A 5,000-Year-Old Skull Found In France Reveals A Bizarre Practice Performed By Ancient Humans

Image: Richard Gatley

On the edges of sprawling marshland near the western coast of France from 1975 to 1985, a team of archaeologists uncovered relics from an ancient past. Among the interesting finds from the late Stone Age were masses of animal bones. And one of the most unusual was a cow’s skull with a particularly intriguing peculiarity. Fascinatingly, this little detail would open a wide window on how the Neolithic people of the region used to live.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Tens of thousands of years ago, Neolithic humans – who looked not dissimilar to us – trod the Earth we walk today. But even now, with all the techniques of modern archeology at our disposal, we know very little about how these ancestors lived. Academics can make educated guesses, but much about man in the Neolithic age – which ran for roughly 8,000 years until about 2000 B.C. – remains a mystery.

Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

However, most new archeological sites bring fresh revelations about ancient humans and their societies. And recently, an animal skull uncovered at Champ-Durand, a Neolithic settlement in Vendée, an area to the south of the French city of Nantes, has been causing quite a stir. In fact, the bone has helped bring new light to a mysterious practice that has intrigued archaeologists since the 19th century.

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At one time, Champ-Durand was a bustling settlement, apparently well known for trading in livestock and refining valuable salt. Discovered in 1971, four years later a team of archaeologists began excavations in the area, hoping to dig up some insight from this interesting site. In the process, the party, led by French research scientist Roger Joussaume, unearthed large quantities of ancient animal remains over a ten-year period.

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And, although the team found bones belonging to pigs, goats and sheep over the next decade, the majority of those recovered were from cattle. In fact, bovine remains are common at Neolithic sites around the world, leading archaeologists to conclude that the mammals were an important source of food and other resources during those ancient times.

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However, one particular cranial cattle bone discovered at Champ-Durand during the 1975-to-’85 dig has puzzled curious archaeologists ever since. But now, more than 30 years later, it seems a pair of researchers working in the French capital may have finally solved the mystery.

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Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

At some point during their excavations, archaeologists at Champ-Durand discovered an almost complete skull of a cow. Apparently, whole craniums are something of a rarity in the archaeological world. However, this specimen had most of its bone intact – although, strangely, there was a small hole above the right eye.

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Thought to date from between 3,400 and 3,000 B.C. the bone and its blemish presented an intriguing brain-teaser to researchers at the time. However, in 1999, a study speculated that the hole – measuring some 2.5 inches across and 1.8 inches wide – was a gore wound, created when the animal had been struck by the horns of another cow.

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Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

Nevertheless, doubts about this conjecture remained in some quarters, and Joussaume, as leader of the Champ-Durand dig, decided to get a second opinion. He passed the skull on to paleontologist Fernando Ramirez Rozzi at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. And, in tandem with his Parisian colleague, Alain Froment, a biological anthropologist from the city’s Musee de l’Homme, Rozzi took a closer look at the strange specimen.

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Soon, the pair realized that the previous theory about the hole in the cow’s cranium did not hold much weight. If the animal had been gored, they reasoned, the skull would still show some evidence of the altercation. However, no tell-tale signs, such as fractures or splintered bone, were present in the archeological find.

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Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

Instead, Rozzi and Froment noted that the hole appeared to have been formed by the bone having been scraped. And, it appeared to the academics that the procedure had been undertaken by human hands. Moreover, the absence of healing around the aperture suggested that the animal had died soon after it had been made, either as a direct result of the invasive action or a separate ailment. Alternatively, the cow may have been dead before the hole was created in its cranium.

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Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

But why would the Neolithic inhabitants of Champ-Durand have intentionally carved a hole into a cow’s head? Bizarrely, the practice is a familiar one to archaeologists. However, they are more used to spotting it in human rather than animal skulls. In fact, the custom is known as trepanation, and it has been around for at least 7,000 years.

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According to experts, trepanation was a crude type of surgery that involved scraping, cutting or drilling holes into the skull. And while later examples of the practice – which continued into the 20th century in parts of Polynesia and Africa – were performed as medical procedures, the purpose behind ancient trepanation is less clear.

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Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Among many of the trepanned human skulls unearthed by archaeologists over the years, evidence of cranial injury or disease has been detected. This has suggested to researchers that such trepanning operations – like their modern counterparts – had been performed to alleviate medical issues. However, academics have observed that the practice was also carried out on otherwise healthy specimens. This points to the possibility that trepanation may have had a ritualistic purpose in ancient cultures.

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Nevertheless, the Champ-Durand bovine bone find is thought to be the first to show evidence of medical animal trepanation from Neolithic times. Although a boar skull with signs of possible surgery from around that era had previously been unearthed, researchers have been unable to accurately date it. Furthermore, the only study relating to this French discovery was published some 70 years ago.

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Image: Fernando Ramirez Rozzi via Nature Research

However, the more recent discovery seems to have raised more questions than it has answered. It appears evident to Rozzi and Froment that the hole was created by humans. Nevertheless, the duo have struggled to determine exactly why such a procedure was carried out.

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One theory is that the skull presents evidence of an early veterinary practice. In common with most ancient human finds, the trepanation in the Champ-Durand bovine had been done to alleviate a malady. If this is accurate, it could be the earliest known example of veterinary surgical intervention. However, Rozzi has been quick to point out that the cow would have been kept as a food source. As such, curing an illness in the animal would seem an unlikely move.

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Image: Annie Spratt

Indeed, the academic confirmed as much in an email interview with CNN, published in April 2018. Rozzi wrote, “What would be the interest to heal a cow which represents the most abundant animal among the archaeological remains?” However, if the procedure had not been carried out to cure the animal, what purpose could it have served?

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Interestingly, Rozzi suggested another theory – that the animal was used as a guinea pig in order to practice trepanation techniques. In fact, he maintains that Neolithic people had a surprisingly refined understanding of cranial surgery methods. Could it be that late-Stone Age people once honed their approach to human surgical procedures by experimenting on cows?

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Image: Ivana Cajina

If the guinea pig theory is true, the Champ-Durand find represents an important historical milestone. It means the archaeologists there have uncoveredthe first-known evidence of experimental surgery carried out on an animal. We may never know the truth, nonetheless the discovery provides a fascinating insight into the lives of our ancestors.

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