MAY 13, 2022 9:00 AM PDT

Oldest Brain Surgery in North America

WRITTEN BY: Joshua Aeh

A hole in the forehead of an old skull from northwest Alabama may not seem significant, but this is no ordinary hole. This hole was deliberately made on a living individual, either by scraping or drilling, not to harm but to help.

The puncturing of the skull by drilling or scraping is known as Trepanation or Trephination. It was a surgical procedure used to help relieve pressure or treat various perceived ailments of the head. The procedure may have also held ritual significance depending on the culture.

Figure 1: An assistant at the Smithsonian Institute examines a trepanned skull. The method of trepanation here is not specified. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456].

Trepanation dates as far back as the Neolithic period, the name given to different periods of time across the world whenever agriculture was adopted in those places. Cases of this procedure have been found worldwide, either from skulls and the instruments used to make the holes or from documents describing the process itself and the successes and failures of the results. In North Africa, examples of trepanation have been identified as long as 13,000 years ago.

What makes this case significant is that in the Americas, the procedure was initially believed only to go back 1000 years. But this recent discovery tells us this was in practice as far back as 3000 to 5000 years ago.

There are four main types of trepanation: cutting, drilling, (circular or linear) grooving, and scraping. Historically, and prehistorically speaking, the scraping method was the most successful in terms of survival. Indeed, in this case from what’s now Alabama, the technique used was scraping. Where a sharp tool would be used to progressively scrape away a piece of bone rather than cutting or drilling. Here, the individual is thought to have lived for up to a year after the surgery was performed.

Figure 2: A scraping device from Peru showing a trepanation in progress on the handle. A tool like this would have been used in scraping method trepanations. Credit: La médecine dans l'ancien Pérou / Raoul d'Harcourt. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license via the Wellcome Collection.

It is no longer a procedure that is in use today. Instead, it was replaced with craniotomy, a similar but more advanced and safer way of locating and removing a piece of skull to relieve pressure from around the head or to access the brain to remove a tumor, for instance. Unlike many forms of trepanation, in craniotomy the removed part of the skull is replaced, avoiding leaving a permanent hole in the head.

You can learn more about trephanation in historical North America from the multiple cases identified at the Jamestown colony.

 

Sources: Science Direct (1, 2), Science News, World Neurosurgery

About the Author
BS in Exercise Science
Currently a Tissue Recovery Technician with a background in Exercise Science working on the side as a Writer with an interest in all things science.
You May Also Like
MAY 05, 2022
Cardiology
A Sense of Purpose Improves Heart Health and Life Expectancy
MAY 05, 2022
A Sense of Purpose Improves Heart Health and Life Expectancy
A recent study has shown that life purpose and mortality are closely tied.
MAY 07, 2022
Neuroscience
Higher Antioxidant Levels Linked to Lower Dementia Risk
MAY 07, 2022
Higher Antioxidant Levels Linked to Lower Dementia Risk
Higher levels of antioxidants in the blood are linked to a lower risk of dementia. The corresponding study was published ...
MAY 17, 2022
Health & Medicine
JAMA Reports US Nursing Home Industry Needs Fundamental Overhaul
MAY 17, 2022
JAMA Reports US Nursing Home Industry Needs Fundamental Overhaul
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicin ...
MAY 19, 2022
Drug Discovery & Development
Experimental Drug Shows Promise Against ALS
MAY 19, 2022
Experimental Drug Shows Promise Against ALS
A new experimental drug known as NU-9 may be more effective in treating ALS than existing FDA-approved drugs. The corres ...
MAY 19, 2022
Drug Discovery & Development
Repurposed Antibiotic Shows Promise Against COVID-19 in Mice
MAY 19, 2022
Repurposed Antibiotic Shows Promise Against COVID-19 in Mice
An antibiotic known as clofoctol has shown promise in treating SARS-CoV-2 in mice. The corresponding study was published ...
MAY 23, 2022
Plants & Animals
Dolphins Use Coral to Treat Skin Conditions
MAY 23, 2022
Dolphins Use Coral to Treat Skin Conditions
According to a new research study published in iScience, specific species of dolphins can experience skin irritation or ...
Loading Comments...