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A trepannated skull from Neolithic period

Evidence of successful brain surgery and ancient pharmaceutical warehouse found in Turkey

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Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of ancient surgery among the remains of people who lived in a settlement near Istanbul, Turkey, between the 11 th and 6 th centuries B.C. A skull, buried among the many remains undergoing excavation in the location of the ancient Roman city of Bathonea, was found to have been cut into, and examinations showed the patient survived the apparent surgery.

Excavation team member and forensic science expert Ömer Turan told Hurriyet Daily News , “The skull of this person, who is over the age of 30, was cut very regularly by medical workers, just like today’s brain surgeons. It is a painful process to open the skull. A person cannot tolerate this pain and should be anaesthetized, so this type of operation in such an early era makes us think there was a kind of anesthesia. Biological studies on the bones will enable us to find out which substance was used. The traces of recovery are apparent in the place of operation.”

Over 400 small bottles have been unearthed on site. Chemical examination revealed that these terracotta unguentarium had contained methanone, phenanthrene, and phenanthrene carboxylic acid. Study showed the bottles had been filled with the mixed chemicals deliberately, added with the use of specific calculations. These findings, and the quantity of bottles, led Turan and the excavation team to surmise the location was a production center. Turan told Hurriyet Daily News, “This place may be a drug production or storage center; like a pharmaceutical warehouse. There are studies related to the flora of the region. It is believed that this region was rich in plant diversity. The stock of these drugs may be here.”

The chemicals found may have been used as anesthesia, painkillers, or narcotics; some are materials which prevent drug deterioration, and some have anesthetic properties. They are still used for similar purposes in modern medicine. Compounds may have made some of the skull or brain surgeries survivable, and provided a kind of pain management.

Roman Terracotta Unguentaria, fourth century B.C.

Roman Terracotta Unguentaria, fourth century B.C.  Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Evidence for early skull and brain surgery has also been found at the Asikli Hoyuk archaeological dig in Turkey. Researchers found skulls at Asikli Hoyuk demonstrating the earliest-known form of skull surgery . Trepanation, or drilling holes into the skull in an attempt to relieve or cure ailments or mental illness, has been found on skulls at the ancient Neolithic settlement.  However, it appears that such procedures had nothing to do with physical injury and it is not known why it was practiced. Some patients survived trepanning, and some did not. 

Neolithic burial at Aşıklı Höyük of remains in a fetal (hocker) position, arms embracing the legs.

Neolithic burial at Aşıklı Höyük of remains in a fetal (hocker) position, arms embracing the legs. Wikimedia, CC

The history of head surgery may date back to the late Stone Age. In 1998, archaeologists recovered human skulls on the Tibetan Plateau bearing healed cracks. Experts deduced that these 5,000 year old craniotomies were therapeutic, meant to heal the spirit, and not necessarily the body. Karma Trinley, associate professor of Tibetan language and literature at Tibet University told HISTORY, “Some believed it was a religious ritual to dispel evils or bring happiness, while others held that it was a therapy used by witches and wizards.” However, study of the 2,900-year-old Buddhist text, the Tibetan Tripitaka, suggests the ancient doctors in fact used brain surgery as a way to treat symptoms.

Since 2010 the Kocaeli University Department of Forensic Science has been conducting excavations at Bathonea in the Küçükçekmece lake basin in Turkey, and has unearthed almost 70 graves belonging to people of all ages. Forensic examinations show the early humans were tough people who worked hard and didn’t have much to eat, and as a result died early. Their bones reveal chronic health issues including rheumatism and arthritis, and they had backbone damage overall. Their teeth were worn from chewing tough, probably unbaked, food and grains.

A Neolithic grindstone for processing and grinding grains

A Neolithic grindstone for processing and grinding grains. Wikipedia, CC

The discovery of a successful brain operation from antiquity, and the details of the lives of the ancient residents of Bathonea serve to broaden modern understanding of ancient medicine, and the culture which depended upon it.

Featured Image: A trepannated skull from Neolithic period. The perimeter of the hole in the skull is rounded off by ingrowth of new bony tissue, indicating that the patient survived the operation. Wikimedia, CC

By Liz Leafloor

Comments

nisa burkay's picture

Very interesting article. I wonder what else will be found around the area.

Nisa Carroll Burkay

Interested in ancient facts and share too of my end....

While I have no doubt that phenanthrene and phenanthrene carboxylic acid may have been found, as it is fairly difficult to shove a ketone onto methane [CH4] as it has only one carbon molecule. Could they have been referring to acetaldehyde [C2H4o2] [which can be formed with a primitive distillation of vinegar] or more likely acetone [C3H6O]?

Wow, who knew my old organic chem would actually come in handy?

Roberto Peron's picture

More evidence that our ancestors were not the primitive spear throwing "savages" we have been told they were.

 

The Tibetan Tripitaka is not 2,900 years old. Even Buddhism is not 2,900 years old. Check your facts please.

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