STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Skull surgery was performed on this Stone Age cow, study says

Humans have been performing cranial surgery and drilling holes in other people's skulls for a long time. The oldest e...

Posted: Apr 19, 2018 7:38 PM
Updated: Apr 19, 2018 7:38 PM

Humans have been performing cranial surgery and drilling holes in other people's skulls for a long time. The oldest example of this procedure, called trepanation, dates to 7,300 B.C., according to findings from a site at the village of Vasilyevka in Azerbaijan. That means cranial surgery was happening as long ago as the Mesolithic period.

Now, for the first time, a definite example of cranial surgery has been found in an animal: specifically, a nearly complete cow's skull discovered at a Neolithic site that dates to 3,400 to 3,000 BC. The investigation of this skull is detailed in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

For the first time, a surgical hole has been found in a Stone Age animal skull

This was either made to help the animal, or an experiment before attempting surgery on a human

Trepanation has been found in skulls from all over the world and usually involved drilling, cutting or scraping layers of bone to form a hole. These techniques were used to avoid being forceful and cause further damage or fracturing to the skull. As early as the Neolithic period, symptoms such as seizures, epilepsy, headaches and alterations in behavior were associated with the brain, which is why the holes are usually found in similar locations.

The cow's skull was found at the Stone Age site of Champ-Durand in France, just under 25 miles from the Atlantic coast. The settlement was once an important trade center, specializing in salt production as well as cattle. Archaeological excavations were carried out there from 1975 to 1985, and bones of cows, pigs, sheep and goats have been found.

Cows have been a popular find in other Neolithic sites, and their bones make up about 54% of the uncovered animal remains.

But complete craniums are a rare find; these animals were raised as food, and their skulls were usually broken to retrieve the tongue and brain, the study said. A wild boar skull previously found in Roquefort, France, possibly from the Neolithic period, showed signs of what could be considered surgery. But the only study of the skull was published in 1948, and the skull was never dated.

After the cow's skull was uncovered at Champ-Durand, a 1999 study suggested that the hole in the cranium was the result of the cow being gored by another cow. The lead director of the archaeological excavation asked Fernando Ramirez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, to study the skull.

Rozzi and his biological anthropologist colleague Alain Froment at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris studied the hole in the skull. They determined that there were no fractures or other evidence of an injury or blow, like goring. There is also no sign of healing around the bone tissue, which means the cow either didn't survive the trepanation process or died shortly after. The other possibility is that it was dead when the hole was formed.

But the researchers, familiar with the scraping and cut marks associated with trepanation, determined that the bone had been scraped intensively -- with the intent to form a hole in the cranium. In other words, this was not accidental.

"The main surprise was to see so evident the scratching on the cow skull reveal trepanation, the scraping marks are exactly similar in the human and cow skull" when compared to human trepanation examples, Rozzi wrote in an email.

The biggest lingering question for the researchers is why the hole was made in the first place. If this was a surgical intervention to help and save the life of the cow, it could be considered the oldest evidence of a veterinarian act. But given that cows were such a popular source of food and that the people lived off the livestock they raised, it's difficult for the researchers to see the reasoning behind surgical intervention.

"What would be the interest to heal a cow which represent the most abundant animal among the archaeological remains?" Rozzi asked.

Another likely scenario is that humans practiced surgical experimentation on animals before trying it on each other. Examples of trepanation in humans have surprised researchers by how perfect and precisely they were carried out, especially in instances in which the patients survived. That kind of skill and technique could be achieved only through practice. And even though we may never know the real reasons and intent behind trepanation found in the archaeological record, it shows us what our ancestors were capable of doing.

"These two possibilities reveal new insights for the Neolithic society," Rozzi said.

West Lafayette
Overcast
55° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 55°
Kokomo
Overcast
52° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 52°
Rensselaer
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 56° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 43°
Fowler
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 48°
Feels Like: 43°
Williamsport
Overcast
53° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 53°
Crawfordsville
Overcast
54° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 54°
Frankfort
Overcast
54° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 54°
Delphi
Overcast
49° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 46°
Monticello
Overcast
49° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 46°
Logansport
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 48°
Scattered Showers & Storms Tonight
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 149166

Reported Deaths: 3960
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion24564781
Lake13079350
St. Joseph8788157
Elkhart8371132
Allen7815221
Hamilton5923113
Vanderburgh553050
Tippecanoe350914
Monroe319438
Hendricks3140130
Johnson2972127
Porter293248
Clark282157
Delaware279674
Vigo248837
Madison226991
Cass221020
LaPorte213057
Warrick186563
Kosciusko173121
Floyd172766
Howard157466
Bartholomew138657
Dubois133724
Marshall130626
Henry121828
Boone118648
Grant118039
Wayne117123
Hancock114144
Noble111333
Jackson107412
Morgan91540
Dearborn90328
Daviess83732
Gibson82611
Clinton81316
Shelby78329
Lawrence77832
LaGrange76615
Harrison73324
Knox69610
Putnam69515
DeKalb68611
Posey6745
Steuben5888
Miami5765
Fayette57515
Montgomery56422
White56215
Jasper5464
Greene51237
Scott50613
Decatur49439
Adams4645
Whitley4316
Clay4276
Sullivan42412
Ripley4178
Wells4125
Orange38624
Wabash3859
Starke3847
Huntington3695
Spencer3686
Franklin36325
Jennings35913
Washington3512
Randolph3378
Fulton3292
Jefferson3285
Pike31612
Carroll30813
Perry28914
Jay2816
Fountain2743
Tipton26623
Parke2182
Newton21111
Vermillion2111
Rush2034
Owen1991
Martin1950
Blackford1903
Crawford1481
Pulaski1431
Brown1283
Ohio1187
Benton1070
Union1020
Switzerland840
Warren731
Unassigned0233

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events