Ancient Skull Surgery Sans Anesthesia
Using a simple tool to scrape a hole in the skull of a living human being sounds like an opening scene to a horror film, but it was a common practice some 2,000 years ago in Peru. Surgeons performed the procedure, known as trepanation, without the aid of anesthesia or sterile techniques. Surprisingly, it seems there was a high survival rate for patients who underwent the surgery—a theory inferred by signs of healing in excavated skulls. The number of healed trepanned skulls found in the southern Peruvian region suggests the practice reached its apex in Peru between the 14th and 16th centuries A.D.
According to anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University, the very earliest trepanations were performed in Paracas on the south coast of Peru. “[There was] only about 40 percent survival, but [considering] the size of the holes they put in the head—and I still don’t know why they opened such huge windows into the skull—there are a fair number that survived,” Verano said.
- Todd Gipstein/National Geographic Creative