The earliest clear evidence of trepanation dates to approximately 7,000 years ago. It was practised in places as diverse as Ancient Greece, North and South America, Africa, Polynesia and the Far East.
People probably developed the practice independently in several locations.
Trepanation had been abandoned by most cultures by the end of the Middle Ages, but the practice was still being carried out in a few isolated parts of Africa and Polynesia until the early 1900s.
Since the very first scientific studies on trepanation were published in the 19th Century, scholars have continued to argue that ancient humans sometimes performed trepanation to allow the passage of spirits into or out of the body, or as part of an initiation rite.
However, convincing evidence is hard to come by. It is almost impossible to completely rule out the possibility that a trepanation was carried out for medical reasons, because some brain conditions leave no trace on the skull.
However, in a small corner of Russia archaeologists have turned up some of the best evidence for ritual trepanation ever discovered.
The story begins in 1997. Archaeologists were excavating a prehistoric burial site close to the city of Rostov-on-Don in the far south of Russia, near the northern reaches of the Black Sea.
The site contained the skeletal remains of 35 humans, distributed among 20 separate graves. Based on the style of the burials, the archaeologists knew that they dated to between approximately 5,000 and 3,000 BC, a period known as the Chalcolithic or “Copper Age“.
One of the graves contained the skeletons of five adults – two women and three men – together with an infant aged between one and two years, and a girl in her mid-teens.
Finding multiple skeletons in the same prehistoric grave is not particularly unusual. But what had been done to their skulls was: the two women, two of the men and the teenage girl had all been trepanned.
Each of their skulls contained a single hole, several centimetres wide and roughly ellipsoidal in shape, with signs of scraping around the edges.
The skull of the third man contained a depression which also showed evidence of having been carved, but not an actual hole. Only the infant’s skull was unblemished.
The job of analysing the contents of the grave fell to Elena Batieva, an anthropologist now at the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
She immediately recognised the holes as trepanations, and she soon realised that these trepanations were unusual.
They had all been made in almost exactly the same location: a point on the skull called the “obelion“. The obelion is on the top of the skull and towards the rear, roughly where a high ponytail might be gathered.
Less than 1% of all recorded trepanations are located above the obelion point. What’s more, Batieva knew that such trepanations were even less common in ancient Russia.
As far as she was aware at the time, there was just one other recorded case of an obelion trepanation: a skull unearthed in 1974 at an archaeological site remarkably close to the one she was excavating.
Clearly, finding even one obelion trepanation is remarkable. But Batieva was looking at five, all of them buried in the same grave. This was, and is, unprecedented.
There is a good reason why obelion trepanation is uncommon: it is very dangerous.
The obelion point is located directly above the superior sagittal sinus, where blood from the brain collects before flowing into the brain’s main outgoing veins.
Opening the skull in this location would have risked major haemorrhage and death.
This suggests the Copper Age inhabitants of Russia must have had good reason to perform such trepanation procedures.
Yet none of the skulls showed any signs of having suffered any injury or illness, before or after the trepanation had been performed.
In other words, it appeared as if all of these people were trepanned while they were completely healthy. Was their trepanation evidence of some sort of ritual?
It was an intriguing possibility. However, Batieva had to give up the trail. She had many more skeletons to analyse from all over southern Russia, and could not afford to get sidetracked by just a few skulls, however enigmatic.
Before she gave up, Batieva decided to search through Russia’s unpublished archaeological records, in case any more strange obelion trepanations had been discovered but not reported.
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