Inca brain surgeons improved (after a few centuries)

Holes cut into skulls in the Cuzco area indicate that trepanation was a relatively common practice for Inca surgeons, most likely as treatment for combat injuries.

Interestingly, the skulls dating from 1000 A.D. show no evidence of bone regrowth which means the owners of said skulls died under the knife. They clearly didn’t give up, though, because by 1400 A.D. 90% of the skulls showed healing and no infection.

Of 411 skulls that were sufficiently well preserved to study, 66 had holes cut through the bone.

In one location, 21 of 59 skulls—over a third—had received trepanation.

While methods of trepanation varied over time, Inca surgeons eventually settled on a scraping technique to penetrate the skull without causing wider injury.

“The skull was slowly scraped away, resulting in a circular hole surrounded by a wider area of scraped bone,” Verushko said.

Some of the skulls had been perforated more than once, including one individual who had undergone the operation seven times.

Damn. Stop-loss much? :eek:


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Comment by TomJoe
2008-05-13 12:49:22

I can think of a few things which might be a bit more painful than having your skull slowly scraped away … but not many.

Comment by livius drusus
2008-05-13 13:12:09

They did have some good drugs, though. The Incas were familiar with the coca plant by then, so hopefully that dude who went back for 6 more skull scrapings wasn’t feeling too much pain.

Comment by TomJoe
2008-05-13 14:34:17

Here is a link to a scientific paper by Andrushko and Verano entitled: Prehistoric trepanation in the Cuzco region of Peru: A view into an ancient Andean practice. The journal is: American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Link to abstract here.

In this study, patterns of prehistoric trepanation in the southern highlands of Peru were examined through an analysis of 11 Cuzco-region burial sites. Trepanations were found in 66 individuals, with several individuals exhibiting more than one trepanation, for a total of 109 perforations observed. The predominant methods used were circular cutting and scraping – methods that proved highly successful with an overall 83% survival rate and little ensuing infection. Survival rates showed a significant increase over time, apparently reflecting improvements in trepanation technique through experimentation and practical experience. Practitioners avoided certain areas of the cranium and employed methods that reduced the likelihood of damage to the cerebral meninges and venous sinuses. In many cases, trepanation as a medical treatment appears to have been prompted by cranial trauma, a finding that corroborates other studies pointing to cranial trauma as a primary motivation for the surgical procedure.

83% survival rate is pretty astounding.

Comment by livius drusus
2008-05-13 14:50:08

That’s the study referenced in the article! I always forget I know people with special scholarly powers.

Ya, it’s really remarkable. I mean, surgery without infection in Europe was damn rare until the mid-19th century. Meanwhile, across the pond, the Incas were successfully fixing broken skulls 400 years earlier.

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