In 1864, American Ephraim George Squier had an experience he hardly anticipated. He held in his hands the first indisputable proof of something that scientists had long thought impossible: Ancient Neurosurgery.
He owed it, in a sense, to bird droppings. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Securing manure for food became a strategic necessity for President Abraham Lincoln. And the best fertilizer in the world was found on the islands of South America that were home to mountains of guano accumulated over centuries. For this reason, in 1864 Lincoln sent a delegation to Peru to ensure such vital supplies. Square was part of it.
Once the affair was over, the diplomat asked his wife to return to New York alone, as he wanted to spend several months touring the country devoted to his true passion: Archaeology. In this way, after a year of traveling through the jungles from the coasts and climbing the peaks of the Andes, he arrived at Cuzco, a “sneaky but isolated city of the Sierra”.
It was a place that was reached in more time and with four times more “Discomfort and Fatigue” from the capital of Peru that if you travel from Lima to New York, he wrote in his book Peru: Incidents of Exploration and Travel in the Land of the Incas.
After describing in detail the city, its history, its population and modern appearance, along with the spectacular archaeological sites found in the area, he paused for a moment: “I would particularly like to mention the residence I am going to see Mrs. Zentino, a lady who lived in the Plaza de San Francisco, whose appeal to foreigners was proverbial, and who established a respectable reputation as the collector of the best and most valuable museum of antiquities in Peru.
“This house would be called a ‘palace’ even in Venice, if not for its architecture, then certainly for its size. In the spaciousness of its apartments and in its rich and varied materials and decorations, it is some of the most beautiful on the Grand Canal.” will compare favorably with”, he narrated.
“Madame Zentino” was Maria Ana Centeno de Romainville. (1816/1817–1874), a woman enriched by “incessant reading”, who, according to the pioneering Peruvian educator Elvira García y García, began gathering youths with a “passion bordering on insanity”. Peruvian women through the ages (1925).
That passion led him to piece by piece of treasure from different places, until he had “a historical-archaeological museum, through which one could follow the whole history of Peru in its different eras.”
In addition to pre-Columbian antiquities made of stone, ceramics or precious metals, it contained everything from Roman mosaics and Japanese objects to stuffed birds and mystical works, as it was intended to be “not an archaeological museum, but a curiosity,” he specified. Garcia and Garcia.
Mrs. Centeno’s “palace” was a meeting place similar to the Hall of the Enlightenment in Europe., which was attended by the Cuzco aristocracy and prominent foreign guests to give talks about science, art and literature. One of them was Squire, and it was here that he first got his hands on the unusual jewel that would change the history of surgery.
“In some ways, the most important relic in Mrs. Zentino’s collection is the frontal bone of a skull, from an Inca cemetery in the Yuca Valley,” wrote The American.
His eye fell on a 15×17 mm square hole, which he carefully examined. It wasn’t natural, he thought: nature doesn’t usually work at right angles. Furthermore, he thought he had seen signs of new bone growth, indicating that the person had not only been alive during the cut, but had survived.
A startling thought occurred to him: could this be the result of deliberate surgery, drilling into the skull for therapeutic purposes? He concluded that there was no doubt that he was dealing with “a clear case of trephination before death”.
“The lady kindly gave it to me for research, and it has been criticized by the best surgeons in America and Europe, and is regarded by all as the most remarkable evidence of aboriginal knowledge of surgery ever discovered on this continent. ; Since trephination is one of the most difficult surgical procedures”, he told Squier in his book. But it was not that easy.
Squier published his account of his Peruvian adventures in 1877, but for some reason preferred to omit it when he returned to the United States, Presented the skull at a meeting of the New York Academy of MedicineThe public refused to believe that anyone could have survived a trepanning operation performed by an indigenous Peruvian.
The idea that the ancient Incas could perform such delicate surgery without anesthesia or metal tools seemed absurd to them. The survival rate for trepanation performed by their most skilled surgeons in the best hospitals of the time rarely reached 10%.
They did not take into account that the same thing happened with other operations, since the germ theory was still some years away from triumph, the major cause of death in hospitals was infection from filth.
Squire did not give up. He packed up his Inca skull and took it to France For the foremost European authority on the human skull, Paul Broca, professor of external pathology and clinical surgery at the University of Paris and founder of the first anthropological society, to examine it.
Broca became world famous in 1861 for his discovery of the first known language point in the human brain, now called Broca’s area, the first case of brain localization of a psychological function. His craniometric skills and anthropological studies were also praised.
So when, after studying the square hole, he concluded that its shape must have been intentional, and after examining it under a microscope and finding evidence of bone growth around it, announced that the patient had survived the operation, apparently confirming Squier’s suspicions.
Despite Broca’s reputation, when he reported these findings to the Paris Anthropological Society, onlookers were hesitant. But a few years later, the discovery in central France of skulls with circular holes, rim marks, and bone discs of the same size (probably used as amulets) confirmed Broca’s interpretation, finally demonstrating that that the Neolithic could trepan with success.
Scientists were left with no choice but to consider the possibility that they had been underestimating ancient cultures in this regard until then.
The Inca skull inspired the discovery of previously unknown knowledge. With open eyes, anthropologists began to go through their own collections and examine holes of various shapes that had been misinterpreted as the result of war injuries, accidents or animal attacks.
They found more reticulated skulls, some of which date back to 8000 BC. We now know that this was a widespread practice and that different cultures around the world used a variety of tools to cut skulls: Sharp stones, animal bones, red-hot iron, even shark teeth.
In the case of Peru, burial sites often contain a tumi—a curved metal ceremonial knife—which seems appropriate for such procedures. And, based on research done after the truth came out, it seems that those early neurologists knew what Europeans and Americans still didn’t.
One study indicates Ancient healers could prevent infections: from 66 ancient trapped skullsOnly three showed signs of infection.
A similar result was found in a report done in London in the 1870s, showing that 75% of neurosurgical patients died in that city, while at the same time in New Guinea, where surgeons were still using traditional methods used to drill the skull, the mortality rate was 30%.
What isn’t known for certain is why ancient cultures sprang up, since nothing was written down. Broca always argued that he trepanned skulls to drive out evil spirits trapped inside the brain. He claimed it was especially common with epilepsy or hallucinations, diseases often associated with evil spirits.
This is certainly something that was done in Europe, but there is no evidence that it was so in that distant past. Squire and other archaeologists have always been skeptical of the soul theory. He argued that the ancient neurosurgeons were doing what they were doing: Treat head injuries mainly from falls and fighting.
And modern research points to this reason, especially among the Incas. Burr holes were found to be more common in males than in females, which has been interpreted as a result of the fact that there were more males than females.
These holes are usually on the left side of the skull, where a right-handed opponent strikes with his weapon., Trephination would have been a way to clean wounds and prevent blood from pooling. Superstition may have played a role in early trepanations. But it’s also likely that those ancient neurosurgeons used them to save lives, as their colleagues do today.
* by Dalia Ventura