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Eight Impressive but Terrifying Cases of Ancient Surgery

It is hard to fathom the way in which invasive surgery was carried out prior to the development of modern anaesthesia, but ancient people around the world have been cutting and drilling into the human body for thousands of years. Here we look at eight impressive but terrifying cases of ancient surgery, from rhinoplasty to leg surgery, dental implants, and brain surgery, in some cases dating back an incredible 11,000 years.

Ancient Cranial Surgery: Practice of Drilling Holes in the Cranium Found in Dozens of Skulls in Peru

Ancient Cranial Surgery: Practice of Drilling Holes in the Cranium Found in Dozens of Skulls in Peru

In 2012, archaeologists excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru discovered the remains of 32 individuals dating back between 750 and 1000 years and, incredibly, they found evidence of 45 separate surgical procedures on the skulls of the individuals. 

Cranial surgery, known as trephination, is one of the first ever surgical practices and is known to have begun in the Neolithic era. It involves drilling a hole in the skull of a living person to cure illness such as convulsions, headaches, infections or fractures.

The skulls found in Peru show evidence that sections of the cranium were removed using a hand drill or a scraping tool.  Some of the remains showed evidence of their hair having been shaved and a herbal remedy placed over the wound, which all point to the fact that this was an attempt to heal sick or injured individuals.

2,000-year-old trepanation surgery in ancient Siberia

2,000-year-old trepanation surgery in ancient Siberia

In February, 2015, Russian scientists examined ancient human skulls and tested bronze tools on a modern skull to see how doctors in Siberia more than 2,000 years ago performed brain surgery on three adults. It is still unknown what anesthetic, if any, was used to dull the pain during the surgery.

The researchers believe the surgeries were carried out using the same principles as those found in the Hippocratic Corpus, which requires strict adherence to medical ethics and techniques. Hippocrates wrote the oath around 500 B.C.

The ancient doctor or doctors who performed the surgeries did them at a location on the skull that minimized damage to the brain and assured longer survival. Remarkably, it appears one of the men lived for years after the trepanation surgery because some of the bone grew back.

From jewel-capped teeth to golden bridges – 9,000 years of dentistry

From jewel-capped teeth to golden bridges – 9,000 years of dentistry

Dentistry, in some form or another, has been practiced for at least 9,000 years, although tooth extraction and remedies for tooth aches probably go back much further.  The study of ancient remains from around the world has demonstrated the ingenuity that existed in the application of surgical and cosmetic dental practices going back many millennia.

The Indus Valley Civilisation has yielded evidence for the earliest form of dentistry, which dates back to 7000 BC.  Sites in Pakistan have revealed dental practices involving curing tooth related disorders with bow drills operated, perhaps, by skilled bead craftsmen. The reconstruction of this ancient form of dentistry showed that the methods used were reliable and effective.

Evidence of successful brain surgery and ancient pharmaceutical warehouse found in Turkey

Evidence of successful brain surgery and ancient pharmaceutical warehouse found in Turkey

In December, 2014, archaeologists unearthed evidence of ancient surgery among the remains of people who lived in a settlement near Istanbul, Turkey, between the 11 th and 6 th centuries B.C. A skull, buried among the many remains undergoing excavation in the location of the ancient Roman city of Bathonea, was found to have been cut into, and examinations showed the patient survived the apparent surgery.

Excavation team member and forensic science expert Ömer Turan sasid: “The skull of this person, who is over the age of 30, was cut very regularly by medical workers, just like today’s brain surgeons. It is a painful process to open the skull. A person cannot tolerate this pain and should be anaesthetized, so this type of operation in such an early era makes us think there was a kind of anesthesia. Biological studies on the bones will enable us to find out which substance was used. The traces of recovery are apparent in the place of operation.”

Over 400 small bottles were also unearthed on site. Chemical examination revealed that these terracotta  unguentarium had contained methanone, phenanthrene, and phenanthrene carboxylic acid. Study showed the bottles had been filled with the mixed chemicals deliberately, added with the use of specific calculations. These findings, and the quantity of bottles, led Turan and the excavation team to surmise the location was the equivalent of a pharmaceutical production center.

The Sushruta Samhita and Plastic Surgery in Ancient India, 6th century B.C.

The Sushruta Samhita and Plastic Surgery in Ancient India, 6th century B.C.

Plastic surgery seems to be an invention of the modern age. The desire to attain physical beauty is no doubt one of the factors that has contributed to the popularity of this procedure. Yet, plastic surgery is not a new development. One of the earliest instances of plastic surgery can be found in the Sushruta Samhita, an important medical text from India. The Sushruta Samhita is commonly dated to the 6th century B.C., and is attributed to the physician Sushruta. The Sushruta Samhita’s most well-known contribution to plastic surgery is the reconstruction of the nose. The process is described as such:

“The portion of the nose to be covered should be first measured with a leaf. Then a piece of skin of the required size should be dissected from the living skin of the cheek, and turned back to cover the nose, keeping a small pedicle attached to the cheek. The part of the nose to which the skin is to be attached should be made raw by cutting the nasal stump with a knife. The physician then should place the skin on the nose and stitch the two parts swiftly, keeping the skin properly elevated by inserting two tubes of eranda (the castor-oil plant) in the position of the nostrils, so that the new nose gets proper shape. The skin thus properly adjusted, it should then be sprinkled with a powder of licorice, red sandal-wood and barberry plant. Finally, it should be covered with cotton, and clean sesame oil should be constantly applied.”

First Ever Evidence for Ancient Bone Surgery found in Peru - Holes Drilled in Legs

First Ever Evidence for Ancient Bone Surgery found in Peru - Holes Drilled in Legs

Drilling holes in the head, otherwise known as trepanation, is the earliest surgical technique known. In January, 2015, researchers discovered the first example of the drilling technique used on other body parts in pre-Columbian Peru. Marks were identified on two skeletons found at the pre-Columbian site of Kuelap, in north-eastern Peru. The bones of the individuals, dated to 800–1535 AD, displayed evidence of having undergone drilling techniques on their legs in a manner similar to trepanation. It is thought this was done to treat a possible lower leg infection, and this is a rare find.

The two skeletons from the Kuelap site in Peru were male, one aged 30 to 34 years old, the other an adolescent. Examinations revealed the pair were seemingly healthy overall, without major stresses detected on the bones. However, the depth and placement of the drilled holes suggest the surgeries were done to relieve pressure from an injury or infection which caused a build-up of fluid in the leg.

11,000-year-old site of Asikli Hoyuk in Turkey reveals early brain surgery

11,000-year-old site of Asikli Hoyuk in Turkey reveals early brain surgery

The ancient Neolithic settlement of Asikli Hoyuk (Aşıklı Höyük) boasts many important discoveries. Excavations have revealed crucial information on the history of brain surgery, early mining, astounding craftsmanship, and human transitions from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles. The site continues to astound archaeologists and visitors alike as it reveals the secrets of the original inhabitants dating back to 9000 B.C., even after 25 years of modern excavation.

In a recent dig, archaeologists found skulls at Asikli Hoyuk demonstrating the earliest-known brain surgery. Trepanation, or drilling holes into the skull in an attempt to relieve or cure ailments or mental illness, has been found on a number of skulls at the site, astounding researchers.

Archaeologists discover 2,300-year-old dental implant in Iron Age burial chamber

Archaeologists discover 2,300-year-old dental implant in Iron Age burial chamber

A study in May, 2014 revealed the discovery of an Iron Age tooth implant among the remains of a Celtic woman in northern France. The implant is the oldest of its kind discovered in western Europe.

The finding was made in a 2,300-year-old richly furnished burial chamber in Le Chene, France. The iron implant, which is the same size and shape as incisors from her upper jaw, was found alongside the rest of her teeth. It is believed that the iron pin was covered with a wooden- or ivory-carved tooth

By April Holloway

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