A skull showing trepanation

Archaeologists Unearth Evidence of Ancient Brain Surgery near Lake Van


By Levon Karamanoukian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Archaeologists working in the Southeast Regions of Lake Van have unearthed ancient human skulls that evidence brain surgery techniques dating as far back as the Iron-Age.  The excavations at Kaniya Bekan Necropolis are headed by Hakan Yilmaz, an associate professor at the Department of Archaeology at the Van Yüzüncü Yıl University.

According to Hakan Yilmaz, the excavations indicate that the inhabitants of the region, dating back 3,200 years ago, practiced cranial surgery that exhibited “a high degree of medical knowledge.” He adds, “About sixty percent of those who underwent these surgeries showed signs of healing, suggesting a relatively successful medical practice.”

The skull findings show evidence of trepanation (burring a hole) and surgical drilling of bone with healed edges suggesting that the recipients of the surgery survived for quite some time after the procedure.

The necropolis of Kaniya Bekan is located southeast of Lake Van in the Uzuntekne neighborhood of Çatak (Շատախ) district. According to the Van Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the region of Çatak was once an old Armenian settlement that officially changed its name to a more Turkified version in 1960.  According to the Armenian Patriarchate, the Armenian-populated Çatak district had “a census of 1,096 Armenians (219 houses) and 9 Kurds (2 houses)” at the turn of the 20th century. There are currently 33 neighborhoods in the Çatak (Շատախ) district in present-day Turkey.

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Anthropometric dating of the Kaniya Bekan necropolis indicates that the remains may coincide with the rise and fall of the proto-Armenian civilization of Urartu in the region centered around Lake Van.

The archaeologic findings include a treasure trove of evidence related to Iron-Age burial practices, diet and lifestyle patterns, and medical knowledge. Of the skulls currently excavated, scientists have noted that most cranial surgeries were performed on the back of the head or the right and left sides. The burial practices included dog burials alongside human remains; and offerings of smaller animals along the entrances of human burial sites which suggest a pattern of ritual offerings to the deceased.

Evidence of cranial surgery found near Lake Van show similarities in ancient cranial surgery techniques with other ancient civilizations, including those found in Incan, Egyptian, Roman, Kenyan, and Greek excavations. The methods used to core the skull in the Çatak skeletons, however, display a method of trepanation previously attributed to the first-century Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus in his treatise De Medicinis. Celsus described a method in which multiple burr holes are made in the skull in a concentric pattern and connected using a chisel. The findings at Çatak (Շատախ) pre-date the earliest mention of trepanation by Hippocrates by three millennia.

Archaeological excavations in the Lake Van region of Asia Minor are an active sight of scientific study, helping identify the Bronze and Iron-Age civilizations including the Urartians and the proto-Armenian civilizations of the Armenian plateau. The current study at Kaniya Bekan continues to reveal important clues to the lifestyle of ancient people living in the region.


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