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Ritually Motivated Traditions May Be Behind Holes Drilled into Skulls in Prehistoric Russia

Ritually Motivated Traditions May Be Behind Holes Drilled into Skulls in Prehistoric Russia

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Researchers believe holes cut in people’s skulls more than 4,000 years ago in Russia involved some kind of rite rather than medical surgery. Amazingly, some of the people, who were apparently very important, survived the operation, which is known because the bone partly grew back.

The trepanation (also spelled trephination) was done to the backs of the skulls of 13 people whose remains were found at seven prehistoric sites in southwestern Russia, says ScienceNews.org in an article about the operations.

Archaeologist Julie Gresky and her colleagues reported their findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in April 2016. Dr. Gresky is with the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.

One of the skull holes from the current study.

One of the skull holes from the current study. ( German Archaeological Institute )

The researchers say these people had high social status, but one can’t help but wonder if they balked at having a rather large hole drilled in their skulls. The holes were about the size of American silver dollars or even larger.

Usually trepanation operations, which are known in other places in the ancient world too, are not done to the back of the skull. That location is a particularly dangerous operation, says Science News. They write:

“Carving a center hole in the back of peoples’ heads was a potentially fatal procedure. Surgeons would have needed to know precisely how deep to scrape or grind bone to avoid penetrating a blood-drainage cavity for the brain. They also had to know how to stop potentially fatal bleeding of veins nicked during surgery. The procedure must have been performed as fast as possible to minimize bleeding, the researchers suspect.”

“There may have been an original medical purpose for these trepanations, which over time changed to a symbolic treatment,” Dr. Gresky told Science News.

An example of a Nazca-Peruvian frontal trepanation from 2000 years ago.

An example of a Nazca-Peruvian frontal trepanation from 2000 years ago. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Eleven of the 13 skulls had signs of regrowth, which means the person survived and healed after the trepanation. Six of the victims were male and six were female, all between the ages of 20 and 40, and the sex of the 13th could not be determined. It is believed that some of the people received the operation when they were just 10 years old.

A Russian archaeologist who has studied trepanation at other sites, Maria Mednikova, told Science News that she agrees the reason for the skull-drilling in these cases was probably ritualistic. She also examined some of these same 13 skulls.

The researchers looked for medical reasons for the surgeries but found none. They used X-rays and CT scans to analyze the skulls but saw no evidence of tumors or injuries.

In other cases of ancient and prehistoric trepanation, “surgeons” drilled holes on the side of the head or near fractures from a blow. “It’s impossible to determine from bones whether trepanations were aimed at treating chronic headaches, epilepsy, psychological problems or difficulties attributed to evil spirits,” says Science News.

Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516). ( Public Domain )

Several of the people in this study were buried in ways that suggest they had high social status, Science News reports. At one site, seven skulls were buried in a pit in a group near limb-bone fragments that had incisions from apparent dismemberment before ritual burial. Five of these seven skulls had openings in the backs of their heads. A sixth had scrapes indicating a partial trepanation. Dr. Mednikova says partial trepanations probably had their own ritualistic significance.

Six other skulls found at the southern Russian sites were trepanned near fractures for apparent medical reasons, Dr. Gresky added.

Dr. Mednikova said we may never know the full reasoning behind the apparent ritualistic trepanations. “We don’t know the myths and religions of tribes that lived there 6,000 years ago,” she told Science News.

A trepanated skull of a girl from the neolithic period (3500 BC); the patient survived. Natural History Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland.

A trepanated skull of a girl from the neolithic period (3500 BC); the patient survived. Natural History Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

In February 2015 other Russian scientists announced they were examining ancient human skulls and testing bronze tools on the modern skull of a deceased person to see how doctors in Siberia about 2,300 to 2,500 years ago performed brain surgery on three adults.

It is still unknown what anesthetic, if any, was used to dull the pain during the surgery in ancient times. The ancient surgeries were carried out using the same principles as those found in the Hippocratic Corpus, which requires strict adherence to medical ethics and techniques. Hippocrates wrote the oath around 500 B.C.

The ancient doctor, or doctors, who performed the surgeries did them at a location on the skull that minimized damage to the brain and assured longer survival. It appears one of the men lived for years after the trepanation surgery because some of the bone grew back.

Featured Image: Example of a human skull with trepanation. Celtic museum in Hallein (Salzburg). Source: CC BY SA 3.0

By Mark Miller

Comments

Moonsong's picture

This was the ritual referred to in Philip Pullman’s Young Adult Trilogy of books ‘Northern Lights’. Very interesting.

- Moonsong
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A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

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