Archeology X-Files

Trepanation: The Legacy Of Ancient Head Surgery

Trepanation: The Legacy Of Ancient Head Surgery

Excavation, researches and archeological evidence have always been of significance in trying to portray at a picture of the past. There have been evidences which have made realize researchers and the masses of how smart the ancestors were. And, then there are those researches which led to more findings.

There has been a recent research review published in the World Neurosurgery, which mentions that the practice of trepanation has been happening in China since at least 1600 B.C.

A research related to immense speculation and findings is instigated from the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In here, the Han Dynasty leader Cao Cao called a famous doctor Hua Tuo to pursue treatment of a headache. Now, since Hua Tuo was a Chinese surgeon, he has found a tumor in his brain, and recommended to drill a hole to treat it – trepanation.

In accordance with Emanuela Binello, neurosurgeon, Boston University’s School of Medicine- “It’s really a global phenomenon. It was happening everywhere back then.”

chinese-doctor-1Recent research claims Hua Tuo was a Chinese surgeon, who detected a tumor in emperor’s brain, and recommended to drill a hole to treat it -trepanation.

Indeed, there has been archeological evidence which suggest to this practice happening almost in all the parts of the world:

  • In Europe, there is the description of the process pursued by the renowned doctor Hippocrates.
  • The Roman physicist Galen has also described the same.
  • The practice has also been seen prevalent in Europe, in the medieval period. In here, the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch and other painters portrayed several scenes depicting the practice of trepanation. The period indicative is almost 500 years ago.
  • A recent excavation by a Polish archeologist has a similar claim. In accordance with it, there is a 7000 year old case of the same in Sudan.
Trepanation: The Legacy Of Ancient Head SurgeryDr. Maciej Jórdeczka from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology (IAE) PAS in Poznań, during excavations in the ancient Khor Shambat settlement, had discovered an ancient skeleton with signs of trepanation (drilling a hole in the skull), dating back around 7,000 years. Photo: M. Jórdeczka

However, even amidst all the findings, there was not much evidence for the practice being pursued in China.

Trepanation: The Legacy Of Ancient Head SurgeryA Neolithic (3500 BCE) skull showing evidence of a trephination operation - the removal of a part of the cranium to relieve pressure, used as a medical treatment for a variety of ailments from migraines to mental illness. The treatment was used in many ancient cultures. (Natural History Museum, Lausanne).

This is what encouraged Binello to look out for the same through ancient literary and historical sources. Here are some findings:

  • The semi-mythical case of Hua Tuo.
  • Surgery which exposed brain in Esoteric Scripture of the Yellow Emperor, which dates back to 5th century B.C.
  • An account of the metal worker trepanning a leper’s brain to eradicate worms and parasites.
  • In accordance with the archeological findings, an interesting case dates back to 1615 B.C involving a mummified woman in the Xiao he tomb.
trepanation-in-medieval-time-1Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

However, there is not much evidence with respect to the survival rate of the same. In fact, while the readers might think that the practice of trepanation was pursued mainly to cure patients of some head related problem, there are other views too.

In accordance with John Verano, an anthropology professor, the idea behind the practice differed in Europe- “In medieval Europe there was an idea that insanity might be represented by rocks in your brain, or the devil in your brain and you could drill a hole in somebody’s skull and maybe release the demons,” he says.

medieval-trepanation-1A 14th-Century painting of trepanation by Guido da Vigevano (Credit: Sheila Terry/Science Photo Library)

Yet again, in consonance with Binello, the practice of trepanation faded in China by 18th and 19th century, since practices like acupuncture and herbal remedies were deemed better.

In fact, it did not return till the 20th century, when Mao Zedong, initiated to send Chinese Doctors to pursue training in the West.

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