The practiced craft of ancient Peruvian skull surgery

The practiced craft of ancient Peruvian skull surgery

It is a well-established fact that ancient Peruvian healers were experts in trepanation — the surgical removal of a piece of the skull usually to treat hematomas or cranial fractures.

University of California at Santa Barbara Prof. Danielle KurinMany of these operations are attributed to the treatment of head injuries suffered during ritual combat or fighting between warriors. The conclusion is evidenced by the fact that of the hundreds of trepanation skulls in museums in Peru and abroad, significantly more trepan holes are found on the left side of the head, consistent with blows delivered by right-handed adversaries during combat.

But what do we know about the ancient healers who performed these operations? What surgical techniques did they employ, and what kind medical training did they receive?

University of California at Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team have just published a study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that delves into that subject.

Ancient Peruvian healers practiced hand drilling holes into the head of a dying or recently dead patient to perfect their surgical trepanation skills

Ancient Peruvian healers practiced hand drilling holes into the heads of  dying or recently dead patients to perfect their surgical trepanation skills.
Photo: Professor Danielle Kurin

Working with the burial remains of 32 individuals unearthed in Peru’s south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas, Kurin reportedly studied 45 separate trepanation procedures that date back to Late Intermediate Period (Common Era 1000-1250).

The healers who performed the surgeries used scraping tools and hand drills with differing degrees of success.

“Scraping trepanations evinced the highest survival rate,” according to Kurin’s article Abstract, while “circular grooving, drilling and boring, and linear cutting were far less successful.”

She also found evidence of postmortem trepanations, suggesting the ancient healers practiced on corpses to perfect their technique.

“In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last,” Kurin told the UC Santa Barbara publication The Current. “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.”

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Authored by: Rick Vecchio

Rick Vecchio, Fertur’s director of development and marketing, was educated at the New School for Social Research and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for Pacifica Radio WBAI and as a daily reporter for newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. Then in 1996, he decided it was time to realize a life-long dream of traveling to Peru. He never went back. While serving as Peru country manager for the South American Explorers from 1997-1999, he fell in love with Fertur's founder, Siduith Ferrer, and they married. Over the next six years, he worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press. Meanwhile, Siduith built the business, which he joined in January 2007. Now he designs custom educational and adventure tour packages for corporate and institutional clients, oversees Fertur’s Internet platform and occasionally leads special trips, always with an eye open for a good story to write about.

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