Posts Tagged trepanation


Posted by on Saturday, 4 January, 2014
Cartoon about a dumb teenager




It wasn’t as good as modern medicine but, at least you could get an appointment. The ancient Peruvians healers cured by drilling a hole in the head with a hand drill. It’s called trepanation. 

Danielle Kurin (UC Santa Barbara) was the lead researcher. Her team looked at Peruvian skulls from a 250 year period beginning in 1000 AD. She looked at skulls that had holes in them – holes that had  been made  by someone on purpose. Old time surgery.

Is it crazy to drill a hole in a guy’s head with a hand tool? Especially when you don’t have any of the modern stuff to prevent infection? When you don’t have anything to put the guy out, or control the bleeding? And when  knowledge of anatomy and physiology is iffy?

Of course it is.

But if you are a Peruvian shaman, you follow tradition.This is what you do.  An ancient Peruvian with a serious head injury and a subdural haematoma – a bleed inside the head – would have had a good chance of dying unless the pressure  was  somehow relieved.

Here’s the thing.

If the head was whacked hard enough, you can probably skip the anesthesia anyway. And, even though infection’s a bad thing, the ancients had their tricks. Honey, for example.

For a bad head injury, what the Peruvian healers were doing was reasonable. Kurin’s team saw skulls where the holes had healed. “They must have gotten better,” she said. because “both the original wound and the trepanation healed”.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can’t say he likes this approach  for the spiritual or psychosomatic illness cases which Kurin says were also treated in that way. But what do I know? Am I a shaman? 

We’re lucky. We live in a time when so much is possible.

It’s great to see how we got here.

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The drawing is mine.

The article appears in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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