- A Russian doctor has carried out ancient ‘brain surgery’ on a modern skull
- He attempted to recreate the methods of trepanation – one of the oldest known forms of neurosurgery – which involved cutting holes in skulls
- He only used equipment that was available to doctors 2,500 years ago
- Analysis suggested that surgery was carried out knives and a saw
- They found many ancient doctors must have been extremely skilled
Scientists have recreated ancient brain surgery to understand the remarkable medical techniques that existed almost 2,500 years ago.
A team of experts in Russia has spent the past year examining skulls found with intricate surgical holes in a bid to fathom out how early nomadic doctors carried out their work.
Evidence had suggested they were among the earliest ever examples of trepanation – the oldest form of known neurosurgery – with the procedures clearly skilfully carried out.
Scientists have recreated ancient brain surgery on a modern skull (shown) to understand the remarkable medical techniques that existed almost 2,500 years ago. A team of experts in Russia has spent the past year examining skulls found with intricate surgical holes in a bid to fathom out how early nomadic doctors worked
Now The Siberian Times has reported that leading Russian doctor Aleksei Krivoshapkin carried out pioneering ‘surgery’ on a modern skull using only the equipment available to ancient doctors working before Jesus was born.
The procedure was undertaken according to ancient methods used in the Altai Mountains on the skull of a woman who had died of natural causes shortly before.
Among the remarkable findings made by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk was the revelation that surgeons almost 2,500 years ago were highly skilled – perhaps even more so than many Western doctors up until the 19th century.
WHAT IS TREPANATION?
Trepanation involves the removal of a piece of bone from the skull, and it has been performed since prehistoric times.
Cave paintings indicate that people believed the practice would cure epileptic seizures, headaches and mental disorders.
The oldest samples of skulls with bore holes drilled into them were found in a burial site in France dating back to 6500 BC.
But it was also used by the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Romans, Greeks and the early Mesoamerican civilizations.
Even the ‘father of medicine’ Hippocrates advocated the process in his 400 BC tome ‘On Injuries of the Head’.
Modern exponents say it increases blood flow in the brain, increasing lucidity and heightening brain function.
Professor Krivoshapkin, a prominent Siberian neurosurgeon, who examined the ancient skulls and conducted the trepanation technique, said: ‘Honestly, I am amazed.
‘We suspect now that in the time of Hippocrates, the Altai people could do a very fine diagnosis and carry out skilful trepanations and fantastic brain surgery.’
The most exciting part of the research was recreating the surgical procedure itself, including trying to use similar instruments to those from the time.
Analysis of the skulls of ancient patients found that the operations were carried out with only one tool, a bronze knife, with the surgeons carefully scraping at the skull, yet leaving behind only minimal traces of their work.
A replica was made using modern elements by archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky, a doctor of historical sciences at the Institute.
He said: ‘I chose a brass alloy of copper, tin, and zinc. Our modern copy of brass alloy performed very well.
‘I think it is important to remember that Altai was a big centre for bone cutting production in the 5th century BC.
‘People here were very skilful in making different objects from animal bone.
‘Working with the animal bones, they understood the main principles of working with such material and later it helped them to make such complicated surgeries.’
Evidence from the ancient skulls (one shown) had suggested they were among the earliest ever examples of trepanation – the oldest form of known neurosurgery – with the procedures clearly skilfully carried out
The Siberian Times has reported that leading Russian doctor Aleksei Krivoshapkin (left) carried out pioneering ‘surgery’ on a modern skull using only the equipment available to ancient doctors (right) working before Jesus was born – which mostly consisted of knives and a saw
The procedure was undertaken according to ancient methods used in the Altai Mountains on the skull of a woman who had died of natural causes short
Analysis of the skulls of ancient patients found that the operations were carried out with only one tool, a bronze knife, with the surgeons carefully scraping at the skull, yet leaving behind only minimal traces of their work
Professor Krivoshapkin took exactly 28 minutes to recreate the surgical procedure on the modern skull.
He said it ‘required considerable effort’, but in the end the hole in the skull was found to mirror those found in three ancient skulls examined by researchers.
Some ancient patients, who came from the Altai Mountains region, survived the procedures and went on to live long lives, archeologists have established.
In addition, it was clear the ancient doctors somehow adhered to the strict Hippocratic Corpus, the landmark declaration of medical ethics set down in Greece in 500BC.
Ancient skulls belonging to two men and a woman and dating back between 2,500 and 2,300 years, were found in the Altai Mountains with signs of having had brain surgery carried out.
One of the males, aged between 40 and 45, had suffered a head trauma and developed a blood clot that likely left him suffering headaches, nausea, and movement problems, experts believe.
Trepanation would have been carried out to remove the haematoma, with evidence of later bone growth indicating the man survived the surgery and lived for years afterwards.
The second man had no visible traces of trauma but instead was suspected of having a congenital skull deformation that the ancient surgeon wanted to fix.
In both cases, a relatively small hole was made in the skull allowing surgeons to access the brain at an area where damage to joints and the membrane would have been minimised.
And while the actual technique and the implements used may have varied from those recommended in Ancient Greece, it was clear the care for the patient and the location of the hole showed a similar ethnical consideration.
Holes were cut in modern skulls according to the ancient method. Professor Krivoshapkin took exactly 28 minutes to recreate the surgical procedure on the modern skull
He said it ‘required considerable effort’ using a knife to make the holes, but in the end the hole in the skull was found to mirror those found in three ancient skulls examined by researchers
In order to study the procedure in detail, the remains were first analysed under a microscope at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography to find any markings that indicated the way the surgeons operated.
No trace of the way the doctors removed the skin was found, and given the good preservation of the skull surface it is assumed this was carried out with high precision.
The trepanation was conducted in two stages. First, a sharp cutting tool removed the surface layer of bone carefully without perforating the skull itself. Then, with short and frequent movements a hole was cut.
Professor Krivoshapkin said: ‘All three trepanations were performed by scraping.
‘From the traces on the surface of the studied skulls, you can see the sequence of actions of the surgeons during the operations.
‘It is clearly seen that the ancient surgeons were very exact and confident in their moves, with no traces of unintentionally chips, which are quite natural when cutting bone.’
Where the nomadic surgeons learned their skill is still unknown. There are theories that they picked up the techniques from the medical centres of the ancient world, but others say they simply discovered them at the same time as prominent doctors in Ancient Greece and the Middle East.
There is also no answer to how the doctors anaesthetised their patients before carrying out the procedures in the first place.