Thousands of years ago, you would be forgiven for thinking that any attempt at brain surgery would be ludicrous: it might astound you then, that not only did our ancient ancestors perform some pretty complex procedures on the human brain, but they successfully managed to keep their patients alive afterwards.
Trepanning: the early days
Neolithic human remains and cave paintings have taught archaeologists that trepanning is perhaps the oldest surgical procedure which we have evidence of today;
Over time, hundreds of ancient skulls which pre-date the pyramids by thousands of years have been uncovered, which display the tell-tale marks of this procedure, which involves drilling or chipping a hole into the human skull; remarkably, some of these remains show that the subjects not only survived the procedures, but often continued to live on for a good number of years afterwards!
Evidence has taught us that these early humans may have used the technique to treat mental illness, headaches and seizures; however, given Neolithic man’s propensity for violence, many of these skulls may have most likely received the procedure to help clean out skull fractures following a blow to the head with a club or adze.
Trepanning in Mesoamerica
Prior to the 15th Century colonisation of the Americas, modern evidence points to there being a tradition of trepanning among cultures such as the Maya people, who used a technique which would wear down the skull in order to be able to easily make perforations: it would appear that much of these procedures would be carried out on slaves as experiments in order to further the culture’s medical knowledge, rather than for treating any specific ailments.
Trepanning in Europe
Hippocrates and Galen both explored this ancient procedure during their illustrious medical careers, which set the foundation for trepanning to be practiced well into the renaissance period;
Much like the earliest instances of trepanning, practitioners in Europe are documented as using the technique to treat seizures and trauma to the skull, however, by now, medical science and hygiene standards had advanced to a stage where the procedure could now be carried out with a fairly high survival rate.
Whilst trepanning is no longer practiced in mainstream medicine as such, there is no doubt that the early medics who used this technique laid the foundations for modern brain surgery procedures to be developed, such as craniotomies for treating swelling of the brain;
Outside of medical use, there have been several proponents of the technique in recent years, who have continued to practice the trepanning techniques of old – which goes to show that this ancient habit of mankind looks set to continue long into the future.
Max Stevenson runs a medical recruitment agency, specialising in occupational therapy jobs.