Our heady ancestors

Evidence of ancient attempts at brain surgery should make us grateful for how much modern man has learned about medicine - and also remind us how much there still is to learn.

They didn't have autoclaves or polyisoprene gloves, and they knew nothing about surgical scrubbing. But they did know what they had to do to relieve the suffering of others.

Anthropologists working in North Africa have found convincing evidence that the Garamantian people, who flourished there from 3,100 years ago until about AD 700, performed a primitive form of brain surgery. And signs of renewed bone growth around the skull incisions show that at least some of the patients actually survived the procedures.

This new discovery, and previous ones elsewhere from even earlier periods, give convincing evidence, scientists say, that trepanning - cutting away part of the skull to relieve pain or for other reasons - is not the preserve of modern neurosurgery alone. We can only wonder what emotions pushed these proto-surgeons to cut into the skulls of kinsfolk or others, and whether the effort solved their problems.

What we can know, however, is how lucky we are, to live in a time when medical science has advanced so far. To be sure, modern man still faces intractable medical challenges. It is possible to imagine a future when people will look back on us, as we look back at the Garamantian surgeons, as primitives trying gamely to cope with poorly-understood medical mysteries. But we have come a long way already.

Published: August 19, 2011 04:00 AM