Neolithic People Performed Brain Surgery On Cows

6:54 minutes

cross section of cow skull with hole in it
External and internal view of the cow cranium showing the hole on the right frontal bone. Bar corresponds to 10 cm. Credit: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi et al

When it comes to medical treatments, humans haven’t always done the smartest things. Around 5,000 years ago, the practice of trepanation (drilling a hole in a person’s skull) was widespread in cultures all over the world. However, neolithic people were smart enough to think they might need to practice the treatment on some non-humans first.

[Beyond the hive, there’s a weird world of native bees.]

In a recent study in the journal Science, researchers say they’ve uncovered the skull of a cow with a similar hole in its skull, which may be the oldest known example of animal surgery. Annalee Newitz joins Ira to discuss the finding. Plus, researchers uncover archaeological evidence revealing 19th-century views on abortion. And scientists forecast a whiplash of drought and rainfall in California’s future.   

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, it’s your chance to get involved in cutting-edge astronomy research, and we’ll tell you how to hunt for distant galaxies.

But first, around 5,000 years ago, back before we knew any better, people went around drilling holes in their skulls. Well, the why is still unclear. But if you were an ancient healer getting ready to administer this treatment to a person, you might want to do what modern medicine does, and that is practice on a non-human first. And scientists report this week that they’ve uncovered the skull of a cow with a hole in its skull that likely played a guinea pig to one of those surgeries.

Here with the details as well as other short subjects in science is Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor for Ars Technica. Welcome back to Science Friday.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So people really did this with animals?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So now we have evidence that they did. This is a 5,000-year-old cow’s skull that was discovered in France. And at first, scientists thought that this perfect hole in its forehead was from a fight, basically, with another cow that had jammed its horn into the skull. But after analysis and really looking at it under the microscope, they saw that the hole was surrounded by all of these little tiny knife cuts, these telltale signs that actually someone had used some kind of stone knife to grind a hole in the skull. And it’s exactly the same kind of pattern that we see on human skulls that have been given this rather dubious medical treatment that was very, very popular in prehistory.

IRA FLATOW: It was. I mean, 5,000 years ago, people were doing this to themselves, you’re saying.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, and it’s called trepanation. It means putting a hole in your skull. And we see it all across the world, actually. This is something that was very common in prehistory. And we aren’t sure if it was a medical procedure or it may have been some kind of spiritual practice. But we know for sure that people survived it, because we can see that there’s regrowth of the skull around those holes. So people were living with these, sometimes with up to five of these holes in their skull. And they are not small holes. These are like dime or nickel-sized holes.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I’m just sitting here wondering–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Why would they do this? Yeah, and so what we think is that this cow skull, as you said earlier, may have been a young surgical resident of the era learning how to do this kind of procedure on a cow before doing it on a human.

The other possibility is that this may have been the same kind of spiritual practice or the cow may have been sick. And so they may have thought, well, let’s try it on the cow.


ANNALEE NEWITZ: What we do know for sure is the cow did not survive. So unlike the people who had this procedure, the cow was sacrificed for medical science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s move on. It’s hard to. Archaeologists say they have evidence that 19th century women made decisions about family planning. Tell us about that.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is a great example of historical archeology, which is where we use the techniques of archeology, like excavation, to look at places that are known in history, that have lots of writing about them, times like the 19th century when we know a lot about what people said they did in their lives, but using archeology, we can do things like dig through their trash, go through old houses, and find out how people really lived, what were the real artifacts in their homes.

And so an archaeologist named Andrea Zlotucha Kozub did two excavations in upstate New York, one in Niagara Falls and one in Binghamton, where they were going through an outhouse, which is a place where Victorian era people, they didn’t just throw out their chamber pots there, it was just all the stuff in your house. You threw way old bottles and cans, and threw away ashes and things. And so you find a lot of material stuff in there that tells us how people lived.

And in two of these outhouses she discovered the remains of miscarriages, which was a big mystery. Why would women do that? It seemed like it spoke to secrecy, some kind of clandestine activity.

And in the Binghamton house, what she found revealed why it was that these were hidden, which is she found a little bottle of Clarke’s Female Pills. And Clarke’s Female Pills were a mail-order product that contained a product from a juniper bush that was known to be an abortifacient. So this was a pill that you took to induce an abortion.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: And so what it seems– yeah, and so it seems as if the woman in this Binghamton house, who– the thing that’s interesting and the thing that we learn from it is that this was a middle-class woman who had a family. She was married. She would have to her neighbors been viewed as very respectable lady.

And previously, archaeologists had believed that really only desperate women or prostitutes were getting abortions at this time. And so now we see that really women from all walks of life were doing this, and, also, even under very difficult circumstances, because abortion was illegal at this time. It had been made illegal about a couple decades before. And so she was really taking her life in her hands by doing this. She could be arrested.

And so women from all walks of life were going to great lengths to engage in family planning, even at that time. So it’s a really fascinating look at what private lives were like in the 19th century.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, California should get ready for another whiplash weather event.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. I love the name of this weather event. I live in California. So this is very dear to my heart. It’s called whiplash precipitation. And it’s what happens when you have a very intense drought followed by incredible amounts of rain. And we’ve just seen this happen in California over the past year where this kind of event causes mudslides. It’s often accompanied by wildfires.


ANNALEE NEWITZ: Because, of course, when the land gets really dry and then you soak it with water, that water doesn’t always soak in. It just runs over the surface of the ground.

So what we can be expecting, according to new models developed by scientists at UCLA, is more of these events, as many as 100% more or as little as 25% more, which is kind of what I’m hoping for.


ANNALEE NEWITZ: But, yeah, we’re going to be seeing more rain and more drought coming right next to each other.

IRA FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. So as California goes, right, so does the rest of the country. Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor for Ars Technica. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks very much.

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