January 27, 2023

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A skull with a perfect hole confirms that the Incas successfully performed complex surgeries

In 1864, American Ephraim George Scheer had an experience he never expected. He held in his hands the first indisputable proof of something that scientists had long considered impossible: Ancient neurosurgery.

He owes it in a way to bird remains. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Conserving manure for food became a strategic imperative for President Abraham Lincoln. The world’s best compost was discovered on islands in South America that were home to mounds of guano that had accumulated over the centuries. For this reason, Lincoln sent a delegation to Peru in 1864. Squier was part of it.

American Ephraim George SquireFlickr

When the matter was over, the ambassador asked his wife to return to New York alone, as he intended to spend several months touring the country, devoting himself to his true passion: Archaeology. And so, a year later, traveling from the coast to the jungles and climbing the peaks of the Andes, he arrived at Cuzco, “the proud but isolated city of the Sierra”.

It is the destination reached in maximum time and four times the time “Inconvenience and Fatigue” If you travel from Lima to New York from the Peruvian capital, he wrote in his book Peru: Incidents of Exploration and Travel in the Land of the Incas.

After he had described in detail the wonderful archaeological sites found in the area, the city, its history, its population and modern appearance, he paused for a moment: “I am going to mention the residence in particular. A lady who lived in the Plaza de San Francisco, Mrs. Gentino was proverbially attentive to foreigners, and had an honorable reputation as the collector of the best and most valuable antiquarian museum in Peru.

“This house would be called a ‘palace’ even in Venice, if not for its architecture, certainly for its size. In the spaciousness of its apartments and its rich and varied content and decoration, it deserves comparison with some of the most beautiful on the Grand Canal,” he described.

"View of Cusco and the snow-capped Assunta from the top of Sacchahuman" (Image from the book by Squier).
“View of Cuzco and the snow-capped Assunta from the top of Sacchahuman” (image from the book by Squire).

“Madame Gentino” is Maria Ana Centeno de Romainville (1816/1817-1874), a woman enriched by “frequent reading,” according to the book of pioneering Peruvian educator Elvira García y García. Peruvian women for centuries (1925)

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That interest led her to pieces of treasure from different places, and she is a “historical-archaeological muse, through which one can follow the whole history of Peru in its different periods.”

Along with pre-Columbian antiquities made of stone, ceramics or precious metals, it contained everything from Roman mosaics and Japanese objects to stuffed birds and mysterious works, because its purpose was “not to create an archaeological museum, but one of curiosities,” he noted. Garcia and Garcia.

Mrs. Centeno’s “Palace” was a meeting place similar to the Halls of Enlightenment in Europe., in which the Cuzco elite and prominent foreign guests attended and spoke about science, art, and literature. One of them was Skier, where he first got his hands on that extraordinary piece of jewelry that would change the history of surgery.

“In some ways, the most important relic in Mrs. Gentino’s collection is the frontal bone of a skull from an Inca tomb in the Uke Valley,” the American wrote.

Mrs. Centeno's collection was sold by her children to the Berlin Ethnographic Museum in the 1880s.
Mrs. Centeno’s collection was sold by her children to the Berlin Ethnographic Museum in the 1880s.State Museums in Berlin, Ethnological Museum

What caught his eye was a 15x17mm square hole, which he carefully examined. It’s not natural, he thought: nature doesn’t usually run at right angles. In addition, he thought he saw signs of new bone growth, suggesting that the man was not only alive when he was cut, but survived.

A surprising thought occurred to him: could this be the result of a deliberate operation, a piercing of the skull for healing purposes? He concluded that “there can be no doubt that he is dealing with a clear case of tremors before death.”

“The woman gave it to me for research, and it has been reviewed by the best surgeons in America and Europe, and is considered the most remarkable evidence of aboriginal knowledge of surgery ever discovered on this continent. Trephination is one of the most difficult surgical procedures”, he wrote in his book Sciar. described. But it wasn’t that simple.

A skull dating from 1400 to 1530 AD is depicted in Scheer's book.
A skull dating from 1400 to 1530 AD is depicted in Scheer’s book.Welcome Collection

Squire published his account of the Peruvian adventure in 1877, but for some reason preferred to omit it upon his return to America. Skull presented at a meeting of the New York Academy of MedicineThe public refused to believe that anyone could have survived trepanning by a native Peruvian.

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The idea that the ancient Incas could perform such a delicate operation without anesthesia or metal instruments seemed absurd to them. Survival rates for trepanations performed by highly skilled surgeons in the best hospitals of the time rarely reached 10%.

What they didn’t take into account was that the same thing happened in other surgeries, because the germ theory was still years away from being successful, so dirty infections were the major cause of death in hospitals.

Squier didn’t give up. He packed up his Inca skull and took it to France Paul Broga, professor of external pathology and medical surgery at the University of Paris and founder of the first anthropological society, examined it for the primary European authority on the human skull.

Able to perform amazing feats: "Cyclopean Wall, Palace of the Inca Roca" Image from the book by Squire).
Capable of amazing feats: “The Cyclopean Wall, Palace of the Inca Roca” Image from the book by Squire).Welcome Collection

Broca is world famous for discovering the first known language point in the human brain in 1861, now known as Broca’s area, the first instance of brain localization of a psychological function. His craniometric skills and anthropological studies were also appreciated.

So, 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 bony growth around it, At surgery he announced that the patient had survived, confirming Schier’s suspicions beyond doubt.

Despite Broca’s prestige, when he presented these results to the Paris Anthropological Society, the audience was hesitant. But a few years later, the discovery of skulls, rim scars, and bone discs of the same size (perhaps used as amulets) in central France confirmed Broca’s interpretation, finally proving that the Neolithic could prevail.

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One has no choice but to consider the possibility that scientists have hitherto underestimated ancient cultures in this respect.

The Inca skull sparked an opening to previously unknown knowledge. With eyes wide-open, anthropologists began going through their own collections and examining holes of various shapes that were misinterpreted as the result of battle wounds, accidents, or animal attacks.

They found more 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 different tools to cut skulls: Sharp stones, animal bones, red-hot irons, even shark teeth.

For Peru, burial sites often feature a tumi—a curved metal ritual knife—that seems well-suited to such practices. And, based on research done after the truth came out, it appears that those early neuroscientists knew how to do what the Europeans and Americans still didn’t.

Toomey was adopted by the Peruvian Academy of Surgery as its emblem
Toomey was adopted by the Peruvian Academy of Surgery as its emblem

A study suggests that Ancient Doctors Can Prevent Infections: From 66 Ancient Trepan SkullsOnly three showed signs of infection.

A similar conclusion was drawn from a report made in London in the 1870s, where 75% of neurosurgery patients in that city died, while in New Guinea, surgeons drilled skulls using traditional methods. , the mortality rate was 30%

Since nothing was written down, it is not certain why ancient cultures trembled. Broca always argued that they shook the skulls to release evil spirits trapped inside the brain. He said it was more common with epilepsy or hallucinations, diseases often associated with evil spirits.

It was certainly something that was done in Europe, but there is no evidence that it was so in that distant past. Squier and other archaeologists have always been skeptical of the spirit theory. They argued that ancient neurosurgeons were doing exactly what they appeared to be doing: Mainly treat head injuries caused by falls and war.

And modern research points to that reason, especially among the Incas. More skulls with burr holes were found in males than in females, which is explained as a result of males outnumbering females.

These holes are usually on the left side of the skull, where right-handed opponents will strike with their weapon.. Trephinations would have been a way to clean wounds and prevent blood clotting. Superstition may have played a role in early tremors. But those ancient neurosurgeons may have used them to save people’s lives, just as their colleagues do today.

*By Talia Ventura

BBC Mundo