Medicine has made giant strides, particularly in recent years. From major surgeries requiring only a one-inch incision to bionic prosthetic limbs that function almost as well as the originals, many ailments that were once considered highly debilitating or even deadly are now treated routinely and safely thanks to modern medical advances. But what was medicine like 7,000 years ago, in the Stone Age? Primitive, to be sure, at least by our modern standards. We know that medicinal herbs were used to treat a variety of illnesses, with varying success, and scalpels were made from flint stone for performing topical surgeries. But prehistoric brain surgery? Surely no one would survive it. Except they did. A Neolithic burial ground found in the village of Ensisheim, France shows evidence of trepanation, a technique where a small hole is drilled into the skull, exposing the brain. This helps to relieve pressure from a blow to the head by allowing fluid to drain, and is still done by surgeons today.
Archaeologists unearthed 45 total graves which held 47 individual skeletal remains, but only one showed the miraculous evidence of the successful brain surgery. The skeleton, determined to be that of a man about 50 years old, had two uniformly-shaped holes in his skull, one about 2.5 inches in diameter and the other about 3.5 inches. The holes clearly weren’t the result of a fracture, since their edges were sloped in a way that suggested otherwise, and there were no surrounding cracks. The archaeologists determined that the man survived the surgery and lived at least a few more years; both of the holes are fully or partially covered with a thin layer of bone, evidence of healing. And the fact that one hole appeared to have healed longer than the other suggests that there were two different surgeries, making it even more remarkable that the same man survived both. Before this discovery, archaeologists had determined that brain surgery had been performed up to 5,000 years ago, but the find turned that knowledge on its ear. Not only was this skeleton from 2,000 years earlier, but from the looks of how well it healed and the fact that there was no sign of infection, the surgeon knew what he or she was doing – this probably wasn’t even the first trepanation.