The earliest evidence of ear surgery has been found on a 5,300-year-old skull taken from an ancient Spanish tomb, according to a new study.
The skull was found in a megalithic tomb known as the El Pendon Dolmen in Burgos, Spain, where funeral rites were historically held.
It probably belonged to a prehistoric woman between the ages of 35 and 50, an advanced age for that time.
At some point, she underwent a two-stage mastoidectomy, an intervention to eliminate an infection in the skull behind the ear within the mastoid process.
Surprisingly, analysis of the skull confirmed that she survived, having undergone this operation, performed some 5,300 years ago, the first documented successful ear surgery.
The researchers at the University of Valladolid, who led the study, said: “This finding will be the earliest surgical intervention on the ear in human history.”
The skull, found in a megalithic tomb, probably belonged to a woman between the ages of 35 and 50, which was an advanced age for that time. Shown at the top is a skull, and below is a circled skull in a megalithic crypt.
The El Pendon Dolmen is located in Reynoso, a municipality and city located in the province of Burgos, Spain.
EL PENDONA DOLMEN
The El Pendoni Dolmen is an ancient burial chamber in Burgos, Spain.
Radiocarbon analysis determined that the dolmen was built at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC.
It is believed to have been in use for about 800 years between 3800 and 3000 BC.
It consists of a central burial chamber with a long entrance passage.
In July 2018, a skull with the earliest evidence of ear surgery was found in the El Pendonis dolmen.
If left untreated, the woman’s infections could lead to hearing loss, meningitis, and possibly death.
In fact, the skull was found in July 2018, but is only now being described in a scientific article published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“This is an elderly woman between the ages of 35 and 50 who has two bilateral perforations compatible with two mastoidectomy,” said study author Manuel Rojo-Guerra from the University of Valladolid, Spain.
He added that this type of intervention “should be performed by real specialists or people with certain anatomical knowledge and accumulated therapeutic experience.”
Researchers know the woman survived the procedure because of signs of bone regeneration around the puncture points.
“This effect of resorption and regeneration is simultaneous and is detected by the presence of small depressions—Hauship lacunae—formed by osteoclasts in the process of scraping damaged bone surfaces and small mounds of bone formation produced by osteoblasts,” Rojo-Guerra said.
“The presence of these two types of structures in the microscopic preparation allows us to guarantee that for at least one month the woman survived the surgical intervention.”
The El Pendona Dolmen in Burgos is shown here as it appears today. Archaeological excavations have been underway here since 2016.
Thousands of years ago, ritual and funeral rites were held in the dolmens of El Pendon (artist’s impression)
The team also found a flint sheet in the tomb with traces of bone cutting and repeated heating to high temperatures.
This allowed the researchers to propose its use “as an authentic cauterizing or surgical instrument for performing an operation.”
The skull was broken and some parts were missing, but the neurocranium – the top and back of the skull – was intact and in place, as was the nasal bone, cheekbones and lower jaw, according to The History Blog.
She lost all her teeth, and her thyroid cartilage in her throat turned out to be completely ossified, that is, turned into bone.
“Losing all teeth in a lifetime points to older adults,” the authors note.
Selection of a set of flint stone tools – blades, geometric microliths and arrowheads – from the El Pendon dolmens.
Computed tomography and details of both temporal bones of the studied skull and some samples of comparative analysis
The surgery hypothesis is also supported by the fact that the external auditory canals of both ears were enlarged by trepanation, a bizarre surgical procedure involving drilling holes in the human skull that has historically been performed to treat a variety of health problems, the team said.
The skull was found lying on its right side, facing south, towards the entrance to the burial chamber.
The authors of the study say that a huge number of bones were found in the El Pendon dolmen, belonging to about 100 people “suffering from various pathologies and injuries.”
Map of the province of Burgos in the Iberian Peninsula, the village of Reynoso and the dolmens of El Pendon.
According to radiocarbon analysis, the tomb was in use for about 800 years between 3800 and 3000 BC.
According to experts, the monument underwent a series of reuses, regroupings and reductions of corpses throughout its life as a tomb, showing that it acted as a “complex symbolic and ritual world.”
Since 2016, archaeological excavations have been underway here, which “revealed the complex biography” of the megalith.
“Since the building [it] went through several stages of use until it was finally abandoned as a tomb and turned into a memorial,” the authors concluded.
Bizarre historical practice of trepanation
Trepanation is a procedure that has been used throughout human history.
It involves the removal of part of the skull and is often performed on animals and humans.
The first recorded evidence of this was on a cow in the Stone Age 3,000 years ago.
This was a process still carried out in the 18th century.
It was believed that in many diseases accompanied by severe pain in the patient’s head, the removal of the round part of the skull would reduce the pressure.
Prior to this, since the Neolithic Age, people drilled or made a hole in the head of people exhibiting abnormal behavior.
It is believed that this will release the demons contained in the skulls of the sick.
This gruesome-looking set of instruments was used in the 18th century by physicians to perform trepanation, the removal of part of the skull to relieve pressure in the head.