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5,300-Year-Old Skull Reveals Earliest Evidence Of Ear Surgery

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockFeb 21 2022, 16:30 UTC
oldest known ear surgery

The discovery could be “the first known radical mastoidectomy in the history of humankind,” say the study authors. Image credit: S Díaz-Navarro et al 2022, Scientific Reports. CC BY 4.0

An ancient skull with burr holes in the temporal bones appears to demonstrate the earliest known record of ear surgery by humans. The remains, thought to be female, are believed to show “the first known radical mastoidectomy in the history of humankind,” say the researchers behind the discovery.

Inflammation and infection of the mastoid bone can follow an ear infection and before the advent of medicine, often resulted in death. The authors of a new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, describe an ancient skull with evidence of surgical intervention to tackle such an illness, as well as evidence of bone regeneration indicating the prehistoric woman survived the procedure.

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The curious skeletal remains were unearthed from a funerary chamber in Burgos, Spain, that housed around 100 bodies and was built in 4th millennium BC. This puts the skull at around 5,300 years old, says The History Blog.

The skull was found broken but with the neurocranium intact. It also showed enough missing teeth and thyroid cartilage ossification to indicate that the female owner was of an advanced age at death. Computed tomography scans revealed that both ear canals had been surgically altered likely by trepanation – an old-school surgical technique in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull.

earliest known ear surgery
Skull with mastoidectomy where it was found in the Dolmen of El Pendón megalithic burial site. Image credit: S Díaz-Navarro et al. 2022, Scientific Reports. CC BY 4.0

“Despite the [evidence] of cut marks, it is difficult to conclude the type of tool used to remove the bone tissue, most likely a sharp instrument with a circular movement,” explained the study authors, though “several studies demonstrate the use of stone instruments heated with fire as tools to cauterise wounds and to perform trepanations.”

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Ouch.

While remains with traces of mastoiditis have been found in palaeopathological analyses of ancient skulls, this is the first – to the authors’ knowledge – with signs of trepanation.

“The hypothesis proposed in this research is that the individual to whom the skull belonged was probably surgically intervened on both ears,” say the authors.

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“Based on the differences in bone remodelling between the two temporals, it appears that the procedure was first conducted on the right ear, due to an ear pathology sufficiently alarming to require an intervention, which this prehistoric woman survived.”

The left ear later underwent the same procedure of a puncture to the mastoid bone, but whether this was performed shortly after the right ear, or several months or even years later can’t be concluded from the existing evidence.

A painful procedure for a desperate prehistoric human, no doubt, but an incredible find for human history as it represents the earliest evidence of this kind of surgery and possibly the first in the history of humankind.

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Let’s all take a moment to appreciate that antibiotics have since overtaken stone-carved burr holes…

[H/T: The History Blog]


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