Holy skulls! Evidence around the world for trepanning

There is a good reason why our skull is solid. It’s not supposed to have ventilation.

Ancient cranial surgery: Practice of drilling holes in the cranium that dates back thousands of years.

[E]vidence shows that healers in Peru practiced trepanation — a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool — more than 1,000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness. And they did so without the benefit of the aforementioned medical advances.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1000-1250). Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence. Kurin’s findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The researchers say it appears the practitioners of trepaning were trying different techniques as a treatment for injuries or illness. There are signs of healing on some of the skulls. It was not used as torture but as a treatment. Weird, yes.

Trepanning was used all over the world, often for mystical reasons or to “allow the brain to grow” (metaphorically or literally). Lately, it’s still considered a very RARELY tried cure for depression. But obviously, it’s not recommended and is unsafe. Only in certain condition is removal of skull pieces really deemed medically necessary. But in the past, people had strange ideas and tried them out. Even with such a tricky treatment, they sometimes succeeded.

There is archaeological evidence for trepanation as a surgical procedure dated to 6500 BC when it may have been used to treat skull injuries. And even today, there are those who will do it for you (and possibly film it, GROSS), who do not have medical licenses. Current uses of trepanning are considered pseudoscience.

The Straight Dope: What’s the story on trepanation?.

washingtonpost.com: You Need It Like . . . a Hole in the Head?.

The hole story – Salon.com.


  6 comments for “Holy skulls! Evidence around the world for trepanning

  1. spookyparadigm
    December 20, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    I know Danielle, though as friend of grad school friends meeting at conferences, etc., we didn’t go to school or anything. Good for her.

    This is very interesting research on several levels. The main point made in the quotes is regarding collapse, which we should remember is governmental collapse but can lead to innovation. The evidence of that innovation is very cool (note, while you are addressing more pseudoscientific mystical uses today, the Andean trepanation discussed above is mostly a response to trauma).

    Cool material and work.

  2. J
    December 20, 2013 at 8:23 PM

    It’s very interesting you should say, “It was not used as torture but as a treatment”, because a lot of attempts to rid demons from people’s souls were considered treatment then (and even sometimes now), but are currently better known for their simply horrible physical torture, from burning at the stake to groups of flagellants. So, onlookers would feel justified in permitting the attempts, and even though the person going through the ordeal.
    I’m curious about that picture you have, too. Is the ‘funnel’ supposed to (presumably) keep the hole in the doctor’s head free of debris, and what’s with the book on the woman’s head? The clothing looks like something from a period later than the 13th century.

  3. eddi
    December 21, 2013 at 2:21 AM

    I can’t remember the proper title of the artwork. Each character represents a form of foolishness or folly. The “doctor” is cutting into the patient’s head to remove a “fools-stone” if I remember correctly.

  4. Blargh
    December 21, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    I can’t remember the proper title of the artwork.

    It’s Hieronymus Bosch’s “Cutting the Stone“.

  5. eddi
    December 22, 2013 at 2:15 AM

    Thank you. Glad to see my memory is not fooling me completely.

  6. February 9, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    Skull trepanation was even practiced in the late 20th cenutry in parts of Africa. There are even documented cases on tape, which show the way in which it was done. I have a book with more details and photos about this, but I don´t have it on hand at the moment. I have to add that this cases of trepanation were not done for any “spiritual” reasons, but for very real medical ones, when traumatic accidents would otherwhise have caused brain-damage and probably even death. There are also many archeological cases known, in which trepanation was clearly done as a treatment of traumata.

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