Bronze Age Brain Surgeon: Volcanic Glass Scalpel, Please

By Joseph Calamia | August 31, 2010 11:44 am

brainMove over, Dr. Quinn. Sure, the fictional television doctor could perform surgeries in the Old West using nothing more than a spoon–but one researcher now argues that inhabitants of a small village in Turkey sliced skulls over 4,000 years ago, using shards of volcanic glass.

Working in a Bronze Age graveyard in Ikiztepe, Turkey, archaeologist Önder Bilgi has uncovered 14 skulls with rectangular cut marks. He believes the Ikiztepe people used obsidian “scalpels,” found elsewhere on the site, to treat brain tumors and fight-related head injuries, and to relieve pressure from hemorrhaging.

Bilgi also told New Scientist, which has a complete interview, that the skulls’ healing indicates that some patients survived at least two years after their surgeries. Though this isn’t the oldest evidence of brain surgery (researchers have found a hole drilled into a Neolithic skull), Bilgi argues that the Ikiztepe rectangular skull openings are much more “sophisticated.”

Bilgi, who in an earlier study analyzed arsenic absorption in Ikiztepe bones to determine their metalworking skills, told New Scientist that the tools themselves aren’t too worse for multiple millennial wear:

“The blades are double-sided, about 4 centimetres [1.6 inches] long, and very, very sharp. They would still cut you today.”

Related content:
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Discoblog: Military Members to Donate Their Brains to Science
Discoblog: Will Drilling a Hole in Your Head Cure Alzheimer’s?

Image: flickr / Mykl Roventine

  • Rhacodactylus

    I’ll never have the kind of stones it would take to let a guy cut into my head without anesthesia, there is no way I could have survived 4000 years ago.

  • M Burke

    The holes is where the put the straws.

  • http://Home andras

    Rhacodactylus, you are a bone-head, (pardon the pun) there is not much pain involved when somebody cuts on your bone-head. besides, they were well aware of the opium poppy; -in addition, you might have had your head BASHED in by an enemy club, as the egyptians used, and now, the surgeon is just removing the broken pieces,and repairing the damage. you are going to be OK. The Incas in Peru, did a LOT of those. There used to be a museum in Lima, where they had a vast collection of trepaned skulls, and I saw them with round holes, square holes, Tic-tac-toe cuts,and even small holes drilled in a large circle… when you see all that, you realize the practice must have been common place, (Here, chew on this Coca leaf, while we work on you…) their weapons included a STAR shaped club, about a foot and a half long, that would put neat holes in the side of your head if you forgot to DUCK.


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