Incredible Incas

Survival is not easy. Nowhere is it more evident than in nature, where only the fittest will come up smiling. But humans have never been fit; however, not only have we survived but we dominate the world. That is one of the greatest wonders. Physically Homo sapiens are weaker than nearly all animals. We can’t kill even a snake with our bare hands. Nor would we be able to fight out a marauding troop of monkeys. Despite these apparent drawbacks, we are the most successful of species continuing to date. Hundreds and thousands of even stronger species including dinosaurs disappeared. However, when a chimp gets wounded, the most it can do is rest. If lucky enough, it will be back again on the tree. But humans instead know how to heal and recuperate. This, among others, helped us survive even the most adverse conditions. One of our survival tools was the development of medical science. It was not a new phenomenon.

We developed tools and methods capable of supporting us through hardships. For example, brain surgery might seem a modern idea. No, certainly no. According to a new study, more than 2000 years ago experts in Peru’s Inca Empire performed what we know today trepanation. It is a kind of scraping, cutting or drilling an opening into the cranium or skull.

The procedure helped treat head trauma, heal headaches, seizure, mental illness,and in some bizarre cases exorcised demons in the head.

The study by David Kushner, clinical professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, throws much needed light on prehistoric medical wonders.

His study compared survival rate in trepanation in two separate periods in history. First is during Inca period and the second: The American Civil War fought between 1861 and 1865. 

The result shows that survival rate for the trepanation during Inca period was twice as that of American Civil War. Yes, most of those underwent surgery in the Civil War died. “In Incan times, the mortality rate was between 17 and 25 percent, and during the Civil War, it was between 46 and 56 percent. That's a big difference,” says the researcher.

Civil War surgeons were presumably better trained, educated and well equipped. Despite all their skills, they couldn’t save many lives. The amazing feat of Inca surgeons leaves us guessing a lot. Deaths in Civil War came mostly from poor hygiene or lack of it. They often used unsterilized medical tools, sometimes they probed open with bare fingers the cranial wounds or broke up blood clots.

It is a mystery how ancient Peruvians managed possible infection. Or much less, what kind of anesthesia they might have used is still known. The study guesses that they must have used coca leaves or some kind of inebriating beverage. More than 800 skulls with surgery marks found in coastal regions and Andean highlands of Peru showcase their skills.  How could we say that people survived at all? 

The bone remolding around the trepanned holes showed the success of surgery. And those without molding indicates death shortly afterwards.  Extensive remolding thus show the patient may have lived longer. However, the surgeries Incas performed during 400 BC were not equally successful.

Overtime, Peruvians learnt not to ‘perforate’ the protective membrane surrounding the brain. Hippocrates codified the same guidelines in 5 th century BC.Inca’s incredible knowledge of brain didn’t survive, following the fall of their culture in 16 th century.