Incan Trepanation

While brain surgeries are performed everyday in the our world, the very words “brain surgery” command respect and conjugate fear.  They are cause for great concern.  But we have doctors trained and seasoned in the art of cutting into the skull and skillfully using specialized instruments to correct medical problems and treat head traumas.  Can you imagine what this procedure did to people over 1,000 years ago?


Trepanation, the scraping or cutting of a section of bone from a person’s skull, was practiced in the Andes Mountains of Peru in what would become the heartland of the Inca Empire.  The procedure was dangerous.


Many have insinuated that these trepanations were nothing more than ignorant savages drilling holes in skulls to release evil spirits.  However, archaeologic discovers paint quite a different picture.  More than 500 years ago, archaeologists have discovered evidence that the technique was used to treat warriors who received head wounds in battle as well as other medical problems.  The skilled technique of these early brain surgeons was so perfected that most of the patients suffered no infections as a result of their procedures and life.  Their patients survival prognosis was good.


The Inca Empire was not the only place on Earth to perform trepanations.  It makes one wonder how was this type of procedure possible?  Some used a technique of boring holes in the skull while others cut squares in the skull.  The Incas most often used a method of scraping away bone to create an opening or cutting circular holes in the skull.  While a number of skulls have been found to provide evidence of the trepanations, the surgical instruments themselves have eluded archaeologists.  While most of the patients were subjected to only one hole cut into their skulls, some were discovered with as many as seven holes.


One would assume that these procedures would be laced with mishaps.  However, the Incas managed not to cut cranial muscles and not to sever internal blood vessels.  They were able to conduct these surgeries without severing the membrane that encased the brain.


OK, so we can prove they cut into the skulls, but do we know if they were successful?  It has been determined that in the pre-Incan times, approximately two-thirds of the patients did not survive.  However, about one-third of the skulls from this time period show short and even some long-term healing around the openings.   As time passed, the skulls showed less and less sign of infections.


What led ancient men of medicine to perform these brain surgeries?  Many believe that trepanation was used to relieve pressure on the brain caused by a buildup of fluid after an injury to the head.  This hypothesis is a result of the facts that most of these trepanations were performed on young men and the fact that the surgeries were most often on the skulls’ front left side.  This would have been the location a right-handed opponent would have most likely delivered a blow to the head.  But head trauma was not the only possible cause for trepanation.  With women receiving some of the surgeries, researchers have concluded that they may have been trying to treat something of great pain:  inner ear, migraines, etc.  Still others believe that at least some of these trepanations were for ritual purposes.


“I have a headache,” could have been dangerous words.




Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover


Photo 2: Picture by Rama


Photo 3: The Incan City of Manchu Picchu


Photo 4: Photo by


This story was provided by EurekAlert!, the online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society.

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