for National Geographic News
Inca surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients' skulls to treat head injuries, according to a new study.
The surgical procedure—known as trepanation—was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat, researchers say.
A similar procedure is performed today to relieve pressure caused by fluid buildup following severe head trauma.
Around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco (see Peru map), remains dating back to A.D. 1000 show that surgical techniques were standardized and perfected over time, according to the report.
Many of the oldest skulls showed no evidence of bone healing following the operation, suggesting that the procedure was probably fatal.
But by the 1400s, survival rates approached 90 percent, and infection levels were very low, researchers say.
The new findings show that Inca surgeons had developed a detailed knowledge of cranial anatomy, said lead author Valerie Andrushko, of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
"These people were skilled surgeons," she said.
Beer, Plants Aided Patients
Inca healers carefully avoided areas of the skull where cutting would be more likely to cause brain injury, bleeding, or infection, Andrushko noted.
The operations were conducted without the modern benefits of anesthesia and antibiotics, but medicinal plants were probably used, she said.
"They were aware of the medicinal properties of many wild plants, including coca and wild tobacco," Andrushko said.
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