|Examples of 16th century trepanation instruments.|
There is a wealth of historical records of the presence of trepanation in many cultures. For the uninformed, trepanation is the (somewhat outdated) process of putting a hole in the skull of a living person, mostly for surgical practices, although the process tends to have more spiritualistic roots. It has been known for a while that the earliest signs of this skull-drilling have been found in numerous forms and in various parts of Europe, South America, the Middle East, and even some parts of Egypt and greater Africa, with findings dating as far back as 3000 B.C. in the Danube River basin, and as far back as 11,000 B.C. in modern-day Morocco. However, a recent archaeological study released this past August suggests evidence of trepanation in a previously unforeseen location.
Anthropologist Efthymia Nikita, along with her colleagues at the University of Cambridge, recently published a paper in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology outlining the analysis of three skulls of Garamantian men, excavated by past researchers near the ancient capital of Garama (currently southwestern Libya). The skulls contained various styles and sizes of holes and indentations. The Garamantes were a people who thrived in the northern Sahara from around 1100 B.C. to 600 A.D. The paper can be found in its entirety here. *NOTE: a subscription to the journal may be required to view the paper. Columbia students can follow this link, and search for "Evidence of Trephinations among the Garamantes."
|Perforation (arrow 1) and depression (arrow 2) in the skull of a Garamantian young adult male. (Nikita et al, p3)|
In the article, Nikita and her team have surmised that the holes studied in two of the three skulls (Individuals GER011.T20 and TAG012.T3) are concrete evidence of the practice of trepanation in the northern Sahara (Nikita et al, p5). This is an important find for a number of reasons. First, it backs up the evidence of North African trade routes from 2000 - 3000 years ago, since the dates on these artifacts match up with those of other findings of trepanation in other parts of Africa and southern Europe/the Mediterranean. Second, it establishes the fact that humans and material goods were not the only things crossing trade borders during this era.
Most people in the medical community would say that trapanning, being the oldest form of surgery known to man, and once thought to cater an unbelievably wide range of medical circumstances, is somewhat of an obsolete practice. Despite this, there is a group that still thinks it to be a perfectly reasonable practice. The International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG) firmly supports the practice, under the hypothesis that "making a[n] opening in the skull favorably alters the movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world." That debate, however, is for another time.
(As a side note, the wonderfully cliché relaxing background music on ITAG's website provides a great distraction from their sub-par grammatical structure.)