Home Health The Search to Discover Why People Drilled Holes in Each Other’s Skulls

The Search to Discover Why People Drilled Holes in Each Other’s Skulls

Human skull with holes from drilling
Drilled skull

Thousands of skulls with holes drilled, cut, or scraped into them have been unearthed at archaeological sites around the world over the years. The process is called trepanation and involves creating a hole in a living person’s skull. Evidence has shown that it was practised as far as 7,000 years ago in a strikingly diverse range of regions such as Africa, America, Ancient Greece, the Far East, and Polynesia. Around the Middle Ages, it was abandoned by most cultures barring a few isolated areas in Africa and Polynesia. The reason behind this obscure practice? Scientists and anthropologists are still not 100% certain.

Trepanation in Africa and Polynesia

Anthropologists speculate that trepanations in the 20th-Century in Africa and Polynesia were performed as a treatment for pain caused by neurological disease or trauma to the skull. It was discovered that many skulls dating back to prehistory showed signs of trepanation close to an injury or where the symptoms of a neurological disease would be experienced. People back then seemed to believe that the procedure was beneficial in treating medical conditions. But that may not be the only reason – researchers also believe that trepanation was performed on humans for a more unusual reason: ritual. Scholars have long argued that ancient civilisations performed trepanations for rituals such as initiation rites or rituals to allow spirits to pass into or out of the body. Unfortunately, hardly any evidence to prove this was found over the years until an interesting discovery was made at an excavation site in Russia.

Is This Proof That Trepanation Was Used as a Ritual?

A burial site with 20 graves and the skeletal remains of 35 humans was discovered in Russia, and dated to between 3,000 and 5,000 BC, the period known as the Copper Age. Five skeletons were found at the site with skulls that had been trepanned. Each skull contained a single hole with signs of scraping around the edges. The trepanations were unusual because they were all roughly the same size and made in the same location—on top of the skull towards the rear. This type of trepanation is very dangerous, and because of that, it is assumed that it was not likely to have been used for medical reasons. Instead, experts in this field believe that this type of trepanation had a different goal.

Human skull with holes from drilling
Drilled skull

Trepanation for Transformation

The discovery in Russia sparked off an investigation into trepanned skulls in the area that have similar features. Several more skulls were discovered, all of people of roughly the same age. Most of the skulls did not show any signs of damage or disease other than the trepanation. Barring one female skull, the other skulls all showed signs of healing, which suggests that the woman was the only one who died during the process. Three skulls showed minimal signs of healing which means they most likely only lived a few weeks after the procedure. Other skulls showed more advanced healing indicating that these people lived for several years after the procedure.

Experts Remain Baffled

Based on these findings, scientists venture that this area in Russia may have been a hub for ritual trepanation. Maria Mednikova, an expert on Russian trepanation, further speculates that the dangerous trepanations performed here may have been done to achieve some kind of “transformation.” With limited findings, we can only wonder whether this type of trepidation was for the purpose of ritual or, as previously believed, for medical reasons only. Perhaps the truth will be eventually be revealed with further research.



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