Medical and Science

Ancient Brain Surgery Caveman Style

Ancient Brain Surgery
Photo by [gbh] morgueFile
When we think of brain surgery, we think of a sterile environment where everyone is in little blue suites and lots of bright lights shining down on the patient. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Did you know that brain surgery isn’t as modern of a skill as you would think? That’s right, the earliest known accounts of brain surgery date back some 12,000 years ago and were performed by Stone Age Man. Yep, brain surgery caveman style!

In Europe, there have been discoveries of ancient skulls bearing holes. There have also been similar discoveries in Africa and South America, mainly Peru. The reason we know that these skulls under went some sort of brain surgery is because they all showed signs of new bone growth around the holes. This shows proof that the patients were living for some time after the holes were made.

Oddly enough, there was one skull found in Cuzco, Peru that contained three separate holes, and all of the holes had new bone growth around them that showed healing had taken place over a long period of time.

Ancient Skull Fractures

To make this even scarier, it’s known that there were primitive forms of brain surgery being performed by the Pacific islanders far into the 19th century.

The procedure known as trepanning was carried out to treat skull fractures in patients that were received during combat. Most of the time these were caused by the victim being hit on top of the crown with a large stone!

Information obtained from the islander surgeons told how the patient would be rendered unconscious and then the primitive procedure would be carried out. They would take hard sea shells or a piece of glass-like obsidian and use it to scrape and cut the bone until a 1in hole was formed. The brain was then exposed, but at this point the scalp would be put back in place and nothing more than a simple bandage made of banana palm fiber would hold the work in place while the patient healed. According to statistics, eight out of ten patients would make full recoveries from these crude operations.

After much research, it’s been discovered that the surgeries carried out by the stone age man were done in quite a similar manner. On the other hand, some of the skulls recovered from Peru showed rectangular openings. Apparently these were made using a flint saw.

Other Crude Tools Used for Brain Surgery

Another interesting method discovered for brain surgery by cavemen was the use of a bow drill. These were made in much the sme way as we would make a circle for wood working in modern times. For those of you that aren’t familiar with this tactic I’ll explain. You would place a nail at the center point of your wood and attach a string to it, and on the other end tying a pencil, then by stretching the string to it’s max the pencil would be sat down on the wood and you can draw a perfect circle. Much like a compass works, you’ve probably used these in school geometry.

Ancient Skull
Photo by [ardelfin] morgueFile

Who Were the Patients of this Ancient Brain Surgery?

We’ve already discussed how brain surgery was used to heal warriors that had received head wounds during battle. But they weren’t the only ones going under the “knife”.

In many parts of the primitive world brain surgery was also carried out on civilian men, women and also children ranging in age from six to sixty. Normally these patients had received some sort of serious brain or head injury due to accidents during their daily lives.

Sadly as the Stone Age became history and the Bronze and Iron Age took over, superstitions ran amuck and brain surgery or trepanning were no longer used to heal people. But quite the opposite, people had started trepanning skulls from the dead in order to make amulets to ward off the evil spirits. Could you imagine if people still walked around wearing a round disc of someone’s skull around their neck on a string for good luck?

Tell me what you think about this primitive form of ancient brain surgery. It’s amazing that the majority of patients undergoing this crude procedure actually survived!


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8 thoughts on “Ancient Brain Surgery Caveman Style
  1. We say `primitive` but by their standards they where their versions of Christiaan Barnard,Norman Shumway,Galen, Henry Gray etc etc .

    Ive no doubt when ET and his mates come back in the millennia to come they will judge us as primitive.

    1. Yah you’re right Stu. Primitive is all in the eye of the beholder. But by today’s standards, their methods were quite crude, even though it was probably top notch technology during their tenure.

  2. I was like whaaat? throughout the read. How come those serious skull wounds managed to heal? And how much time did they survive after the “surgery”?

    1. Thank you for your comment pep. It is a pretty hard thing to imagine. But the fact that the folks undergoing the surgery lived after the holes were made is why they continued to heal. If they were to die during the surgery, then the skulls wouldn’t heal themselves. So this is how we know there was a survival rate.

      In fact according to research, the majority of the people that had these brain “treatments” had a successful recovery. 🙂

  3. Robert,
    This is a really interesting write up. And here we thought brain surgery was something that was developed in the 20th century, apparently not (LOL). Thanks for your very interesting and enjoyable post!

    1. You’re quite welcome Funster, I appreciate you reading. Yah who would of thought that cavemen were performing procedures of this caliber that long ago? 🙂

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