What is trepanning?

Trepanning – which comes from the Greek word 'trypanon', meaning a device for boring holes – is the oldest-known surgical procedure, and possibly one of the most grim...

Medieval trepanning

Trepanning is a process whereby a hole is drilled in the skull, and, with evidence going back to prehistoric times, it is one of the oldest surgical practices in history. The earliest trepanned skull was discovered at a Neolithic burial site in France, and is more than 7,000 years old.

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It may have had a practical effect – to relieve pressure on the skull after an injury – but it could have also been used to give a trapped demon a hole to escape, or so it was believed.

Many different civilisations, from the Romans and Chinese performed the procedure, using sharpened pieces of flint as a surgical tool.

It was even used by the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas as part of their ancient rituals. In some ancient cultures, heads were very significant, and these groups became known as ‘head worshippers.’ Here, trepanning was particularly common, and the bone taken out was prized as an amulet. Shamans also used it to purge bad spirits, in the cases of those with mental diseases, epilepsy and blindness.

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates wrote of this practice being used when someone’s head was indented or bruised.

During the Middle Ages and into the 16th century, trepanning continued to be used frequently. Prince Philip of Orange had the operation 17 times, while one poor soul had some 52 holes drilled in the head within a two-month period.

With zero anesthesia, this made for a particularly painful, even life-threatening, procedure. However, the survival rate of these operations was surprisingly high.

Even up to the modern day, trepanning has its strong adherents. For instance, a Dutchman named Bart Hughes was so convinced by its usefulness that he performed the operation on himself using a local anesthetic, a scalpel and an electric drill in 1965.

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This article was taken from the August 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine