanation. A sort of surgical procedure, it involved drilling, scraping or cutting away bone layers in the human skull to form holes. Despite its crude nature, trepanation has prevailed for a long time, with thousands of trepanned skulls discovered at various historical sites around the world.

The earliest example of clear trepanation dates to approximately over 7,000 years ago. The procedure was found to be practiced in various locations with drastically different cultural backgrounds, such as Ancient Greece, North and South America, Polynesia, Africa and the Far East; it is therefore thought that it developed independently throughout the world. Though trepanation had been largely abandoned by most people by the time of the Middle Ages, some isolated areas in Polynesia and Africa were still carrying it out by the early 20th century.

However, despite its popularity and thousands of years of history, it is still largely unclear why trepanation was carried out and why it persisted as a medical practice for such a long period of time. Some of the first 19th century scholars to study trepanation with scientific methods have proposed that ancient societies utilised trepanation as a form of channel for spirits to pass into or out of the body, or as a type of initiation rite. There is also evidence that trepanation was used to aid in pain or healing, or to fight disease and traumatic injuries. Many trepanned skulls, upon analysis, showed signs of neurological disease and cranial injury, most often in the same region where the trepanation hole could be found.

In 1997, archaeologists were excavating a burial site close to Rostov-on-Don, a city in Southern Russia. Skeletal remains of 35 humans dating back to the Copper Age were found. It is this discovery which jump-started and gave us deeper insight into prehistoric trepanation. Out of the 35 skeletal remains, five showed signs of unusual trepanation made above the obelion point—a point on the skull where a high ponytail would usually be located. Elena Batieva, an anthropologist at the Southern Federal University, quickly identified that the opening of the skull in this location would lead, in most cases, to death or severe haemorrhage. So far, there had only been one other recorded case of obelion trepanation from ancient Russia, excavated at a site close to Rostov-on-Don. Only 1% of trepanations are recorded to be located above the obelion point.

This discovery and statistics suggest that inhabitants of Ancient Russia must have had good reasons to perform such a dangerous procedure—however, none of the five skulls showed signs of disease or injury apart from trepanation marks, and research into them was abandoned until a later date.

In 2011, an international archaeological team was analysing human skeletons found in three Copper Age burial sites close to Rostov-on-Don. Out of 137, nine showed signs of trepanation, and out of those, five had marks of damage or disease. However, the remaining four seemed to show no signs of bad health before they were trepanned, and all had holes located above the obelion point. Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, an expert on trepanation, believes that trepanation in those highly selective and dangerous areas of the skull may have been utilised to trigger some form of ‘transformation’ in the person, possibly gaining unique skills or experiences that other people did not possess. The fact that the skulls were all discovered in the same small area of Southern Russia shows that it may have been a hub for ritual trepanation, therefore providing further clues about its practices and origins.

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