The remnants of a skull on which a complex form of brain surgery was performed. Image Credit: University of Adelphi.

Researchers Find Evidence Of Sophisticated Brain Surgery 1,700 Years Ago

"The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials..."


A complex form of brain surgery has been discovered in skeletal remains found by archaeologists at the burial site of a group of archers and their relatives from the Eastern Roman Empire of the troubled Proto-Byzantine period, spanning the 4th to 7th centuries AD.

At the Paliokastro site on Thasos island in Greece, scientists at Adelphi University discovered ten skeletal remains, four women and six men, who are likely to have high social status.


“The burial place and architecture of the funerary monumental church and the construction of the graves is spectacular,” revealed lead researcher and anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis. The scientists added that the details of the site indicate a high social standing of people buried there.

The advanced preservation of their remains and the impressive location and architecture of the monumental funeral church where they were buried exhibit their high status in the region.

“According to the skeleto-anatomic features of the individuals, both men and women lived physically demanding lives,” said Agelarakis, professor of anthropology in Adelphi’s Department of History


“The severe trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care. We believe it to have been a military physician.”

Speaking about the complex form of brain surgery, Agelarakis revealed that “even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male. So, it’s likely that he was a significant individual to the population at Paliokastro.”

Agelarakis and his colleagues were able to obtain medical and surgical data, as well as paleopathological data, on this “extraordinary head and neck surgery and the surgeon’s great efforts.”

The researchers determined that the probable cause of the surgical intervention was an infection and that the archer died shortly after or during surgery. “The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials,” Agelarakis said. “It is unbelievable that it was carried out, with most complicated preparations for the intervention, and then the surgical operation itself which took place, of course, in a pre-antibiotic era.”

The (Featured) image shows the Ectocranial view of the palaeopathological specimen. The red arrow points to the orifice on the mastoid process and surgical preparation dimensions peripheral to trepanation.


The results are described in a new book, “Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro in Thasos Island during the ProtoByzantine Period: The Historical and Medical History Records and the Archaeo-Anthropological Evidence,” by Archaeopress, Access Archaeology.

Although the discovery made at the island of Thasos in Greece is fascinating, this brain surgery is far from the oldest ever found. During archeological excavations of a Neolithic settlement in Omdurman in Sudan, archaeologists discovered an ancient skeleton with traces of trepanation, a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull. The person on which the brain surgery was performed lived more than 7,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest known cases of brain surgery anywhere in the world.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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