Stone Age Surgery

Photo by Renato Danyi on

Trigger warning: Stone Age surgery!

This post is the first in a series I have planned about prehistory. Each post will draw on one or more chapters from the book The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000. From the front flap:

Our long-held myths are exploding. Recent discoveries of astonishing accomplishments from the Neolithic Age – in art, technology, writing, math, science, religion, and medicine, and exploration – demand a fundamental rethinking of human history before the dawn of civilization.

Lost Civilizations, inside flap

So, Rudgley’s thesis is basically that there was, in fact, civilization long before there was civilization. That is, of course, also a theme of this blog. “Ancient people were smarter than we think,” or that art, literature, science and civilization are the natural state of human beings and have been present (ebbing and flowing of course) as long as there has been humanity.

A near-universal theme in the mythologies of the world is that the present state of the world, and more specifically the social world, is in decline — a fall from the Garden of Eden or from a Golden Age. Modern civilization has turned these traditional mythological assumptions on their head and written a new script, one based on the idea of social progress and evolution. In this new mythology the notion of civilization (as it is generally understood) replaces Eden and this novel paradise exists not at the beginning of time but, if not right now, then just around the corner. Civilization is … presented as the final flowering of human achievement born out of a long and interminable struggle against the powers of darkness and ignorance that are represented by the Stone Age.

Lost Civilizations, Introduction, page 1

I have come to believe in the ancientness of civilization because I take ancient documents seriously as historical records: Genesis, primarily, but also the other legends and myths from around the world which Rudgley mentions in his intro. This suspicion that ancient people were much smarter than we give them credit for was further strengthened as I learned about some of their building projects. Now Rudgley is presenting archaeological evidence that they knew far more than we suspect about art, mathematics, the natural sciences, and medicine.

Disclaimer about Dates

By the way, I don’t have a coherent way to sort out which archaeological dates to accept and which ones to doubt. As far as I can tell from my reading, all methods of dating archaeological sites are based on some form of dead reckoning.

Carbon dating depends on certain assumptions about rates of molecular decay, which can’t be proven in the first place and can also be thrown off universally or locally by events such as a comet strike. Carbon dating also seems to be less reliable the farther we go back in time.

Dating by archaeological layers also depends on assumptions about different historical periods and what might be diagnostic of each, except in cases where a site can be reliably linked to a known historical event (which is obviously only the case for relatively recent sites). Other than that, it’s all dead reckoning.

Dating events in human history by the use of genetics depends upon assuming that all genetic differences evolved and assuming certain rates of change. Historical linguistics has the same problem.

Finally, historical records such as the genealogies found in Genesis and in the oral traditions of other peoples worldwide hit only the highlights of a family line and don’t give us any idea how many generations were skipped.

Each of these methods can be pretty convincing in specific cases. It is even more convincing when one or more methods converge, yielding the same date range. But even when that happens, it’s still just one method of dead reckoning appearing to validate another. And most often, different dating methods contradict each other. If a plurality of them converged on one timeline for human history, maybe we could accept that. But they don’t. It’s complete chaos.

I would love to present a clever, coherent, data-grounded rubric for sorting all this stuff out. But I’m not a professional in any of these fields. Even if I were, the pros don’t all agree with one another. It’s starting to look like, in order to have a sorting method that makes sense, I would have to do full-time research for several years. Maybe for a lifetime. So I got nothin’.

My working theory is that humanity, and hence human civilization, is tens of thousands but not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions of years old. I can’t prove this. No one can.

So, in these posts about Rudgley’s book, I’ll just present the dates as he gives them. I won’t try to integrate them with the picture of ancient human history that I have been piecing together in my books and in other posts on this site, all of which could be invalidated at any time by a new historical or archaeological discovery. Sometimes Rudgley gives dates that are hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old (though not in this chapter). I might be skeptical that they are really that old, but can still accept that these people were living long before mainstream archaeology tells us that there was “civilization.”

On to the Icky Stuff!

So. Stone Age Surgery.

Undoubtedly the widest-known major surgical operation in tribal cultures is trepanation … which, as will become clear, was also known in the Stone Age. This operation involves the removing of one or more parts of the skull without damaging the blood vessels, the three membranes that envelop the brain … or the actual brain.

Lost Civilizations, p 126

That’s right, removing parts of the skull. There are three methods by which this can be done: scraping, “a mixture of boring and sawing,” and “the push-plough method,” which involves creating an oval groove in the skull (basically another method of scraping).

Thomas Wilson Parry, MD (1866 – 1945), became fascinated by trepanation and practiced various methods of it on human skulls (not on live patients), “using implements made of obsidian, flint, slate, glass, shell and shark teeth.” “Parry records that the average time it took him to perform a trepanation by the scraping method on a fresh adult skull was half an hour. He found both flint and obsidian excellent materials to work with surgically, and also expressed the opinion that shells — which were used in Oceania to perform such operations — were highly effective too.” (page 128)

Trepanation appears to be less painful than it sounds. It has been used at various times and places to treat epilepsy, mental illness, head injuries, severe headaches, vertigo and deafness (129). It is “still regularly practised among the Gusii of Kenya, a Bantu people with a population of about one million, and theirs is perhaps the last surviving traditional practice of its kind.” (130) Trepanation was also practiced by the Incas and the pre-Inca peoples; in Neolithic Europe; in 6th-century BC Palestine; and now, trepanned skulls a few thousand years old have also been found in Australia.

Rudgley points out that “as it is usually only the bones of Stone Age people that survive to be discovered … any operation that was performed on the soft parts of the body cannot be detected.” (136) If Neolithic people were willing and able occasionally to practice trepanation, it seems likely that they were able to perform less risky kinds of surgery too. There is some evidence from Neolithic Europe of various kinds of dentistry, including toothpick grooves, birch bark chewing gum, and even a skull with a tooth that has been drilled. (136)

Rudgley’s chapter on trepanation (“Stone Age Surgery”) comes after a chapter called “Under the Knife” (pp 116 – 125), which discusses medical procedures in “tribal” cultures that are known from history and ethnography. This includes everything from circumcision in the Ancient Near East, to amputation among the Australian aborigines, to very detailed anatomical knowledge among the Aleutian islanders. The chapter concludes with two horrifying yet impressive accounts of successful surgeries in a tribal context. There is a c-section performed in Uganda in 1879, and various tumor removals performed in the Ellice [sic] Islands in the 1920s. The message is clear: modern, “civilized” people don’t have a corner on medical knowledge.

Antiseptics and Painkillers

We don’t know whether Stone Age people had germ theory. Nor, if they had it, do we know how they referred to germs. In one of Ursula le Guin’s novels, a wound getting infected is called “the evil of the blade.” That’s hardly less scientific than calling it an “infection,” as long as you know how to prevent or treat it.

Studies of both the trepanned skulls of the Incas and some of those found in Neolithic Europe indicate that healing seems to have been the norm in both cases. It is hard to explain the Stone Age success rate without concluding that some kind of effective antiseptic agent must have been used. Furthermore, the surgeons of the time must have understood the need for it.

Lost Civilizations, p 131

If germ theory was ever explicitly known, it was obviously forgotten at some point in human history, only to be re-discovered much later. But even if people were operating on a different theory, it would be possible for them to know the importance of cleanliness and to know how to treat a patient using any of a large number of natural substances that have antiseptic properties. The words “Stone Age” naturally evoke the image of a cave man, and the idea of a cave man naturally includes an individual who never takes a bath. But it ain’t necessarily so.

It is also possible that people’s immune systems were much stronger many years ago, if we are willing to entertain the idea that the human race has declined over time rather than evolving upwards.

Now, I am sure you want to know about painkillers. Here, gleaned from Rudgley’s Stone Age Surgery chapter, is a short list of substances that have been used as painkillers at different times and places:

  • cocaine (in coca leaves — South America)
  • wine mixed with extract of mandrake (first-century Greece)
  • mandrake beer (ancient Egypt)
  • possibly just beer
  • the opium poppy (starting in the Mediterranean around 6000 BC and spreading west from there)
  • cannabis (native to Central Asia, but quickly spread to Old Europe and China)
  • betel nut (Southeast Asia)
  • tobacco (in the Americas)
  • pituri (a nicotine-bearing plant used by the Australian Aborigines)

Clearly, although we might prefer modern anesthesia, ancient peoples were not completely without recourse when it came to pain. Most of the substances on this list are attested not only in history but also in ancient burials.

And Now, the Lucky Honoree of this Post

This post is dedicated to a certain relative of mine whose birthday today is. Like the surgeons in this post, he is both very smart, and now, as of this birthday … ancient.

7 thoughts on “Stone Age Surgery

  1. Pingback: The Curiously Affirming Female Figurines of Ancient Europe – Out of Babel

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