Hole in the head

Why would someone want a hole in the head? And how do we know that it was prehistoric surgery and not, you know, murder?

Rama [CC BY-SA 3.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons
People – mostly amateurs – have been doing surgery for thousands of years. The earliest surgery that we have evidence for is trepanation: simply put, it’s a hole in the head.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons to get a hole cut into your skull. Clearing bone shards after a head injury; relieving “intracranial pressure;” possibly treating epilepsy (ineffectually, I presume). We know that it was surgery because in many prehistoric examples the bone has partially grown back – which meant the patients survived and lived on after the surgery.

There’s evidence of this going back 8500 years, and it seems to have been a widespread practice (5-10% of all prehistoric skulls have holes in them, apparently). Trepanation continued into modern times, although the only people practicing it now look to me to be pseudoscientific quacks.


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