Like a Hole in the Head: the Strange History of Trepanation

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Like a Hole in the Head: the Strange History of Trepanation

Sunday January 22, 2017 Written by Genevieve


We’ve practiced some pretty strange and awful things over the course of human history – foot binding, washing clothes in urine, eyeball tattooing, attending Trump University, etc. Hindsight’s usually pretty good for illuminating the misguided motives that informed our ancestors’ shonkier decisions, but one particular custom has bamboozled historians for centuries.

It’s called “trepanation” – the process of making holes in the skulls of living people.

Archaeologists have found scores of bodies everywhere from Europe to China to South America, Africa and Polynesia that prove we have a 7000-year-old history of drilling holes in our the heads. What they haven’t found is a definitive reason why.

In many cases, some other kind of trauma is also apparent in the region where the holes have been made, indicating that trepanation may have been done to deal with a pre-existing injury. Still, this doesn’t quite explain the rationale behind the ‘treatment’. Why commit more violence to an already damaged area?


Then there are the trepanned skulls that show no other signs of prior cranial or neurological damage, suggesting that the subject was perfectly healthy at the time of the procedure, basically debunking the trepanation-as-medical-treatment theory.

This quandary led 19th-century researchers to believe that trepanation must have been some sort of ritualistic practice – a process of initiation, a superstitious way of improving the mind, or perhaps a no-nonsense method of releasing the spirit. Some particularly adventurous beatniks even took up the practice in the 1960s, in the hope it might help them stay high forever. (According to trepanning’s most famous contemporary, it worked.)

Anthropological circles still argue about the reason behind this global, millennia-spanning practice. But whatever their theories, one thing is certain: our species is no shrinking violet when it comes to giving freaky fads a crack in the name of curiosity, ambition, spirituality, and a general desire for self-betterment. Just, you know, don’t try this at home.

Via the BBC