Tag Archives: skulls

Ancient humans were practicing brain surgery on cows 5,400 years ago

Mankind has a long history of highly questionable medical practices, but out of them, trepanation (a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the skull) definitely takes the prize.

The motivation to drill holes in other people’s skulls haunts me to no end, especially as the practice seems to have survived through the centuries and perhaps even for millennia. Now, scientists have discovered a cow skull that underwent trepanation, suggesting that early humans honed their skills on animals.

Image credits: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi.

It all started about a decade ago, when Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist focusing on human remains at the French National Center for Scientific Research, was approached by a colleague who asked him to examine a strange cow skull. The skull was excavated in France during the late 1970s, in Vendée — a Neolithic site believed to be a trade hub for salt and cattle between 3400 and 3000 B.C.E. The skull featured an unusual hole, which was initially chalked off as an injury from another animal.

But something just seemed off. Working with Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, Rozzi used advanced imaging techniques to analyze the hole, finding that there was no evidence of blunt force trauma, and the hole is simply too clean to be caused by another animal. They also ruled out infection, cancer, erosion, and pretty much anything that might have caused the hole — anything, that is, except for the most likely scenario: humans.

The hole was similar to trepanation practices, so the authors conclude that the cow’s owners probably wanted to save it from some sort of brain disease. “As early as the Neolithic period, these kinds of symptoms were already linked to brain physiology,” the authors write. If this is indeed the case, then it might not have been such a bad idea — even to this day, in some cases, neurosurgeons treat excess swelling in the brain by removing a small part of the skull.

But this theory is quite a leap, and many questions still remain.

Enhanced viewing of the hole compared to those found in human skulls. Image credits: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi.

For starters, archaeologists have found the remains of hundreds of cows at this site, but only one with such a hole. If there was an epidemic, you’d expect to see more cows with similar holes, and generally, at the expected size of the herds, one cow would have been easily replaced. Another possibility is that the hole wasn’t made in a trepanation procedure, but rather during some sort of ritual. However, this theory is strongly combated by the fact that only one such hole has ever been found. Furthermore, authors write, it “would have had greater value, practical or symbolic, if performed on a human being rather than on a common animal.”

Instead, they believe that the cow was a test subject for someone who was preparing to carry out similar procedures on humans. Finding test subjects was tricky, as volunteers would, obviously, be scarce. Cadavers would be no good since they don’t react like the living organism, so an animal like a cow or a pig could have been quite useful. Interestingly, several pig skulls have been found in different site with similar holes, which might be an important piece of the puzzle.

Of course, it could also have a completely different that we’re all missing. This is always the big challenge when working in archaeology: you’re trying to draw as much as possible from incomplete information, and there are slim chances of ever finding confirmation. Whatever the case may be, the idea that that seven millennia ago someone was practicing brain surgery on cows is perplexing. But who knows — perhaps 7,000 years from now, future observers will look back on our medical practices and ask themselves, “Why on Earth did they do this?”


Ancient skulls discovered in London speak of Roman headhunters


Photo: Guardian

Using modern forensic techniques, bioarchaeologists have found that a slew of skulls, discovered a few decades ago in an ancient open pit in nowadays London, not too far from a known amphitheater site, bear evidence that speak of gruesome decapitation at the hands of Roman headhunters. The findings provide the first evidence of such Roman practice in Britain.

Roman headhunters

Some 39 skulls were excavated at the London Wall almost within sight of the Museum of London in 1988. At the time, not much thought was given to them and have remained in the possession of the museum since. Using refined forensic techniques, scientists found that these skulls weren’t just some dismembered remains belonging to an ancient graveyard. Instead, the skulls tell a different story – one of fear, gore and death by beheading.

“It is not a pretty picture,” Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London, said. “At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open.”

“They come from a peculiar area by the Walbrook stream, which was a site for burials and a centre of ritual activity – but also very much in use for more mundane pursuits. We have evidence of lots of shoe making, so you have to think of the cobbler working yards from these open pits, with the dog chewing away – really not nice.”

“We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you’d give two of them swords and have them kill one another. Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process.”

Almost all skulls are of adult males, and all bear signs of violence – scars, slash marks, shattered facial bones.  On some there is clear evidence of decapitation with a sword, and quite possibly all of them might have been killed this way, but there’s no way of telling for sure if the fatal blow struck the neck.

“Whether they died in the amphitheatre or in battle, decapitation with a sword is a very efficient way of ending a life – somebody very much wanted these people dead,” Redfern said.

Gruesome warning to the enemies of Rome

What’s really startling is that all these beheaded skulls were left in the open, out in open pits to decompose for god knows how long.

“There is none of the fracturing you’d expect if they’d been put on spikes, so it looks as if they were just set down and left – though of course you could have had a nice shelf to display them on.”

Evidence of Roman headhunters has been found throughout the old Roman Empire, including portrayals of the practice in monuments like Trajan’s column in Rome which shows clean shaven Roman soldiers presenting bearded barbarian heads as trophies to the emperor.  Hundreds of skulls have been found for centuries along the course of the long vanished Walbrook. These have been labeled as remnants from washout cemeteries or the victims of native uprisings in 60 AD when Boudicca, Anglican leader of the Icenii tribe, swept south to London  and attacked Roman settlements. These latest findings suggest that not is how it seems, and the hundreds of skulls discovered in the area may have also shared this twisted, and unfortunate fate.

“These were all young men, very untypical of what we usually find in Roman burials, where we tend to get the very young and the old,” Redfern said.

“Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives – but as we now know, not everyone. This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life.

The Guardian