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The Mystery of Trephination

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Mar 23, 2012 4:33 PMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


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Why did ancient peoples cut holes in their heads?

The Woman of Pritschoena died around 4,500 years ago in what's now Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Her skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a local archaeologist. Thanks to being buried in a gravel pit, her remains are exceptionally well preserved.

The Woman's skull is a fine example of trephination - the practice of deliberately cutting holes in the skull. She was trephined not once but twice, as you can see in the images above taken from a paper just out. In both cases, the skull around the hole shows clear evidence of healing, which shows that the Woman must have survived the procedures.

Trephination is a historical mystery. Stone-age peoples around the world were fond of doing it - trephinations have been found on skulls from Europe, the Americas and Asia. The authors of this paper say that there are records of at least 800 trephined skulls.

In some parts of Europe, it seems that the survival rate for the operation was over 90%. It was a delicate procedure, with stone tools used to carefully scrape away and remove the bone without damaging the tissue underneath. But no-one knows why they did it. Some argue that it may have been used as a treatment for epilepsy or mental illness, but it's impossible to really know what it was meant to achieve.

Alfieri, A., Strauss, C., Meller, H., Stoll-Tucker, B., Tacik, P., and Brandt, S. (2012). The Woman of Pritschoena: An Example of the German Neolithic Neurosurgery in Saxony-Anhalt Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 21 (2), 139-146 DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2011.575117

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