Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/September 1875/Cranial Amulets

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TILL the other day nothing was known that would indicate the existence of a religion among the people of the Stone Age. But a little over a year ago there were discovered clear traces of a cultus, the most ancient of which we have any idea. I propose here to narrate how we gained our first knowledge of the gross and oftentimes savage superstitions of our early ancestors. This important discovery was made by Dr, Prunières, of Marvejols. As he was cleaning some skulls from the dolmens of Lozère, he found in the interior of one of them a bone disk carefully polished on the edges, and evidently made of a fragment of a cranium, perhaps of the parietal bone. The skull in which this disk was found presented a great hole, through which it might have passed; still evidently it had not come from the part destroyed, being considerably thicker than the other bones of the skull, and, furthermore, differing from them in color. On examining this cranium at the point where it was mutilated, the edges of the opening were found to be carefully polished and beveled on the external surface, and it was plain that the hole itself, like the disk of bone, had been wrought by the hand of man. Was it also man who put the bone disk inside of the skull? One might think at first that it was the effect of an accident similar to that by which the beads of a necklace often drop into the skull; but, when other pieces were discovered similar to that described, it could not be doubted that it was the hand of man which placed the disk of bone in the skull. What was the intention? It is impossible to say with certainty, but it is difficult not to believe that the practice was coupled with a religious idea.

A number of skulls found by M. Prunières presented an opening more or less large, but contained no bone disk. These openings are often the size of a silver dollar, of variable form, but usually circular. That which has excited the greatest astonishment, however, is the fact that these perforations had been made during life, for their beveled edges had evidently commenced to cicatrize; often, indeed, the loss of substance was entirely restored. The savants to whom M. Prunières communicated his discovery then remembered that in many skulls they too had observed similar holes, with the edges more or less cicatrized. Up to that time they had supposed that they resulted from strokes of a hatchet dealt by an athletic arm, just as now a sabre often removes a portion of the skull. But what strength are we to imagine the men of that time to have possessed in order to make such terrible wounds with a simple stone hatchet? Hence the explanation offered was not very satisfactory. All doubts were set at rest by the invaluable discoveries of M. Prunières, as interpreted by himself with rare sagacity. The theory of these holes being the result of a blow from a stone hatchet is indeed extremely improbable in itself; then, too, why should skulls so disfigured be found in such numbers at Marvejols?

PSM V07 D626 Perforated cranium from lozere.jpg

Perforated Cranium from Lozère.

Evidently these perforations were made by the hand of man, and with some design; or, to speak more plainly, these people trepanned one another. For what motive did they practise this painful and often fatal operation? Numerous hypotheses have been put forward. Some suppose, with a fair degree of probability, that it had a therapeutic object. The trepan, indeed, has been practised from the most remote antiquity. Hippocrates speaks of it as an operation widely diffused; and, although the father of medicine is in the habit of citing authorities, and of naming the inventors of operations, he does not tell us the name of the originator of trepanning, which leads lis to think that his name was not known, because it was lost in the night of time. It is true that the name, from τρεπω, I turn, indicates that, when it was admitted into Greek surgery, it was performed, as it is now, by the aid of a centre-bit; still, in primitive times ruder methods were no doubt employed. The trepan was in great repute among the Greeks, and during the middle ages was resorted to for the cure of a number of maladies. The same practice widely prevails at the present time among uncivilized races.

M. le Baron de Larrey, in a note communicated to the Paris Academy of Medicine, relates that the Kabyles still frequently practise the operation, making with a saw four cuts in the shape of a parallelogram. General Faidherbe has sent to the Laboratoire des hautes Études two skulls from Roknia, Algiers, with traces of this operation. Mr. Squier presented to the Society of Anthropology a skull from an ancient Peruvian grave, upon which are distinctly seen the eight extremities of these saw-cuts. The traces of inflammation around the bone prove that the operation was performed about a week before death. If the person had survived some years, the traces of incision would have been effaced, the four angles would have become rounded, and the result would have resembled those which we now find upon the skulls of Lozère.

M. Chil related, at the Congrès at Lille, that there had been found a perforated skull resembling those discovered by M. Prunières in the Canary Islands—a fact of great importance, if confirmed, for it would indicate that these islands were peopled by African negroes.

The Medical Times assures us that the medicine-men of the South-Sea Islands practise, with a bit of glass, trepanning for troubles of the head, such as vertigo, neuralgia, etc. The remedy consists in making a T-shaped incision in the scalp, and scraping the skull with a fragment of glass, until the dura mater is reached, and a hole made one inch in diameter. In the minds of these savages the healing art is mixed up with a multitude of singular religious ideas. In their eyes the maladies of the body are caused by demoniacal possession. Therefore, when one suffers in the head, we must open a passage to let the demon out. It was thus that Jupiter, suffering from headache, escaped the malady by causing Vulcan to strike him so violently that Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, sprang from the opening.

Hence it may be that, for medical reasons, the men of the Stone Age trepanned the skull. But this does not account for all the facts. Why trepan the dead? Why introduce into some skulls the round plates of bone? It is clear that the healing art had nothing to do with these post-mortem operations, and that here our forefathers were simply acting in obedience to some religious ideas which it is hard for us to imagine.

In the first place, we would observe that, in all probability, these people bad a religion. M. Joseph, of Baye, has communicated to the Société d'Anthropologie a discovery made at Baye (Marne) of artificial grottoes excavated in the chalk during the Neolithic Age. He saw upon the walls of these caverns rude and almost shapeless sketches representing divinities in human form; and in these same caverns he found skulls perforated similarly to those of M. Prunières. Upon these grounds we may safely argue the existence of a system of religion. It has been observed that all the operations of trepanning were performed either upon infants or upon youths. Why were not all ages subject to it? why only infants or youths? I hazard the conjecture that it was connected with some superstition, that it formed a part of the ceremony of initiation to some priestly order. This, it is true, presupposes the existence of a religious caste; but there is no doubt that the neolithic peoples had an organized religious system. These rude sculptures, ever repeated exactly, which represent a female divinity upon the walls of the grottoes of Baye, even prove that the religion of Neolithic times had risen to the height of anthropomorphism. Now, a clearly-defined deity, a god in human form, must have priests that are regularly initiated; and a surgical initiatory rite recurs over and over again even among civilized peoples. Is it objected that the cranial mutilations were of too dangerous a character to be practised in religious ceremonies? But per se trepanning is not a dangerous operation. Very frequently, no doubt, it is fatal, but the reason is, because it is resorted to only in the last extremity. It is not the trepanning which kills the patient, but the cerebral lesions, which we seek to relieve in this way. Apart from these complications, its dangers are not very great. On the other hand, religious enthusiasm knows no bounds: and if certain deities exact human sacrifices, certainly those should be considered lenient who require of a man only a piece of his skull. What is piercing the skull, compared with disemboweling? And yet it is known that, among the negroes of Western Africa, certain individuals, to secure initiation in sainthood, and to prove the virtue of their amulets or gree-grees, open their bellies with their own hands, pull their bowels out, put them back, and sew themselves up. Many succumb to this butchery, but others rally and become the saints of their tribe." ("Bulletin de la Société d'Anthropologie," 2e série, tome ix., p. 199.)

Doubtless those who survived the piercing of the skull became equally worshipful personages, held in honor during their lives and after their deaths. Out of their sacred skulls were cut plates of bone, as shown in the engraving. They were then kept as sacred relics, or even worn as amulets, for many of them are pierced through the centre evidently with the view of suspending them. The skull in the figure has undergone three mutilations, D, E, and F, doubtless for the purpose of making amulets. Nor ought we to deride this superstition which attaches supernatural virtue to a bone from the human head: as late as the last century, a powder made from certain bones of the cranium used to be prescribed as a cure for epilepsy. It has been remarked that all the skulls in which disks of bone were found, were pierced during the life of the individual. If our hypothesis be true, the only ones honored with this practice would have been those consecrated to the service of the gods. If, on the other hand, motives be sought wherefore the dead should be thus honored, we are irresistibly conducted to their steadfast faith in the immortality of the soul. A person who had been trepanned comes to die—one or more pieces are cut from his sacred cranium for amulets or relics; but, inasmuch as the man could not live in another world with a mutilated skull, another piece of skull is given him to make him whole, when he reaches the abode of the blest.—La Nature.