Skull found of 5,000-year-old man who had ancient brain surgery with stone ‘scalpel’

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Skull found of 5,000-year-old man who had ancient brain surgery with stone ‘scalpel’

The Stone Age man died from the surgery attempt – but scientists say recipients of ancient brain operations actually astonishingly often survived the procedure

Russian archaeologists have unearthed the skull of a man who underwent ancient brain surgery 5,000 years ago.

The skull bore signs of an ancient form of surgery

Trepanation is a now well-known ancient surgery technique where a hole is made in the skull, and archaeologists matched pictures of the unearthed skull with 3D imagery to deduce that this poor man – likely in his 20s – had undergone the procedure.

The skull and the bones of the rest of the Bronze Age torso were found in a deep grave in the Crimea region of Russia, alongside two flint arrowheads.

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“The ancient ‘doctor’ definitely had a ‘surgical set’ of stone tools,” said the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

Scientists said ancient surgery was sometime carried out for spiritual reasons

“Judging by the position of the bones, the body of the deceased was carefully laid on its back, slightly turned on its left side, the legs were strongly bent at the knees and turned to the left,” they added.

The size of the trepanation was 140 x 125 millimetres and the institute also explained that there were large fragments of red pigment found near the head and on the vault of the skull.

Dr Maria Dobrovolskaya, head of the Laboratory of Contextual Anthropology, said: “This young man was unlucky.

“Despite the fact that the survival rate after trepanation was very high even in ancient times, he apparently died shortly after the surgery.

The ancient gravesite unearthed in Crimea

“This is evidenced by the absence of obvious traces of healing.

“Traces of a trepanation instrument are clearly visible on the surface of the bone.

“Paradoxically, this is a rarity, since most people in ancient times survived safely even after several trepanations.”

There are three types of marks that evidence trepanation, according to Olesya Uspenskaya, a researcher in Stone Age archaeology.

These are small but long linear tracks, larger deep linear traces that appear as parallel grooves, and marks that have clearly been left with a thick blade.

There were various reasons that prehistoric surgeons would conduct trepanation – and they weren’t all medical.

In some cases, it may have been due to ritualistic reasons or to ‘change a person’s nature’.

The burial mound containing the remains

More medical reasons for the gruesome treatment included attempting to ease bad headaches, cure a haematoma, repair skull injuries, or attempting to overcome epilepsy.

These treatments weren’t conducted without anaesthetic thankfully, with Russian research suggesting that medics during this time would use natural remedies like cannabis or magic mushrooms as ways to numb the pain of the such operations.

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Something which was presumably less successful were more shamanistic practices such as ecstatic dancing around the patient.

Unfortunately for the recently discovered Bronze Age man, it appears that none of these anaesthetics were able to prevent his death.


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