3,500-year-old skull found with one-inch square hole

Details of the individual's head trephination and a chart showing the site of the surgery.

For 3,500 years, a curious medical case has been buried under the floor of a Bronze Age building in Israel. Now a team of archaeologists has studied the remains of two wealthy brothers buried there, finding that both likely battled a chronic infectious disease as children. Both skeletons showed signs of porosity, lesions and inflammation that suggest long-term disease such as tuberculosis or leprosy. More interestingly, one of the skulls had been cut open while the young man was still alive, in a case of trepanation.

Rudimentary brain surgery may have been an attempt to treat his ailing body, but he died during or shortly after the surgery. The team’s research describing the skeletons is published today in PLoS One.

a) Grave location highlighted in yellow.  b) The skeletons as they were found.

“We have evidence that trepanation has been this universal and widespread type of surgery for thousands of years,” said Rachel Kalisher, a Brown University archaeologist and lead author of the study, at a university. release. “But in the Near East, we don’t see it that often – there are only a dozen examples of trepanation in that whole region.”

The brothers were buried in Megiddo, an ancient settlement that is believed to have straddled the Via Maris, a road that connected important regions like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Based on the quality of the possessions buried with the two men and the evident medical care they received, researchers believe the brothers may have been well-to-do or elite members of the Megiddo community.

Trepanation, also spelled trephination, is performed to relieve pressure buildup in the skull. In this case, one of the brothers (estimated to be about 5ft 6in and aged between 21 and 46 when he died) had a piece of about an inch square cut from his skull. While that may have helped with the pressure, it clearly didn’t benefit him much: based on the team’s analysis, the man died a few days after the operation, if not during it.

Judging by the manner in which the brothers’ remains were deposited, the team suspects that the second individual (the younger brother, if only by a few years) died a year or two before his sibling.

Crucially, the two brothers apparently weren’t shunned or alienated despite their severe ailments, the team noted in the paper. “In ancient times, there was a lot more tolerance and a lot more caring than people realize,” Kalisher said in the statement. “We have evidence literally from the time of the Neanderthals that people cared for each other, even in difficult circumstances.”

“I’m not trying to say it was all kumbaya – there were divisions based on gender and class,” Kalisher added. “But in the past, people were still people.”

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