Peruvian Trepanned Skulls

Date: c. 1300
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows anthropologist William H. Egberts examing a collection of ancient skulls at the Smithsonian in 1926. These skulls have undergone a medical procedure known as trephination, or trepanning, in which a small hole is drilled through the bone of a living individual's head. Many skulls of Indians from the pre-Columbian Andes have been found with evidence of this primitive form of brain surgery, but the exact reason for its practice is unknown. Various Amerindian groups also did several other medical and ritual proceedures to the skull; ancient Peruvians, for example, used boards and weights to shape an infant's skull at birth into a cone shape while Mayans in the Yucatan would honor their staple crops of maize and beans by molding their babies' skulls to the shape of either a kernel of corn or a single legume.

Anthropologists have posited several explanations for why people with only stone tools to work with would go to such pains (both for the surgeon and--especially--the patient) to drill holes in skulls, a practice that was quite widespread amongst Neolithic peoples throughout the world. General answers, such as the expulsion of evil spirits, curing headaches, or combating insanity are the most widely accepted rationales for this difficult procedure that, most likely, often resulted in the patient's death. The surgeon's tools, namely small stone awls and drills, have been found during archaeological digs in the Andes.

It should be kept in mind, however, that trephination, like other aspects of indigenous medicine, may well be the result of generations of empirical observation by skilled surgeons that produced positive results, and cannot be dismissed as mere superstition or savagery.

CITATION: Several treppanned skulls. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-115187.