It’s not always a study grabs my attention immediately, but this one certainly did. Scientists have found an ancient cow skull that appears to have been drilled into by humans, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
The skull belongs to a cow (Bos taurus) from a Neolithic site dating back to 3,400 to 3,000 BCE. Discovered in Champ-Durand in France in 1978, the skull has a sizeable hole in it that measures a few centimeters across. It was originally thought it was caused by goring from another cow’s horns.
However, scientists Fernando Ramirez Rozzi and Alain Froment from the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Museum of Man respectively have now re-analyzed the skull. And they found that the hole is most likely the result of humans drilling into it, a surgical technique known as trepanning. Their findings are published in Scientific Reports.
“One team of people had supposed that the hole in the skull was produced by another cow while fighting,” Rozzi told IFLScience. “But we saw very quickly that it was not done by another cow, [instead] it was trepanation.”
Trepanning is known to have been practiced on humans as far back as 10,000 BCE in the Mesolithic period. The purposes of it are debated, but it’s thought it may have been performed to relieve headaches or other ailments. It involves quite literally drilling into a person’s skull.
However, we have little to no evidence of the procedure ever being performed on animals. Only one other skull has been found that shows such signs, that of a wild boar discovered in 1948, which Rozzi says could be a sign of trepanation.
“But this skull was found out of archaeological context,” he said. “Nobody knows the date of this trepanation, or the date of the skull. And this skull was lost.”
The duo are pretty sure this hole in the cow's skull is the result of trepanation for a number of reasons. First, there is known evidence of fractures or splintering that you’d expect from the blow of another cow.
The hole is also square, with cut marks around the hole suggesting it is the result of a surgical process. Scanning the skull and reconstructing it in 3D, the team also found a smooth surface around the hole, further cementing this idea.
Sadly, the authors did not find evidence of the hole healing after the process. This suggests the cow either did not survive the procedure, it was killed shortly afterward, or it was already dead when it was performed.
All of this begs the question, why? That, Rozzi admits, is not clear. There are two main possibilities, one being that they were practicing to perform something similar on a human. The other is that they were trying to alleviate obvious pain the cow may have showed, and failed.
“If it’s a ritual, we don’t know anything about it,” said Rozzi. “Did they know that the cow was ill in the brain? For humans, I can say I have a terrible headache. But in the cow, maybe the idea was to practice, or it was a humanitarian act.”
There may well be more skulls like this awaiting discovery, which show evidence of trepanation. This particular discovery was fortunate as the skull had basically been thrown in the trash of the community, outside of the wall.
For now it’s the earliest, and possibly only, evidence we’ve got for cranial surgery in an animal. Why our ancestors did it remains unclear, but we’d hope they at least had good intentions at heart, despite ultimately botching the operation.