Could This Be the Earliest Example of Veterinary Surgery?

May 7, 2018
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

Upon further examination of a bovine skull uncovered more than 30 years ago, researchers believe they’ve found evidence of the earliest veterinary surgery.

External and internal view of the cow cranium showing the hole on the right frontal bone.

French researchers have discovered evidence of what they believe could be the earliest example of veterinary surgery. The patient? A cow thought to have been alive about 5000 years ago, somewhere between 3400 and 3000 BC.

A hole measuring 64.5 mm long and 46.5 mm wide appears to have been intentionally cut into the cow’s head. As reported in Scientific Reports, it is unclear whether the hole is the result of practice for surgery on humans or an operation to save the cow. If it’s the latter, it would be the first indication of veterinary surgery in the Stone Age.

The cow’s skull was discovered more than 30 years ago at the Neolithic site of Champ-Durand in France. At the time, the hole wasn’t given much thought and it was assumed the cow had been attacked by a rival animal. It wasn’t until earlier this year, however, when researchers used high-definition scanners to take a closer look, that they decided surgery was the most logical explanation. They were also able to conclude that the cow did not survive the surgery, or that it was conducted post-mortem, because the surrounding bone had not started to regrow.

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The archaeologists believe the shape of the hole is too regular to have been the work of a gnawing pest, and it does not appear to have been made by a tumor or infectious disease because the skull shows no other signs of illness. They also ruled out an attack by another animal because the wound does not display inward bone splinters or fracturing patterns.

“I believe that the evidence of trepanation is indisputable,” Fernando Ramirez Rozzi, from the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris and lead author of the paper, wrote. “It is the only possible explanation.”

Earlier this year, archeologists in northwestern Saudi Arabia uncovered rock-wall etchings believed to be the oldest images of dogs. The hunting scenes, estimated to be 8000 years old, show humans and dogs working together to stalk prey such as lions, gazelles, and horses.