Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Prehistoric Trepanning


ONE of the most remarkable revelations made of late years by prehistoric archæology relative to primitive man has been that of the extent to which trepanning was practiced by the men of the polished stone age—the men who erected the rude stone monuments of which Stonehenge and Carnac are the highest expressions.

In 1872 Dr. Prunières first called attention to the fact that among the interments of the neolithic age in the limestone caverns of Lozère, and under the so-called dolmens, a certain number of skulls found had been surgically treated. Portions of the skull had been removed, in many cases during life; whereas others had been trepanned after death. There could be no question but that in many cases those who had been operated upon had survived the operation, as the reparative efforts of Nature were marked.

The matter was taken up by Dr. Broca, who published an essay on the subject, which he had communicated to the Anthropological Congress at Buda-Pesth in 1876. It has since been investigated by M. Nadaillac, and has been recently referred to by Count d'Alviella in his Hibbert Lectures for 1891.

A word first upon the race which practiced trepanning. As far as can be ascertained, it entered Europe by the shores of the Baltic from the Caucasus and Crimea, strewing the plains of Pomerania, Hanover, and Gröningen with their monuments, erected out of the stones left by the rafts of ice that floated over these submerged plains in the Glacial period. This race occupied Denmark and Sweden, crossed into Great Britain, and has left its remains in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the west of England, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Kent. It entered France, made Brittany its stronghold, traced up the rivers to the central plateau of France, but never occupied the upper waters of the Elbe, the Rhine, or the Meuse, was never on the Danube at all, and, though it descended from the central mountains of France to the Rhone, yet never advanced far east beyond it. On the other hand, it crossed the Pyrenees, erected its rude stone monuments in Spain and Portugal, traversed the strait of Gibraltar, and, after setting up some circles and cromlechs in northern Africa, disappeared altogether.

What this race was we do not know; it was not a pure one, for among the skulls found in its sepulchral monuments some are round and some are long-headed; but in all probability it was a long-headed race that had subjected other peoples, and had brought along with it wives and slaves of alien blood.

The tools and weapons of this remarkable people are of beautifully polished flint, chert, and jade. In the possession of the writer is a granite axe-head from a dolmen in the center of France, on which great pains have been spent to give it a polish. Some of the flint spear-heads worked by them are marvels of labor and ingenuity. A large core of flint has been taken, and out of it a flake has been got which has been not only worked into a flame or tonguelike shape, but has been diagonally grooved throughout on one side for ornamental purposes. One such, over a foot in length, of milk-white translucent flint, was found in a dolmen on the Lot a few years ago. It was scooped out with forty diagonal spiral lines. The labor expended upon it is incredible. This race was acquainted with pottery. It did not burn its dead at first, but very frequently scraped the flesh off the bones before consigning the remains to the sepulchre. The bones preserve the scratches made by the flint scrapers, and they are not always correctly placed to form the skeleton in its tomb, a left arm being sometimes put to a right shoulder; and sometimes important bones are missing. After a while bronze became known to the race of the megalithic monuments. It was introduced from the south; it seems to have traveled up the basin of the Po.

In 1880 the Baron de Baye published the results of some remarkable discoveries made by him in the chalk of the Marne. Here he discovered a number of caves sealed up, and completely untouched, that had been the sepulchres of men of the polished stone age. There was much about them that was extraordinary; one feature was a rude representation of a woman, always on the left side of the entrance into the sepulchral chamber. Along with this woman was figured, carved in the chalk, a flint hatchet; color had been applied to distinguish the flint stone from the horn handle into which it was fixed. In these mortuary caves a great number of remains of human beings was found. Some of the caverns were clearly family sepulchres. Some contained a large number of dead who had obviously been killed in a battle. But what specially concerns us now is the fact that, among the skulls recovered from these caves, a certain number showed that they had been trepanned, precisely as had been the skulls obtained by Dr. Prunières from the caves and dolmens of Lozère. Not only so, but the dolmens of Algeria have given up skulls treated in like manner, so have some found in Denmark. Obviously the very unpleasant custom of cutting slices out of the skulls of some of their members was continued in this race from their first appearance in Europe to their final disappearance in Africa.

M. Cartailhac, in his La France préhistorique, says: "A considerable number of our sepulchres contain perforated human skulls. The openings, without being geometrical in shape, are sufficiently regular; they approach more or less the shape of an ellipse, in length about 158 inch; the sides are gradually reduced in thickness, and are always cut obliquely, at the expense of the outer surface of the bone."

These holes cut in the head occupy different positions; some are at the side, some on the top of the head, but never on the brow or any portion not covered with hair. It is quite impossible to suppose that they have been due to a blow of an axe or sword. That would only be possible where portions of the skull were arched or projecting. Moreover, a blow would have left bruises on the bone, and it must be remembered that steel weapons were then unknown; no flint or bronze axe or sword could make so clean a cut. Besides, an examination of the edges of the wounds reveals the manner in which the trepanning was effected. There remain the scratches, formed by a slip of the tool employed, and the marks of the flint scraper which effected the operation. In the majority of cases the skull was mutilated during life, and it was carried out with such skill as not to injure vitality. Some of the operations took place in childhood, and those who had been trepanned grew to be men and women.

The tool employed seems to have been invariably a flint scraper, with a sharp edge, which was worked round and round the portion of the skull that was to be removed till the bone was cut through, when the disk was taken out whole. It was necessarily a laborious and lengthy process; it could not possibly have taken less than an hour. In the case of children, when the skull is tender, it would, of course, take very much less time.

The first of the trepanned skulls was discovered as early as 1685 in the tomb of Cocherel. Montfaucon mentions it. He says, "One of the heads there found had the skull pierced in two places, and apparently both wounds had healed." A second specimen was found in 1816 in a cave at Nogent-les-Vierges which contained two hundred skeletons. "One of the skulls had in it a great hole three inches long and two inches wide, which seems to have been caused by a wound which had resulted in the loss of a large piece of bone. Nature had repaired the edges of the fracture, and M. Cuvier thinks that the man in question may have lived a dozen years after having received it." Thus this discovery was described at the time and misunderstood. It was not till Dr. Prunières drew attention to the frequency of skulls being thus marked and mutilated that the importance of the matter was realized.

In the Ribeiro Museum at Lisbon is a skull of the neolithic age that shows on it the work of the operator left unfinished; the oval has been nearly, not quite, cut through. In the Musée Broca of the Socicté d'Anthropologie is a skull from Oise, of a man who apparently died under operation. Other skulls are indeed found that have been submitted to the saw. One was dug up in the valley of the Petit-Morin with the whole top of the head removed, but these belong to an entirely different category. They are all cases of mutilation after death—mutilation, in all probability, of the heads of enemies.

One of the skulls found by the Baron de Baye was that of a man of advanced age who had been trepanned twice at different periods, and had recovered from both operations.

But this is not all. Not only were skulls of living men systematically trepanned among the men who raised the rude stone circles and dolmens, or, as we call them, cromlechs, but they preserved and used as ornaments or amulets the pieces of skull thus removed. A great number of such cranial disks, pierced with one or two holes for suspension, have also been found in their sepulchres, and these are not infrequently polished or rubbed by fine long usage.

It does not appear that this strange custom of removing portions of the skulls of living men and women was confined to the men. Skulls similarly treated have been found elsewhere. If it were a fashion, it spread among other races.

One portion of a skull bored with holes for suspension was found in a tumulus in Thuringia belonging to the bronze age. A trepanned skull was extracted from a covered stone avenue at Borreby, in Denmark; another from a dolmen at Näs, in the isle of Falster; another comes from Karleby, in West Gothland, from a tomb of the transition period from polished stone to bronze, and this, so far, is the sole example from Sweden.

But prehistoric trepanning was practiced in America. In the Peabody Museum is a skull thus treated. Another comes from Peru. A mound on the Devil's River furnished another example. More trepanned skulls have been found near Lake Huron and Grape Mound. A skull in a great tumulus on the river Detroit had two holes cut in it. A sepulchre at Chaclocayo, near Lima, contained a head that had undergone like treatment. A trepanned skull was found in a tomb in the upper basin of the Amazon. But all the American cases are of cranial mutilation after death.

To come to Europe, in addition to those trepanned skulls already mentioned in Sweden, Denmark, and France, they have been found in tombs of the neolithic age in Portugal and in Spain.

Dr. Boulongue, in his work on Montenegro, says that it is a custom of the natives of the Black Mountain to have portions of their skulls removed for the smallest motive, merely if troubled with headache, and not at all solely because of a blow and breakage of the skull and concussion of the brain. He says that he knew of individuals who had themselves trepanned seven or eight times without its affecting their health.

Apparently in all these cases the persons who were trepanned walked about among their fellows with always a soft place in their heads. But sound skulls have also been found with disks from other men's heads securely lodged within their own. These disks must have been introduced after death, and must have had a religious purpose.

The first of those so discovered was in the museum of Grenoble; it was noted in 1867 by M. Chambre, who completely misunderstood it, and supposed that the disk was a sort of bone spoon.

Another very singular discovery among the sepulchral remains of the same epoch and race concerns skulls, though not the trepanning of them. A considerable number of heads have been discovered stuffed with children's bones, and bearing traces of having been polished by friction. The skulls have apparently been carried hung round the neck as a sort of pocket on the breast, and small bones belonging to several children have been packed within them, specimen bones, as it were, taken from several different subjects.

The explanation of this is much easier than that of the trepanned skulls. It is supposed that a widow carried about with her the head of the "late lamented," and that in it she preserved memorials of her children who had died young, for the purpose of keeping by her a couple of bones of each of her pets.

The practice of wearing disks of skull was not confined to the people of the stone age. Two such have been found with holes for suspension in a Gaulish sepulchre at Wargemoulin, in Champagne, suspended to a bronze torque. Another was found with the body of a child of the Gaulish epoch. Others have been found in the cemeteries of Marne appertaining to the same people and to the historic period. In some cases undoubtedly heads were operated upon after death, and portions removed to serve as trophies, much as a North American Indian carried off and gloried in the scalps he obtained. But the evidence is all against this as explaining the greater number of cases of holed heads.

What is more probable is that these cranial disks were employed as amulets. In the exhibition at Milan in 1881, M. Bellucci showed such a portion of a skull that had been actually in use at the present day among the Italian peasantry as a cure for convulsions and epilepsy.

The writer of this article remembers some forty years ago making the acquaintance of a very charming Irish gentleman and lady. One day she thought she observed that his eyes were resting inquiringly on her brooch, which was of gold, inclosing a mass of fractured bone. She laughed and said: "Are you admiring my brooch? I will tell you the story of it. One day, some ten years ago, when I was a young girl, I was staying in the house of a friend who also knew Mr. N., who is now my husband. We were having a game—a romp—and running after each other through the house, which was large, with long galleries and chambers communicating with one another. Mr. N. was close behind me, trying to catch me. I darted through a door and threw the door back behind me. Mr. N. had his head down, and the handle struck his skull and he fell stunned. The skull was fractured, and to save his life he was obliged to have it trepanned. Now he wears a plate of silver over the hole, and I wear the portion cut out of his skull in this brooch. The accident—I suppose my distress and remorse—brought about a rapprochement; we became engaged, and are now man and wife."

So the custom of wearing cranial disks need not be regarded as completely done away with, even in our days.

Various explanations have been offered to account for the trepanning of the skulls of the neolithic men; but perhaps, before considering them, it will be as well to notice another series of phenomena, and that connected with the sepulchres of the same people, as it belongs apparently to the same category. This is the perforation of the tombs themselves. It has been observed repeatedly that among the dolmens, covered avenues, and kistvaens of this race there is very generally one stone that has been trepanned—had a hole cut through it; not only so, but that in their circles of stones one gap has been almost invariably left so as to make the circle incomplete. Trevethy Quoit, in Cornwall, has a rectangular hole cut through the cap-stone. La Maison des Fées, at Grammont, in Hérault, has the stone at the head perforated. At Conflans was one of these monuments with not only a round hole in the closing stone at the foot, but also the plug wherewith the hole could at will be closed. It has been moved to the Musée St.-Germain. In the Crimea and in the Caucasus, where the same kind of monuments is found, the hole in one side, laboriously bored through one slab, is a constant feature.

We may, and probably ought to, connect the holed stones in tombs with the holes in the skulls. And the most probable explanation of both is that they were intended as openings whereby the spirits might escape, and trepanning was employed on those who suffered from epilepsy, which was regarded as possession by an evil spirit. Broca says: "The art of trepanning was applied to certain spontaneous maladies, and followed the opinion formed of affections of the head in nervous disorders, as idiocy, convulsions, insanity, epilepsy. Maladies which science regards as natural struck the imagination of the ignorant, and they attributed them to divine causes, to demons, to possession. Who can say that trepanning, now a practice almost abandoned, was not employed among the first men as a means of letting demons escape out of the system, by opening for them a door of exit?"

"I ask," says Broca again, "for what motive these operations were performed, not always, indeed, but usually, on young subjects, often on mere children; and I venture to suggest that they were due to some superstition, and formed part of a ceremony of initiation into some sort of priesthood. This would, indeed, suppose that there existed a sacerdotal caste among the neolithic people, and there can be little doubt that they did possess an organized form of worship. The cranial disk inserted in a skull after death, what can it mean but some vague belief in another life? If it be objected that the cranial mutilations were too grave to be accepted as a religious ceremony, I answer that trepanning is not in itself a very dangerous operation. If it is so often attended by fatal results nowadays, it is because recourse is had to it only in desperate cases. What produces death in so many instances where trepanning is resorted to, is not the trepanning, but the cerebral congestion which one endeavors to relieve by the operation. Besides, religious exaltation knows no limits. If certain divinities were ready to accept a scrap of skull in place of an entire human victim, they may have passed as remarkably indulgent. It is well known that among the negroes of western Africa some individuals will disembowel themselves as an initiation into sanctity, or to prove the efficacy of certain charms. Some of these men perish, but others recover, and such become saints among their tribe."

We are disposed rather to accept Dr. Broca's first suggestion than the last, and to regard trepanning among the prehistoric men as having had a therapeutic motive.

The perforation of the tomb was almost certainly intended as a door of exit for spirits. Even in later times, when the dead were burned, holes were often bored or knocked in the urns that contained the ashes, for the same purpose. Some cinerary urns have been found with little windows, as it were, made in them, and a piece of glass placed over the hole. Macrobius, in his Saturnalia, quotes an Etruscan belief that a door should be opened for the spirits to pass in and out.

The writer remembers a case of a dying woman some few years ago in Sussex. She was gasping, and apparently was undergoing the last struggle in great distress. The nurse went to the window and opened it. At once the dying woman breathed deeply and expired. The writer said to the nurse, "Why did you open the window? "The answer given was, "Surely you wouldn't have her soul go up the chimney?"

One can understand how that, if a piece of skull had been regarded as in contact with a demon or spirit, it would be respected as an amulet, and that so the rondelles removed from the heads of men who had been subject to epileptic fits would acquire a virtue in the eyes of the ignorant and superstitious, and be employed as charms. And this seems to be both the simplest and most intelligible explanation of the phenomena of hole-pierced heads, and of the wearing of the portions removed from those heads by men and women who had not themselves been trepanned.—Cornhill Magazine.