A hole in an ancient cow’s skull could have been surgery practice

People may have been testing surgical techniques before operating on humans

ancient cow skull

HOLEY COW  A section of bone missing from the right side of a more than 5,000-year-old cow skull (front and back views, shown) resulted from a surgical procedure, researchers say.  

F. Ramirez Rozzi

Ancient surgeons may have practiced dangerous skull-opening procedures on cows before operating on people.

A previously excavated cow skull from a roughly 5,400- to 5,000-year-old settlement in France contains a surgically created hole on the right side, a new study finds. No signs of bone healing, which start several days after an injury, appear around the opening. One or more people may have rehearsed surgical techniques on a dead cow, or may have tried unsuccessfully to save a sick cow’s life in what would be the oldest known case of veterinary surgery, researchers conclude online April 19 in Scientific Reports.

Evidence of skull surgery on humans, whether for medical or ritual reasons, goes back about 11,000 years (SN: 5/28/16, p. 12). Ancient surgeons needed to know how and where to scrape away bone without harming brain tissue and blood vessels. So practicing bone removal on cows or other animals is plausible.

The ancient cow’s skull opening, shaped almost in a square and framed by scrape marks, resembles two instances of human skull surgery from around the same time in France, say biological anthropologists Fernando Ramirez Rozzi of CNRS in Montrouge, France, and Alain Froment of IRD-Museum of Man in Paris. Microscopic and X-ray analyses found no fractures or splintered bone that would have resulted from goring by another cow’s horn. No damage typical of someone having struck the cow’s head with a club or other weapon appeared, either.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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