In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched it as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
So trepanation, also known as trephination, is a fancy way of saying, "surgically punching a hole in the skull." That's what originally drew my eye to "Evidence of Trephinations among the Garamantes, a Late Holocene Saharan Population."
Reading the paper, I find that the Garamantians, who once lived in southwest Libya, apparently practiced trepanation, the first time the operation has been seen in ancient times in the Sahara. The Garamantians, named after their capital, Garama, flourished in the harsh central Sahara for nearly 1,500 years between 1,000 BC and 700 AD. They introduced key innovations to the region, including cities, irrigated farming, trade across the Sahara and a hierarchical, probably slave-owning society.
All three trepanned skulls the researchers wrote about belonged to Garamantians who apparently survived the surgery, given the presence of newly formed bone in these holes. This suggests the Garamantians had "knowledge of complex surgical procedures," the researchers wrote.
So that is all well and good. Sounds like enough for a pitch, no? You have an unnerving surgical procedure, a first example of this in (what is to us) a remote area, a lost civilization in the desert, and intriguing history regarding this lost civilization.
The problem is that it's very brief. Your average science news story is about 400 to 500 words long. The finding itself can be summed up in 150 words or so.
It's possible to expand this story. You can talk about the fascinating history of trepanation — how it is arguably the oldest known medical operation in history; how it was not only used for medicine, but also magic, to release evil spirits. If you go and interview the researcher, you can ask about the significance of this finding — although the paper does not discuss this, perhaps it hints at cultural exchanges across north Africa, from Morocco to Egypt. You can also ask for bits of color about the dig — how hard it was to work in the hot sun, the kind of details that immerse readers in the practice of archaeology.
Still, the fascinating history of trepanation only can go so long, and the other bits are speculative. Maybe the researcher won't talk about whether or not this has greater significance, preferring a more conservative interpretation. Perhaps the skulls were excavated by someone else decades ago, and the researchers are examining museum specimens. You might find that you pitched a story only to do the reporting and find that you don't have enough to write about. It would be great if you could write about what the trepanation was used for, but the paper does not speculate along those lines.
At the end of the day, other than pointing out that these are novel instances of trepanation, the paper does not say these findings are any greater than that. That's kind of hard to base a story on, or even a brief 150 words long.
What saves this, however, is that there was another find in the same issue of the journal, "Like You Need a Hole in the Head: Tool Innovation a Possible Cause of Trephination. A Case from Kerma, Nubia."
Archaeologists apparently also discovered the first confirmed case of trepanation in ancient Nubia — specifically, the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kerma. The close proximity and interaction of the ancient Nubians with their more prominent neighbors and rivals, the ancient Egyptians, have led to the notion that Nubians copied the traditions of the ancient Egyptians, but this new find suggests the Nubians may have surpassed the Egyptians in some areas of technology and medicine.
Now you have two discoveries of trepanation in areas of Africa where it was not known before. Moreover, you have a second lost civilization, and history to discuss.
These two finds buttress each other, and so I pitched it. Stringing together multiple recent findings can be a good way to build an article — in Lost Giants: Did Mammoths Vanish Before, During and After Humans Arrived?, I wove together three studies that apparently disagreed with each other as to when mammoths, saber-toothed cats and other North American megafauna disappeared.
The story on trepanning ran as Lost Civilizations That Pioneered Skull Surgery in io9.
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