Planet Earth

Bronze Age Brain Surgeon: Volcanic Glass Scalpel, Please

DiscoblogBy Joseph CalamiaAug 31, 2010 3:44 PM

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Move over, Dr. Quinn. Sure, the fictional television doctor could perform surgeries in the Old West using nothing more than a spoon--but one researcher now argues that inhabitants of a small village in Turkey sliced skulls over 4,000 years ago, using shards of volcanic glass. Working in a Bronze Age graveyard in Ikiztepe, Turkey, archaeologist Önder Bilgi has uncovered 14 skulls with rectangular cut marks. He believes the Ikiztepe people used obsidian "scalpels," found elsewhere on the site, to treat brain tumors and fight-related head injuries, and to relieve pressure from hemorrhaging. Bilgi also told New Scientist, which has a complete interview, that the skulls' healing indicates that some patients survived at least two years after their surgeries. Though this isn't the oldest evidence of brain surgery (researchers have found a hole drilled into a Neolithic skull), Bilgi argues that the Ikiztepe rectangular skull openings are much more "sophisticated." Bilgi, who in an earlier study analyzed arsenic absorption in Ikiztepe bones to determine their metalworking skills, toldNew Scientist that the tools themselves aren't too worse for multiple millennial wear:

"The blades are double-sided, about 4 centimetres [1.6 inches] long, and very, very sharp. They would still cut you today."

Related content: Discoblog: Brain Surgery Enables Woman to Run 100-Mile Races Discoblog: Why Michael Jackson Might Be Buried Without His Brain Discoblog: Military Members to Donate Their Brains to Science Discoblog: Will Drilling a Hole in Your Head Cure Alzheimer’s?

Image: flickr / Mykl Roventine

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