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  • Here is the skull of an Incan community member who lived between between 400 and 200 B.C.E. and died shortly after suffering a skull fracture.

    Here is the skull of an Incan community member who lived between between 400 and 200 B.C.E. and died shortly after suffering a skull fracture. | Photo: Kushner ET AL., World Neurosurgery

Published 12 June 2019

Incan surgeons had an 80 percent success rate as compared to U.S. Civil War doctors' 50 percent success rate 500 years later.

New research shows that without the aid of anesthetic, Incan surgeons were more skilled than Civil War doctors at cranial surgery.

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Careful inspection of skulls from the Incan Empire as well as pre-Colombian Peru revealed that hundreds of Indigenous went under the knife and premodern surgeons had an 80 percent success rate as compared to the 50 percent success rate shown by United States (U.S.) Civil War doctors 500 years later.

Together with University of New Orleans bioarchaeologist, John Verano; bioarchaeologist from the University of Arizona, Anne Titelbaum; and David Kushner, a neurologist at the University of Miami in Florida, examined nearly 640 skulls from Peru’s southern coast to the highlands. The skulls ranged from 400 B.C.E. to the mid-1500’s C.E.

The experts analyzed the surgical holes left from procedures, gauging the success rate from the holes left behind (which signaled a failed operation) and from the smooth bone around the opening (which told of a healthy recovery.)

“The outcomes were amazing,” Kushner said, noting that the techniques improved over time, growing from just a 40 percent success rate in 400 B.C.E. to 75 to 83 percent during the Incan period.

Compared to Civil War medical records whereas surgeons choose to make larger cuts of bone into the skull which resulted in a 46 to 56 percent fatality rate, much more than their Incan counterparts with a steady 17 to 25 percent death rate.

However, Neurosurgeon Emanuela Binello from Boston University said the difference may be due to the nature of injuries suffered by patients. Unsanitary battlefield hospitals, gunshot and cannonball wounds, infections all could contribute to the variations in these figures.

“The trauma that occurs during a modern civil war is very different from the kind of trauma that would have been happening at the time of the Incas,” she said. However, Binello added that the accomplishments of these physicians are still “astonishing,” as “it’s a credit to what these ancient cultures were doing.”

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