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Evidence of brain surgery found in Bronze Age brothers

Wednesday's research highlights one of the oldest trephination surgeries in the region and serves as a notable case study of social class and medicine.

(CN) — One of the most ancient practices in medicine verified part of its vast primordial timeline this week, where researchers unearthed a tomb in modern Israel displaying evidence of a rare form of neurosurgery dating back to the early Late Bronze Age between 1550 and 1450 B.C.

That’s according to a study published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, in which lead researcher Rachel Kalisher of Brown University describes the remains of two brothers buried under what was once an elite residence in the archaeological site of Tel Megiddo.

According to Kalisher, one of the brothers displayed evidence of “cranial trephination” or “trepanation” — a fancy word for putting a hole in the head. The practice is one of the oldest surgical procedures known, with proven medical benefits often related to releasing pressure buildup in the skull.

“The presence of a trephination on individual 1 further represents an unusual and high-level intervention that indicates access to the services of a trained practitioner who administered this treatment shortly before death,” Kalisher wrote, adding how only a few dozen trephinations have ever been recorded in the entire history of the Levant.

Kalisher said the trephination style is even less common — only seen in four other southern Levantine cases — making the Megiddo case “one of the earliest of its kind in the region by at least several centuries.”

Another fascinating aspect of the brothers’ story: neither showed typical signs of ailments associated with trephination, such as those related to head trauma. Instead, Kalisher wrote that each brother had lesions related to developmental conditions with “extensive bone remodeling consistent with chronic infectious disease.”

Based on the shared epigenetic landscape at the time, Kalisher said the brothers might have been predisposed to similar types of ailments with lesions supporting a differential diagnosis, including osteomyelitis, treponemal disease or leprosy. And even more remarkable, the researcher wrote the developed nature of lesions indicated the brothers lived with the infections for several years before death.

When contextualized against the “middle class” of Megiddo, if you will, Kalisher said it’s evident the elite individuals of Tomb 45 were relatively privileged throughout their lives, as shown by their survival despite their physical states and infectious diseases. Individuals from less prosperous classes at the time were not so lucky.

“At Megiddo in both the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, individuals from the less prosperous middle-status areas show no severe pathological afflictions beyond osteoarthritis, LEH and periodontal disease,” Kalisher wrote. “In contrast, the elite individuals presented here from Tomb 45, as well as those in the royal Tomb 50 show higher frequencies of lesions associated with long-endured disorders and infectious diseases.”

This doesn’t mean these illnesses were not also present in middle-status groups, Kalisher said. Without the same resources as the elite, those who were ill did not “survive as long for their bones to reflect it.”

It’s also worth noting that, like their noble counterparts, the brothers were buried in a tomb adorned with high-quality food and fine ceramics, suggesting they did not experience “othering” or burial exclusion for their ailments.

“Rather, they were therefore provisioned for in life and death in a way that highlights the particular dynamics amongst a portion of this elite family in Late Bronze Age Megiddo,” Kalisher wrote.

Categories:Health, Science

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