Researchers are always learning new things about the ancient Inca civilization, which was located in present-day Peru, including the types of medical procedures there.

Inca Skull Surgeries

For thousands of years, many civilizations practiced surgeries with the drilling of a hole into the human skull, which is known as trepanation. A recent study suggests that doctors in ancient Inca were actually really good at it — especially when compared to American Civil War doctors.

The study was published on June 8 in the journal World Neurosurgery.

Researchers say that the survival rate for this surgery in ancient Inca was about two times better than the surgeries done during the American Civil War. The mortality rate in ancient Inca for these procedures was roughly between 17 and 25 percent.

There are more than 800 prehistoric skulls found in Peru with evidence of trepanation that researchers have studied, which is more than the total number of all the other skulls found with trepanation around the world. The first few dozen skulls were dated between 400 BC to 200 BC. The next group of skulls came from 1000 to 1400. The final group of skills came from the 1400s to the 1500s.

"Over time, from the earliest to the latest, they learned which techniques were better, and less likely to perforate the dura," said study co-author David S. Kushner, M.D. "They seemed to understand head anatomy and purposefully avoided the areas where there would be more bleeding."

The success rate of surgeries drastically improved. Only 40 percent of the first group of procedures were successful. The middle group had a success rate of 53 percent. Finally, the most recent group had a survival rate of up to 83 percent.

"What we're looking at is over 1000 years of refining their methods," said bioarchaeologist Corey Ragsdale. They're not just getting lucky, the surgeons performing this are so skilled."

There are still questions that researchers have about the surgeries done by the ancient Inca civilization. They are not sure what the Inca used as anesthesia and how infections were prevented. There were no written records left about the nature of the surgeries.

Civil War Skull Surgeries

The researchers did have written records from Civil War doctors. During the Civil War, trepanation procedures had a mortality rate between 46 to 56 percent. Although medical science improved greatly since the time of the ancient Inca civilization, the doctors during the Civil War could not perform these surgeries at a high success rate.

Indeed, doctors were better trained in the 19th century than they were in the 15th century. However, part of the reason behind the high mortality rate under the Inca civilization compared to that of the Civil War doctors was probably because of the nature of the injuries sustained during the Civil War.

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