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 explained.
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 said.
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 tribes.
"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 melons.
(Xinhua News Agency January 26, 2007)