Emory Report

 November 10, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 12

There's a method to ancient
medical practices' 'madness'

You say trephination, I say trepidation-let's call the "hole" thing off.

The infamous practice of drilling holes-called trephinations-into the skull to relieve pressure may not have been as barbaric as it now seems, said Joe Zias, retired chief physical anthropologist and curator for the Israel Antiquities Authority. In fact, survival rates for the earliest patients were as high as 75 percent, later dropping to less than 10 percent when hospitals first formalized the procedure.

There's a tendency to minimize the abilities of ancient health care practitioners, said Zias, who spoke Oct. 20 about "Health and Healing in Antiquity" and highlighted archaeological and scientific discoveries in Israel before religious disputes brought researchers' work to a halt. During the combination lecture/slide show, Zias gave an overview of disease and treatment over several millennia and talked about dentistry, surgery, parasites and infectious diseases.

He first showed a series of slides picturing 2,000- to 9,000-year-old lice in good states of preservation. "Fifty percent of the objects we discovered held a tremedous amount of lice," Zias said. Studying fossilized parasites is important for current DNA research, he explained. Although many organisms are extinct, today's species are strikingly similar.

Trephinations were performed with bibell seashells in Israel, which are similar to Japanese knives, with edges good for cutting. Archaeologists determined patient survival rates by studying regrowth or infection at the site of the trephination.

"It's very difficult to tell why they did it, but we can tell how they did it," Zias said. The procedure is still performed in parts of Africa-without anesthisia-and "probably doesn't hurt that much," Zias said.

Tombs contaning 200 to 300 people are "the bread and butter of physical anthropology," Zias said. In one, anthropologists found a young pregnant girl whose pelvic proportions certainly led to her death as she gave birth. The diameter of the baby's skull exceeded the mother's bone structure by at least two to six centimeters, Zias said. A Caesarian-section would certainly have facilitated the baby's birth, Zias said, but in the 8th century B.C., C-sections were "always done for financial reasons, not humanitarian ones-women never survived the operation," he said. The first successful C-section didn't occur until the 16th century.

"If you were pregnant, your survival depended on your ethnicity," Zias said. Jews regarded the mother as more important than the baby, but Christians believed the opposite. "The baby had not been baptized, but the mother had been," Zias explained.

Zias' final slides showed the world's only evidence proving cruxifictions did indeed take place-the image of a man's foot with a nail driven through the bone to the heel. Despite the substantial lack of physical evidence, anthropologists believe there were tens if not hundreds of thousands of cruxifictions in antiquity performed all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Two possible reasons for the dearth of physical evidence: often people were tied to the crosses-not nailed-and there was a custom of holding the nail from a cruxifiction in one's pocket during the Sabbath.

-Danielle Service

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