360° Coverage : Ancient Peruvians did cranial surgery

Ancient Peruvians did cranial surgery

New York, Dec 20 (IANS) For even the best of modern hospitals, cranial surgery remains a tough act. So it's a surprise to learn that medieval Peruvians had mastered the art.

Dec 20 2013, 1:00am CST | by

New York, Dec 20 — For even the best of modern hospitals, cranial surgery remains a tough act. So it's a surprise to learn that medieval Peruvians had mastered the art.

As many as a 1,000 years back, healers in Peru undertook what is called trepanation -- a procedure that involved opening the cranial vault using a drill - to treat injuries to the head as well as other ailments.

Researchers have come to the conclusion after excavating burial caves in the Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, according to an article in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Danielle Kurin, a bioarchaeologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found the remains of 32 individuals dating back to CE 1000-1250, some of whom showed evidence of trepanation procedures.

Trepanations first appeared in the Andean highlands circa CE 200-600, said Kurin, a specialist in forensic anthropology, who sought to know how the practice came to exist in the first place.

"For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000, the Andahuaylas was a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari," she said. "For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed."

"But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people's resilience and moxie coming to the fore," Kurin continued. "In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago."

Kurin and her team found that early practitioners used various cutting techniques -- some used scraping, while others used hand drills. "It looks like they were trying different techniques. They were experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull."

And there is evidence to show that they were often successful. "We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing," Kurin explained.

"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."

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