What could have motivated the first Homo sapiens to explore the inner life of his head? Incredibly, the earliest evidence we have of such interest reaches back 7,000 years, to skulls from Early Stone Age graves that exhibit carefully cut, man-made holes. These so-called trepanations were performed by various cultures around the world, right up to modern times, and many of the subjects must have survived for years, because their skulls show that scar tissue had formed around the holes.
Ancient cultures presumably practiced trepanation to liberate the soul from the evil spirits that were supposedly responsible for everything from fainting spells to bouts of hysteria. But despite those inquisitions, the philosophers and physicians of old seem to have placed far less importance on the brain and nervous system than on other organs. Both the Bible and the Talmud tell of authentic medical observations, but neither provides a single indication that any disease was connected to the brain, spinal cord or nerves. The embalmers of Egyptian pharaohs and high priests prepared the liver and heart with great care but removed the brain through the nose and ears using rods and spoons.
This article was originally published with the title Humbled by History.