Evidence of ancient surgery found in Siberia is causing feverish speculation about the nature of Bronze Age painkillers.
A 3,000-year-old skull—found in the “Nefteprovod 2” burial ground at the Anzhevsky archeological site near the city of Kansk in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region—shows markings that indicate some form of brain surgery. The individual was aged between 30 and 40, a fairly decent age by Bronze Age standards, when he died.
What makes the skull remarkable is that though the man probably died from eventual complications of surgery, he did live long enough afterwards for the bone to start healing and for skin to cover the hole.
“The key to successful surgery was the patient’s complete trust and confidence,” deadpans Dr. Sergey Slepchenko, a researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk.
Given the absence from Siberia of certain plants known to have been used by other ancient cultures as painkillers, researchers speculate about some other candidates to achieve the “altered” state of mind necessary for such surgery. These include juniper and thyme, wild rosemary sticks, hallucinogenic fly agaric mushrooms, and cannabis—a plant that may have played a key role in the birth of Eurasian civilization.
Based on known shamanistic practices, they also speculate that “ecstatic dancing” may have been involved.
The problems around modern pharmaceutical drugs are well known, but we’ll take ’em over the ancient alternatives any time.