Posted in Psychology & Medicine


When and what was the first surgery performed by mankind? Many would believe it to be a simple procedure such as suturing a wound. But would you believe that the earliest surgical procedure was brain surgery in 6500BC? Surprisingly, this is true.

Archaeologists have found a large amount of skulls with a large, round hole in them. Some of the oldest skulls with holes were found in France, where 40 skulls from the Neolithic era were excavated. Archaeologists believed these holes to be from a battle leading to a dent in the skull. However, these holes were actually the results of a surgery (signs of bone recovery can be seen around the edges of the hole, suggesting the patients were alive for some time even after the operation). These skulls all belonged to trepanation patients.

Trepanation is the surgical opening of the skull by drilling a hole in it. This is an ancient surgery that can be found throughout history. Hippocrates and Galen from ancient Greece both recorded detailed instructions on trepanation, ancient Incans performed the surgery and it was also common during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. These surgeries were most likely indicated for skull fractures where fragments were embedded in the brain. During the Middle Ages when it was better known that the brain was the seat of the soul, trepanation was used for psychiatric treatments too. For example, in 15th century Netherlands, trepanation was used to excise a so-called stone of madness that was supposedly the cause of insanity. Like this, it was believed that trepanation could release the demons and insanity trapped in the skull.

Although this operation sounds hilariously misled, it is still used in modern medicine. Of course, it is not known to treat insanity, but rather to treat brain bleeds. Extradural and subdural haemorrhages occur when a rupture of an artery in the brain causes a collection of blood in the skull, compressing the brain. This is a dangerous situation which can lead to a stroke or even death. One treatment of this condition is trepanation, or a burr hole, where a small hole is drilled in the skull to relieve the pressure, lowering intracranial pressure and stabilising the patient. Trepanation is an excellent example of how we can learn from the past and how medical knowledge from ancient times is sometimes still valid.

Posted in History & Literature

Elements: Four Elements Of The West

Human beings have believed that all matter can be divided into basic elements for a very long time. Although we now know that the basic building block of the universe is atoms, what did ancient people believe matter was made of?

In ancient Greece, the seat of Western culture, it was believed that everything was made from the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. According to Aristotle, every element has a primary and secondary characteristic, with the four characteristics being hot, cold, dry and wet. Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot, fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold and water is primarily cold and secondarily wet. He also spoke of a fifth element (quintessence) beyond the four elements. The name of the fifth element is aether and it is a pure and heavenly element that cannot be corrupted like the earthly four elements. Furthermore, it was thought that aether was the element of the sky and stars were composed of it as they were heavenly, not earthly.

The four classic elements of ancient Greece had an impact not only on physics and chemistry, but also on philosophy and culture (the concept of the four elements is popular in modern games too). The most interesting example of these is a theory by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, that states that the human body is composed of four bodily fluids (humours) and an imbalance between the humours caused diseases. The four humours are yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air) and phlegm (water). Furthermore, he believed that the four humours affected personalities too. For example, an excess of black bile (“melan chole” in Greek) would cause a person to become introspective and think negatively, leading to depression or “melancholy”. This is quite possibly the first medical records on clinical depression.

The four classic elements of ancient Greece can also be found in ancient Egypt and many other ancient civilisations. It also had a significant influence on alchemy in the Middle Ages.

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