Eight Impressive but Terrifying Cases of Ancient Surgery

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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.

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Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language.

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Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language.

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