Trepanation (or trephination) is “a procedure that involves the removal of a piece of calvarium without damage to the underlying blood vessels, meninges, or brain” (Kim 2004:18). This is a practice that has been seen in prehistory throughout most of the world (Kim 2004:20-21) and was found to be most prevalent among the Pre-conquest peoples of South America, with specific cases and research suggesting that at least 50 percent of people who underwent a trepanation procedure survived at least for some time afterwards. (Capasso and Di Tota 1996:316). This paper will address trepanation in terms of where and when it was common in South American Peruvian cultures, why it was done, the various types of trepanation procedures and the types of tools used, and specific cases involving both successful and unsuccessful procedures.
Trepanation is evident in prehistoric cultures throughout the world including Europe, Asia, Africa, North, Central, and South America, as well as Oceania. The two most notable locations where archaeologists have found the most specimens indicating trepanation are in France and Peru (Kim 2004:20-21). In France there is a rock-shelter called Entre-Roches that dates to Paleolithic times. A parietal bone was discovered in the soil of this rock-shelter that concludes that trepanation was practiced in the Quaternary period (de Nadaillac 1892:263-64).
Peru has been noted as having the largest number of prehistoric trepanned skulls throughout the world and the practice was common for over two thousand years (Verano and Andrushko 2010:270). Dr. Mantegazza found three examples of trepanation from Peru; one notable one had cloth still bound around the skull with two trepanned holes beneath it. There was evidence of where two other attempts of trepanation had occurred, and ultimately one of these procedures was the cause of death for the individual (de Nadaillac 1892:267).
This paper focuses on sites that span from the Early Intermediate Period (200 BC – AD 700) through the Late Horizon Period (AD 1476-1532) in Peru. There is little evidence of trepanation prior to the Late Intermediate Period in Cuzco region (which was the capital of the Inca Empire), except for a Middle Horizon cranium found at the Pikillacta site within Cuzco. This lack of evidence in the Cuzco region prior to the Late Intermediate Period is surprising due to the numerous amount of sites found along the coast of Peru where trepanation was practiced as early as 400 BC (Andrushko 2007). Sites found during the Early Intermediate Period (200 BC – AD 700) and the Middle Horizon (AD 700-1000) provide a baseline of trepanation in Peru prior to the Inca Empire (Andrushko and Verano 2008).
“Trepanation has garnered intense interest, because it represents an early form of cranial surgery practiced with an understanding of cranial anatomy and physiology.” (Andrushko and Verano 2008) Trepanation became known in the scientific and anthropological world via an incident in Peru...