There's a method to ancient
medical practices' 'madness'
You say trephination, I say trepidation-let's call the "hole"
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
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,"
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.
to November 10, 1997 Contents Page