North America’s Oldest Skull Surgery

By Aislinn Sanders

New findings from bioarcheologist, Diana Simpson, have researchers dating the oldest skull surgery in North America to at least 3,000 years ago. In North Africa, the practice may be as old as 13,000 years old. Prior to this discovery, the oldest evidence in North America dated to 1,000 years ago. Simpson presented her findings, titled “Surgery before sedentism: Probably trepanation during the early prehistoric period in southeastern North America”, during the 91st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Biological Anthropologists, held in Denver, Colorado and virtually from March 23rd-April 1st, 2022. Simpson studied the skull of a man with a hole in his forehead, leading her to this hypothesis. If her hypothesis is correct, skull surgery in North America would also be older than South America’s oldest known skull surgery, also occurring around 1,000 years ago.

The surgery may have taken place to reduce brain swelling caused by an attack or fall, and bone regrowth around the oval hole indicates that the man may have lived up to one year following his procedure. Other bone fractures were also found on the body, including around the left eye, collarbone, and leg. Remaining scars on the skull were consistent with other ancient skull surgeries in different parts of the world.

The man, whose remains were discovered in modern-day Alabama, was likely a shaman or ritual practitioner, based on the contents of his gravesite. Ritual objects such as sharpened bone pins and modified animal bones for possible tattooing practices are consistent with other North American hunter-gatherer shaman graves dating 3,000-5,000 years ago. His remains were first excavated in the 1940s at the Little Bear Creek Site; Simpson studied the skeleton in 2018, which had become part of a museum collection before being repatriated to local Native American communities for a proper burial.

Click here for the original article from Science News.