Trepanation: surgery a-head of its time
Brain surgery isn’t a modern procedure. In fact, it has been practiced on most continents for 1000’s of years.
I’ve often wondered how people lived before we created the amazing medical technologies we have now. If someone had a fever, what did our ancestors think was happening inside the body? If someone was hit in the head, what could they do about it except wait and hope the person would recover on their own?
That last question is the one I’ll be dealing with. Trepanation (also spelt trephination) is where a hole is cut or scraped into someone’s skull. The instrument used to do the scraping is called a trepan.
As incredible as it seems, ancient people from Africa, Peru, Ireland, France, Denmark and Russia were performing these head surgeries with surprising success: Incans had an 80% success rate. It was used by many cultures as early as 6,500 BCE, so has a rich and important history.
Even in the modern age of surgeries performed under anaesthetics that knock you out, surgery doesn’t sound like something I would particularly enjoy, so having it done awake and aware with just a crude drill thousands of years ago seems like madness. But people did what they thought was necessary to survive.
And if the procedure of scraping a hole in someone’s head isn’t interesting enough, the reasons people might have done it are perhaps even more intriguing.
Not all cultures used trepanation for the same reasons. People in many areas may have thought they were releasing evil spirits from the head, but really they were reducing the damage done by a knock to the skull. The surgeries were used to remove bone shards from the head, stop bleeding on the brain, or reduce internal pressure after head trauma. Some remains had more than one hole in the skull, indicating people not only survived the first procedure, but had it done again many years later.
It’s possible that this primitive surgery was part of a religious ritual for Russians 6,000 years ago. Similarly, it could have been a status symbol, especially if the surgery was expensive and required skilled people to do it. Who doesn’t want to walk around with a hole in their head?
The problem with these ideas, of course, is that they only speculation. We don’t really know why people did this, but judging from the bone recovery we see in fossils, it had a high survival rate and in head trauma cases likely prolonged life by years.
Even though I cringe at the idea of someone scraping away at my skull, perhaps it was no more dangerous than other practices from the past. Before the discovery of penicillin, infection through a scratch inflicted while gardening could have easily become a death sentence.
Trepanation is still used today, often to treat bleeding on the brain. However, making a permanent hole in someone’s head isn’t a safe thing to do, and these days if a doctor makes a hole in a skull they usually replace the bone and patch it up. Some amateur neurosurgeons believe that making a hole in your skull will allow better blood flow and pulsing in your brain, which means you will retain your ‘youthful vigor’. Scientists and doctors haven’t found any evidence of this.
Are you game to try it? I’m not letting a trepan anywhere near my head.