Kalisher et al., 2023/PLOS FIRST
In the Bronze Age some 3,500 years ago, the town of Megiddo, now in northern Israel, was a thriving trading center. “It was already very influential and powerful in the region and a very cosmopolitan population,” says Rachel Kalisher, a bioarchaeologist and student at Brown University. “It is one of the most important sites in the ancient Near East because it sits at the crossroads of these major trade routes that connected the East and the West.”
Today it is the site of a major excavation, which Kalisher visited many times. In a new paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues describe something surprising about the ancient medical practices found there.
Kalisher was exploring the remains of the grave there, cleaning the skull of an adult man. When she manually removed the dirt “with dental instruments or wooden tools and maybe a brush,” she explains, “I see a giant trephination in it.”
Cranial trephination is a surgical procedure in which part of the skull is removed to relieve pressure on the brain. In addition to treating head trauma at the time, Kalisher says, it has been used to try to control seizures and other medical problems.
How did scientists know the pit was made before death?
So when he spotted this square hole in Sumit’s skull about the size of a large stamp, he knew it was unique. “It looked so fresh and so sharp and unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he recalls.
Kalisher and his research team were able to tell that the hole was made in the man’s skull while he was still alive and not long before his death, from the color and cut rock, because there had been no bone growth in the subsequent excision of the skull, and care was taken not to mark the covering of tissue covering the brain. .
And the way the opening was created, Kalisher says (by cutting the incisions into that junction of the skull, before the skull bones were removed from there), was rare. “We also found two pieces of finished bone,” he said. They were in the tomb next to the body.
An example of the first surgical technique in this area
Worldwide, the practice of skull trephining dates back thousands of years to the Neolithic period. But this is the first example of this “corner marked” art in a geographical area for at least several centuries.
Today, a similar procedure called a craniotomy is used to treat brain tumors, aneurysms, and other problems.
Kalisher et al., 2023/PLOS FIRST
The man’s skull had several other anomalies — including an extra molar “which is really odd and rare,” says Kalisher. His two frontal bones were never properly fused together. Having broken his nose, he had healed on the wrong road.
Beneath the skull bones of the human skeleton are marked lesions that are characteristic of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or leprosy. Even his bones were reformed in his feet — “kind of squeezed,” says Kalisher. “That man is much worn from head to foot.”
Kalisher and his colleagues speculate in their research paper that trephination is a likely intervention for the condition of man’s decline. Sadly, however, it didn’t take long after that. He was buried next to another, whose bones also had injuries. Earlier DNA analysis revealed that his brother was younger.
“Maybe they were prone to the same weaknesses,” Kalisher suggested. Or perhaps they live together, and one of them is infected by the disease of the other.
Nevertheless, the fact that the brothers lived with a serious illness into adulthood suggests that they lived with at least some privilege. “As the news of their bones looked, they lived long enough to reflect whatever was going on.” [those] bones,” notes Aja Lans, a bioarchaeologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the research. Without access to any special diet or care, says Lans, the brothers would likely have died before their disease progressed to a point. leaving bone lesions.
“This is just a good example of collaborative work using as many lines of inquiry as possible,” says Lans. “And they do a very good job of placing it with the actual historical context of the Bronze Age site.”
Kalisher offers one final observation. There were no signs that people had been avoiding it because of old disease or infirmity. “We have to think about vice or any kind of disease to avoid what we’ve gotten,” says Kalisher. “But in this place it does not seem.” Rather, he says, in death they were worshiped in the common grave, next to food and ceramics. “I think it really highlights the humanity of those who buried them.”
For Kalisher, these bone fragments eventually came together to outline the story of people who lived — and died long ago.
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