Recreating trepanation: how they poked holes in people’s heads (to heal them).

Siberian Times, the paper of record for the taiga, reports on the first successful reconstruction of ancient brain surgery:

Neurosurgeons have been working with anthropologists and archaeologists over the past year following the discovery of holes in the skulls of three ancient sets of remains in the Altai Mountains.

Evidence at the time suggested they were examples of trepanation – the oldest form of neurosurgery – with speculation it showed the early nomads had learned the skilful technique from the medical centres of the ancient world, or had uncovered it at the same time as prominent doctors in Greece and the Middle East.

Among the findings made by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, were that the surgeons were highly skilful with the operations carried out with only one primitive tool scraping at the skull.

In addition, it was clear that the ancient doctors adhered to the strict Hippocratic Corpus, the landmark declaration of medical ethics set down 5,000km away in Greece in 500BC.

Prominent Novosibirsk neurosurgeon Aleksei Krivoshapkin, who was asked to examine the skulls, said: ‘Honestly, I am amazed. We suspect now that in the time of Hippocrates, Altai people could do a very fine diagnosis and carry out skilful trepanations and fantastic brain surgery.’

It was found the trepanation was conducted in two stages. First, a sharp cutting tool removed the surface layer of bone carefully without perforating the skull itself. Then, with short and frequent movements a hole was cut into the skull.

Professor Krivoshapkin said: ‘All three trepanations were performed by scraping. From the traces on the surface of the studied skulls, you can see the sequence of actions of the surgeons during the operations.

‘It is clearly seen that the ancient surgeons were very exact and confident in their moves, with no traces of unintentionally chips, which are quite natural when cutting bone.’

Archaeologists have not yet uncovered any dedicated medical tools but in almost all graves from this epoch – regardless of social status – bronze knives were found.

The last remaining unanswered question for the scientists, however, is what anaesthetic or painkiller the doctors used. Some speculate cannabis, but it may never be known.

Lots of photos of the skulls, knives, and modern recreations with animal bones, at the link. (Also, the paper has a travel section. It’s kind of awesome.)