Quirks & Quarks

Ritual holes cut in human skulls 6,000 years ago

Archaeologists find thirteen Bronze-age and Neolithic skulls with coin-sized holes cut in the back of their heads

Holes bored in the skulls of living Neolithic people had no obvious purpose

Nearly 6000 year old skull found in southern Russia. (J. Gresky)
The drilling of holes in the skull for medical purposes - trepanation - was first known 11,000 years ago in Asia. But 13 skulls from Bronze Age and Neolithic people - found in southern Russian recently - have holes that suggest a ritualistic behaviour.

Dr. Julia Gresky, an anthropologist from The German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, studied the 4,000 to 6,000 year-old skulls and determined that the location of the coin-sized holes would have served no medical purpose. Even though the holes were scraped or gouged with a degree of surgical precision, making them at the back of the skull would have been extremely dangerous.

Evidence of bone re-growth also suggests that most of the 13 not only survived the procedure, but lived for years after. The rituals and meaning associated with these ancient trepanations remain a mystery.

Related Links

Paper in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology
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