6000-Year-Old Skulls Contain Large Surgical Holes

May 3, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Human skull with trepanation.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These dangerous operations may have been performed for ritual, not medical, purposes

Skulls containing large surgical holes have been uncovered throughout most of the world, with the earliest evidence dating back more than 7000 years. The procedure, called trepanation, involved drilling or scraping an opening into the skull. The reasoning behind these mysterious cranial openings is usually elusive, but it has been proposed that they might have been intended for either medical or ritual purposes.

Researchers examining trepanated skulls that were excavated from ancient sites in southern Russia have recently found evidence suggesting the surgeries were done for purely ritualistic reasons. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

SEE ALSO: Mysterious Chimpanzee Behaviour May Be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals

Thirteen individuals alive around 6,000 and 4,000 years ago had surgical holes that were all curiously cut into precisely the same spot—the middle of the back of the head. This is thought to be one of the most dangerous places for this type of skull surgery.

Normally, ancient skull surgeries intended for medical purposes would involve holes on the sides of the head, near visible fractures, rather than at the back of the head. As the authors explain, the specific position of the holes indicates that these trepanations were made for ritualistic, rather than therapeutic reasons. CT scans and X-rays also revealed that none of the individuals had injuries or brain tumors that would have required surgical intervention.

Many of the individuals appear to have had special burials, suggesting that they ranked high in their societies. Archaeologists have speculated that trepanation was used in some ancient cultures to mark a rite of passage into a new social role.

“There may have been an original medical purpose for these trepanations, which over time changed to a symbolic treatment,” archaeologist Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin and lead author of the study told Science News.

The researchers established that both males and female received the operations from as young as 10 years of age and into adulthood.

Though the findings suggest that these trepanations were intended for ritual purposes, the specific meaning that they had for people living in southern Russia at the time remains a mystery.

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