Healers in Peru were opening up people's skulls 1,000 years ago

Dec. 20, 2013 at 5:01 PM
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SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Drilling holes in someone's head, an act some might consider a form of torture, was state-of-the-art medical treatment in ancient Peru, archaeologists say.

Evidence shows healers in the province of Ahdahuaylas practiced trepanation -- a surgical procedure involving the use of a hand drill or a scraping tool to remove a section of the top of the skull -- more than 1,000 years ago.

They performed the treatment -- without the modern benefits of aseptic environments, specialized surgical instruments and anesthetics -- to treat a variety of ailments from head injuries to heartsickness, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported Thursday.

UCSB bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and research colleagues, excavating burial caves in the Andean province of Andahuaylas, unearthed the remains of 32 people dating to between A.D. 1000-1250 and found evidence of 45 separate trepanation procedures.

"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," Kurin said.

Kurin's research found some ancient practitioners used a scraping technique, others used cutting and still others made use of a hand drill.

"It looks like they were trying different techniques, the same way we might try new medical procedures today," she said. "They're experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull."

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