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.