Following a detailed study of 13 perforated skulls unearthed in
the northwestern region of Xinjiang, scientists concluded that the modern
craniotomy operation, a surgical operation which is performed on
the brain through an incision in the skull, may have been in use in
China nearly 3,000 years ago.
The skulls were found in a cluster of over 2,000 ancient tombs
in the desert outside Turpan, 200 kilometers east of the regional
capital Urumqi, said Lu Enguo, a researcher with the Xinjiang
Institute of Archeology.
He revealed the skulls bore one to five holes each, although one
had seven. "The holes were either round or square and the healing
tissues near the holes suggested they must have been made while the
people were still alive - probably for medical purposes, " he
Through laboratory tests, Lu found that nearly all the
perforated skulls had signs of brain injuries.
"They might have fallen off their horses, for example, so the
shaman priests, who also worked as doctors in those times, probably
performed a primitive version of life-saving craniotomy," he
Shamans were lauded in ancient society since people believed
they could communicate with the gods and conjure up the dead.
Shamanism used to be common in many parts of north China.
Lu and his colleagues also found 600 mummies in the tombs, a
dozen of which appear to have been shamans since sacks of marijuana
leaves were found next to the corpses. "The marijuana must have
been buried with the dead shamans who dreamed of continuing the
profession in another world."
The best preserved mummy is a Caucasian male measuring 1.2
meters in length and estimated to have been between 40 and 50 years
old when he died.
The mummy was dressed in a leather coat, a knitted cloak, hat
and boots. He wore earrings and a necklace, and clasped a copper
laced staff in one hand and a bronze axe in the other.
Three ancient harp-like string instruments were also discovered,
believed by archeologists to have been used by the shamans to
communicate with the gods.
"We assume the shamans played them during religious rituals to
inform the gods of human deaths," said Lu.
Archaeologists assume the tombs, dating from the Bronze Age to
the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), belonged to several large nomadic
"Most of them moved to Turpan from Altay in the far north about
3,500 years ago and settled down there because of its mild
climate," said Han Kangxin, an anthropologist with the Chinese
Academy of Sciences.
The first of the tombs was detected in 1981 by villagers who
were excavating for a karez -- a subterranean irrigation canal and
started to excavate from 2003. Subsequent research found over 2,000
tombs, half of which remain unexcavated.
Today, Turpan is best known as a tourist destination and China's
leading production base of fruits, particularly grapes and
(Xinhua News Agency January 26, 2007)