Wari Healers In Peru Experimented With Brain Surgery Over 1,000 Years Ago
The Wari civilization of Peru drilled into and scraped the skulls of people suffering from various ailments over a thousand years ago--without the benefits of anesthesia, of course--according to research from the University of California. The practice, known as trepanation, was observed in 45 instances among 32 Wari individuals unearthed in the Andahuaylas province, dating back to 1000 to 1250 CE. In the region, skull drilling is in evidence as far back as 200 CE, but it wasn't common then.
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While trepanation may seem like an insane way to treat a head injury, it wasn't an illogical thing for surgeons to attempt 1,000 years ago, says study author Danielle Kurin. "When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do," said Kurin. Sometimes the procedure even worked. "We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing," said Kurin. "We have several cases where someone suffered a head fracture and were treated with the surgery; in many cases, both the original wound and the trepanation healed."
The trepanation procedures included a variety of scraping and cutting practices, indicating that surgeons were trying out different methods to figure out which medical procedure worked best. For obvious reasons, trepanation was a tricky practice, and an unskilled surgeon could easily have a corpse on his hands. "The idea with this surgery is to go all the way through the bone, but not touch the brain," said Kurin. "That takes incredible skill and practice."
In order to get their trepanation skills up, Kurin believes that Wari surgeons practiced drilling on recently deceased patients.
"[W]e can tell that they're experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they're drilling," Kurin said. "In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull."
If the practice of drilling into skulls sounds less like a medical procedure and more like torture, Kurin says that she doesn't believe that foul play was involved in Wari trepanation. The skulls showed evidence that the head was shaved in the spot where the surgery was performed, not unlike a modern medical procedure. The skulls also showed evidence of herbal medicine in the form of black smudges on the area of the trepanation, indicating that the intention wasn't to harm but to heal a person.
Trepanning has been seen in bone samples across many cultures, from Ancient Egypt to China to Ancient Rome. The practice goes as far back as 6500 BCE. Trepanation is still used to treat epidural and subdural hematomas and for access to the brain in various surgical procedures, and is no longer known as trepanation but craniotomy. Trepanation as a cure for things like increased blood flow lives on as a pseudoscience.
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