Did a Prehistoric Surgeon Practice on This Cow?

Though an early human likely created the hole, the reason why remains less clear

Cow Head Hole
Scientific Reports

One of the more astonishing facts about prehistoric humans is how early they went under the knife—or rather, the sharpened stone.

Starting at least 7,000 years ago, people practiced a procedure called trepanation, which involved punching or scraping a hole in the skull for medical or spiritual reasons. Now, reports Nicola Davis at The Guardian, researchers have found evidence that humans may have been performing the same procedure on cows, either as practice or as early veterinary medicine.

As Ashley Strickland at CNN reports, between 1975 and 1985, researchers were excavating the Neolithic site in France called Champ-Durand, which served as a trade center that focused on salt and cattle between 3,400 and 3,000 B.C.E. They found the bones of many domestic animals, but they also uncovered something relatively rare: a nearly complete skull of a cow with a hole drilled in it.

Stone Age humans used the whole animal, commonly crushing the cranium to extract the animal's tongue and brain. This means that intact skulls from that period are fairly unusual. But researchers were initially unimpressed with the find, suggesting the skull's prominent hole was merely a gore mark from another cow. But a recent reexamination of the skull suggests that ancient humans purposefully made the marks. They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

This most recent examination suggests the hole was not inflicted by another animal due to a lack of other cracks or associated trauma to the skull. Microscopic scans ruled out a tumor, gnawing mice or other similar causes. Cut and scrape marks directly around the wound suggest purposeful creation. But since there was no healing around the bone, researchers surmise that the animal likely died from the procedure or was dead when it happened.

“I have analyzed many, many human skulls ... all from the Neolithic period and they all show the same techniques,” Fernando Ramirez Rozzi of the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris and first author of the study tells Davis, “and the technique you can observe in the cow’s skull [is] the same.”

The big question is why a Stone Age surgeon might cut a hole in the head of a cow. As Strickland reports, cattle were very common at Champ-Durand, comprising over fifty percent of the bones found. It’s unlikely that the locals would go to the trouble of trying to save one ailing cow. As Rozzi inquires: “What would be the interest to heal a cow which represent the most abundant animal among the archaeological remains?”

The other possibility is that a budding surgeon used the animal for practice. Many trepanations found in the archaeological record appear to be surprisingly precise and in some cases patients survived the procedure. It’s possible that practicing on animals was the way these surgeons developed their skills.

This leaves one big question: Why were people drilling into one another’s skulls 5,000 years ago in the first place?

As Robin Wylie at the BBC reports, this is a hotly debated topic. The Victorians believed the procedure was used to relieve migraine headaches, an idea that has since been debunked. Still, some researchers argue that it was primarily a medical intervention used to treat pain or neurological conditions as Stone Age humans understood them. It’s hard to say since many of those medical conditions don’t leave evidence in the skull.

Others believe there is evidence for trepanation used as a ritual. As Wylie reports, archaeologists in Russia have found the remains of 12 healthy adults, all of whom had a hole cut in their skull in an extremely dangerous area. Four died soon after the surgery. The other eight lived at least four years with the holes in their head. The researchers argue that these unusual trepanations were likely used not to heal disease but to give these people supernatural powers or connections.

Whatever the reason, trepanations was not an uncommon practice—with evidence found throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and even in the Americas. Versions of the procedure were used by the ancient Greeks and through the European Renaissance.

Today, it remains a valid way to relieve pressure in the brain under emergency situations. So we just might have cows to thank for helping early humans sharpen their skills in early versions of this procedure.

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