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Siberia was a major centre of early skull surgery in ancient times, say archeologists

By Kate Baklitskaya
06 June 2013

A new find of remains of a child aged 8 to 10 dating from around the 5th century AD suggests a sophisticated knowledge of surgical skills.

'In other words, it was a craniotomy surgery, or trepanation - quite likely one of the first ones in this part of the world'. Picture: Tyumen Institute of Northern Development of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences

The skull has an oval-shaped hole cut into the cranial bone sized at 52 to 57 millimetres which hi-tech analysis shows to be 'the result of a deliberate action performed to remove a portion of the skull bone. It was made by a very sharp tool, quite possible a knife, thin, narrow and with a very sharpened blade. 

'In other words, it was a craniotomy surgery, or trepanation - quite likely one of the first ones in this part of the world'. 

The child was found in the Ustyug-1 burial mound close to the Tobol River in western Siberia where 'some graves belong to the late Stone Age, Bronze and Early Iron Ages'.

Further work is expected on the other remains found by archeologists.  

'All together 30 burials were found. Five of them are women, nine belong to teenagers and children and six to men. The sex the remaining 10 adults is not defined,' said the research team. 'The skulls of the majority of those buried, regardless of gender and age, are artificially deformed'.

So they, too, are understood to have undergone trepanation or medical intervention on the skull.

The skull of this particular child is dated to between the 4th and 6th centuries AD and has 'signs of intentional deformation, premature obliteration of the sagittal suture and a hole in the left parietal bone', say the researchers, who are from the Institute of Northern Development of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences in Tyumen. 'The combination indicates the use of craniotomy intending to heal or relieve a child probably suffering from lasting headaches, generalised epileptic seizures or mental pathologies'.

trepanation surgery Siberia

The results of the study suggest that in early mediaeval Siberia people suffering from long-lasting headaches and psychiatric disorders may have been treated with craniotomy. Picture: Tyumen Institute of Northern Development of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences

The suggestion is that the techniques of skull surgery - known in primitive cultures, for example in France - was well developed in Siberia and had been built up over the previous centuries. The grave of the child is in modern-day Tyumen region. He or she suffered from Craniosynostosis, the experts believe.

In this case, the surgery was probably carried out by a metal tool.

'Judging by the nature of the scratches on the surface of the skull, the tool could have been made of metal,' say the researchers, surgeon Sergey Slepchenko and research associates Olga Poshehonova and Svetlana Skochina.

'Sadly there is not enough data yet to understand which metal was used to make it. It must have been a specially made knife rather than a household knife, as only such instrument could cut the oval hole in the parietal bone and extract the bone fragments without damaging the brain.

trepanation surgery Siberia


trepanation surgery Siberia


trepanation surgery Siberia

Top to bottom: scratches made by the surgical knife on the skull before the craniotomy was performed, edges of the craniotomy cut, and a craniotomy hole. Pictures: Tyumen Institute of Northern Development of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences

This is what the scientists think what happened: 'Probably the child, whose skull was found, was suffering from Craniosynostosis. Such changes could result in the development of neurological symptoms and mental disorders. It is possible that it was interpreted as being possessed by an 'evil spirit'.

'It is known that in ancient times medicine had a mystical meaning. Illness was always the result of 'evil spirits, demons, and the like. Probably the ancient doctors (shamans) used this operation to release the 'evil spirit'  and stop the suffering of the patient. 

'Based on this data, scientists determined that the choice of spot for trepanation was probably random. It is hard to judge whether the surgery was successful. Most likely, the death of the patient happened immediately after the surgery or after a short period of time which is proved by no signs of healing on the edges on the hole. 

'However, the attempt of surgery, undertaken by ancient shamans of Bakalsky culture in the IV-VI centuries AD indicates a significant and deep medical knowledge. It is hard to imagine that such a dangerous and complex operation being carried out without at least a minimal knowledge of anatomy, anaesthesia and medical implements.

'The surgery made by the ancient doctors makes sense even from the point of view of modern medicine.

Furthermore, analysis shows that probably special surgery tools and methodology were used for trepanation

'So the results of the study suggest that in early mediaeval Siberia people suffering from long-lasting headaches and psychiatric disorders may have been treated with trepanation. It shows significant health knowledge, special tools and the availability of surgical expertise of the medieval Siberian shamans'.

Comments (3)

Is this Igor Rahul Sakrutyayan?
gopal chippalkatti, panaji Goa India
27/08/2013 20:54
0
0
They still carry out this surgery here to sure drugs addicts...not sure it works same as in 5th century...progress i guess
Igor , Leningrad
17/06/2013 00:25
0
0
good its not used anymore to treat migraines and headaches
May, China
06/06/2013 16:18
4
0
1

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