The Undeniable Evidence Of Ancient Brain Surgery Found In A Bronze Age Tomb

An ancient Israeli tomb offers evidence that a certain type of brain surgery was more common in the Middle East region than once thought, according to a February 2023 study published on PLOS One. The tomb near the ancient city of Tel Megiddo dates from around 1,500 B.C. and contains the remains of two brothers. Each one evidently lived with a number of health challenges in their lifetimes, and one brother, aged between 21 and 46 years old when he died, underwent a type of brain surgery still practiced today called cranial trephination.

Evidence of that sort of brain surgery has been found from around the same time period in other parts of the world — the oldest being from around 7,000 years ago in Sudan — but rarely in the Middle East and never as early as what was discovered in the excavated Israeli tomb (via Smithsonian Magazine). On that note, study author and doctoral candidate at Brown University's Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Rachel Kalisher, told CNN: "[A]dding more examples to the scholarly record will deepen our field's understanding of medical care and cultural dynamics in ancient cities in this area."

One brother had a square hole in his head

At the time the two brothers in the tomb were alive, the city they lived in — Tel Megiddo — was a prosperous trade center, suggesting they came from an affluent family. The brothers were buried under the floor of the family home, a common practice during this time period. The evidence that one brother underwent brain surgery was a square hole found in one cranium, which could have only been drilled, cut, or scraped alongside other signs the scalp had been cut. Then, like now, the apparent well-to-do means of the brothers likely led to their family's ability to pay for such an extensive and risky procedure. A model of ancient Tel Megiddo is pictured above.

What led the one brother to need brain surgery, however, is a matter of speculation, as is whether or not the operation was performed with or without anesthesia, which may at that time have been merely a mind- or mood-altering substance. Evidence of anesthetic use has been found in the Ancient Greeks, Incas, and Babylonians, among other societies, according to the University of Medicine and Health Sciences. When asked what might have led the male individual to need such an invasive procedure, study author Rachel Kalisher said (via Smithsonian Magazine): "I can only hypothesize based off of the amount of pathological evidence that is on this individual that this was an intervention because of deteriorating conditions ... But we don't really have a clear answer."

Both brothers lived with a variety of illnesses, evidence suggests

Also discovered in the Tel Megiddo tomb was evidence that both brothers were seriously ill during their lifetime, possibly living with leprosy. According to doctoral student Rachel Kalisher, one theory is that the younger brother's condition had worsened, leading to his death and that the older brother — who displayed signs of brain surgery — had undertaken the procedure in a last-ditch effort some years later to save his life. The brothers were determined to be related through DNA, and both also showed signs of congenital and developmental delays and challenges.

Along with the skeletal remains, pottery and other burial offerings were found in the tomb. There were also no signs of healing in the cranial bone, so the subject likely died during or shortly after the difficult procedure. On the lifestyle of the two brothers, Kalisher added (via CNN): "The skeletal evidence tells us that this individual endured illness for a prolonged time, which, assuming it was left untreated, likely progressed ... These brothers were obviously living with some pretty intense pathological circumstances that, in this time, would have been tough to endure without wealth and status."