Indian Bloodletting

Date: 1699
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This plate, based on a drawing made by Lionel Wafer during a visit to Panama in 1699, depicts an Indian method of bloodletting as a cure for an unnamed illness. According to historian Luis A. Seggiaro, bloodletting was independently practiced in various ways by healers throughout the world to cure many forms of sickness. Although methods varied between particular regions and cultures in pre-Columbian America, bloodletting was practiced by almost all of them (Seggiaro, 1977). The use of a small bow and arrow, as shown in this engraving, was peculiar to Panama. The Aztecs, for one, believed that snorting powdered tobacco (snuff) in sufficient quantity to cause gushing nose bleeds was a way to relieve the pain of a headache, while the Tupi of Brazil punctured the back and buttocks to drain out several maladies in a controlled stream of blood.

Historian of medicine Bernardo R. Ortiz de Montellano considers bloodletting, at least among the Aztecs, to be part of a larger system of medical practice which emphasized an etiological, or cause and effect, approach to healing. Headaches were thus the result of a buildup of blood in the brain (the cause) that led to painful pressure in the head (the effect). To ease the pain, they sought to treat its cause, too much blood in the head (modern studies also suggest that some migraines could be the result of blood clots in the brain) (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990). Etiological approaches are the basis of much modern medicine. The fact that bloodletting might actually have cured some maladies helps to explain why this dangerous technique was practiced in the Americas, ancient Greece, and even Europe as late as the early nineteenth century.


Ortiz de Montellano, Bernardo R. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Seggiaro, Luis A. Medicina Indigena de America. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1969.

CITATION: Wafer, Lionel. "A new voyage and description of the isthmus of America." 1699. London: Printed for James Knapton, at the Crown in St. Paul's Church Yard. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.