Archive for December 2008

Trepanning: religion or science   Leave a comment


A quarter of a century has passed and the young Jean Guilaine [sporting a Rastafarian knitted hat on one of his first digs up at the Alaric dolmen site] is now a lofty eminence, a Professeur de la College de France. And Henri Duday, who went to school in Carcassonne with the man who rebuilt and still lives in the old Lime-Kiln house – he has become a polymath of the medical/forensic/anthropologic/archaeologic world with an ever-expanding department at the University of Toulouse. But still no-one has returned to Alaric mountain to reopen la Caouno de Moux, and explore the story of the 100 skeletons and the head with the hole.


And may never return. The conviction is steadily growing in me that humanity may have reached Peak Knowledge – just as we have reached or indeed passed Peak Oil. I fear that we have extracted the maximum amount of oil from the ground, and, with the collapse of the global financial system, we have extracted the most information we will ever get from the planet. There will probably never again be sufficient money to fund all the research we would like into areas such as archaeology and anthropology – and that we have blown our chances of ever finding out what happened, here in my little village in the Corbières.

Was trepanation part of a religious rite as one French writer thinks – ‘One of the strangest practices, which may also be linked to a religious aspect, was the trepanation  practiced on the Grandes Causses.  It should be noted that trepanations were performed on both the dead and the living, and individuals of all ages, which strengthens the religious hypothesis : the hole in the skull is intended to allow the escape of the spirit.’

Or was this an extreme surgical intervention? Was there an excessive amount of manganese or lead in the trepanned skull? Or in the bones of the other 100 remains?


Was Alaric mountain – which dominates the immediate horizon of the protohistoric mining communities  of the mineral-rich Minervois Hills, just as the Pic du Canigou looming behind at the Pyrennean periphery dominates the wider horizon – were these considered  special places – of surgery, of healing?

It is more than likely we will never know, now.

Manganism? – like you need a hole in the head!   Leave a comment

Trepanned skull from La Caouna de Moux. Narbonne Museum.

The hills across the valley,  Les Montagnes Noires,  hold a wealth of megaliths – and for many good reasons. Their upland pastures were once rich grazing land for sheep and goats, and their holm-oak and chestnut forests were in early times, plentiful sources of food for animals and humans alike. Springs are numerous and the slopes face south. But much more importantly these Minervois hills contained a wealth of minerals – from Europe’s biggest current gold-mine to ancient deposits of copper and manganese. Mines and shafts, grottes and avens abound –


These were from our recent visit to the dolmen and menhir at Fournes-Cabardès.


The menhir has subsided, as an aven opened up beneath it – we hoped the cross was erected simply to display a warning notice . . . but it could mark the grave of another foolhardy megalith-hunter who ducked under the fence.

However, the arrival of metallurgy in the late Neolithic/Chalcolithic era – as with all new technologies – brought bad with the good.

Here’s the bad news : ‘Exposure to manganese dusts and fumes should not exceed the ceiling value of 5 mg/m3 even for short periods because of its toxicity level. Manganese poses a particular risk for children due to its propensity to bind to CH-7 receptors. Manganese poisoning has been linked to impaired motor skills and cognitive disorders.

‘In 2005, a study suggested a possible link between manganese inhalation and central nervous system toxicity in rats. It is hypothesized that long-term exposure to the naturally-occurring manganese in shower water puts up to 8.7 million Americans at risk.
‘A form of neurodegeneration similar to Parkinson’s Disease called “Manganism” has been linked to manganese exposure amongst miners and smelters since the early 19th Century. Allegations of inhalation-induced manganism have been made regarding the welding industry.
Manganism or manganese poisoning is a toxic condition resulting from chronic exposure to manganese and first identified in 1837 by James Couper. Its symptoms resemble those of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease, which it is often misdiagnosed as, although there are particular differences in both the symptoms (nature of tremors, for example). It is characterized by muscle rigidity, tremor, a slowing of physical movement (bradykinesia) and, in extreme cases, a loss of physical movement (akinesia). Symptoms are also similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease and multiple sclerosis – Maladie de Charcot (Charcot’s disease) – spasticity or stiffness in the arms and legs; and overactive tendon reflexes. Patients may present with symptoms as diverse as a dragging foot, unilateral muscle wasting in the hands, or slurred speech.’

Manganese compounds were in use in prehistoric times; paints that were pigmented with manganese dioxide can be traced back 17,000 years. But the mania for metals, mining, minerals and metallurgy was unprecedented in the chalcolithic and bronze ages. One French historian looks no further than this : “One of the strangest practices, which may also be linked to a religious aspect, remains the trepanation that was practiced on Les Grandes Causses.  It should be noted that trepanations were performed on both  the dead and the living, and individuals of all ages – which strengthens the religious hypothesis : the hole in the skull is intended to allow the escape of the spirit. Some subjects were even drilled twice. A very high percentage of these crude operations, using a flint drill, were successful – it is estimated at 70%.”

Like us then,  the effects of coal and petrol, uranium and microwaves, was not noticed until it was too late. And we had our own religion to explain it all away: it was Progress.

As usual, there’s a page attached to this post – it’s La Caouno de Moux Page, where the trepanned crania were found.  There’s not a lot more to add – just a hundred or so bodies, in a hidden chamber beneath a sealed entrance . . . oh – and another, bigger, hole in the head.