Rare brain surgery performed 3,500 years ago

Archaeologists discover punctured skull dating back to 1500BC below floor of Israel home

Trepanned skull
A trepanned skull on display at the National Museum of Denmark
(Image credit: Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

An “uncommon” type of brain surgery was being practised in Israel as far back as the Bronze Age, archaeologists have discovered.

Scientists examining the skeletons of two brothers excavated from a tomb below their family home found that one had a “surprising feature”, said Smithsonian magazine – a 30mm square hole in the skull. In a newly published study, the international team of researchers said the skull was evidence of an ancient medical procedure known as trephination.

Trepanning is “one of the oldest known surgeries”, said The Sun, and the holes were made “to let evil spirits” or for medical purposes, such as “to ease pressure on the brain”.

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“Doctors today perform a similar procedure,” said The Independent, “known as craniotomy, to treat tumours or blood clots or remove foreign bodies such as bullets.”

But while such operations date back as far as 7,000 years, the discovery at the archaeological site of Tel Megiddo in modern-day Israel is the earliest example of its kind in the ancient Near East – which covers western Asia, southeastern Europe and north Africa.

Study co-author Rachel Kalisher, of Brown University in the US, said that the “uncommon procedure was done on an elite individual with developmental anomalies and infectious disease”, probably as “an intervention to deteriorating health”.

Both of the brothers are believed to have had leprosy, but the brain surgery appears to have failed to extend the patient’s life. “The lack of bone healing suggests the man died either during or shortly after the operation,” The Sun reported.

Many other questions about the operation remain unanswered, said Smithsonian. “Was the patient administered some anaesthesia or a mind-altering substance? Or was he left to experience the operation in excruciating pain? And what desperate straits or last-ditch hopes led to such an extreme step?”

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