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Smash and Slice: Ancient Surgical Techniques

Before medical schools, technology, and advanced surgical techniques existed, medicine was a field of mystery and experimentation. The art of surgery, therefore, was a process of trial and error - often utilizing barbaric and dangerous methods. Let’s take a look at how some of our forefathers operated during ancient times. For most of you – perhaps it's a recap. But hopefully a very interesting one! STONE AGE The first signs of historical surgical operations are trepanned skulls and sharpened flints dating as far back as the Stone Age. Although no one is certain of the nature or cause for these operations, it is assumed that they were performed on people who suffered from head injuries, and were intended to release pressure building up inside the brain. ANCIENT EGYPT It is an undeniable fact that the Egyptians really know their way around embalming and mummifying people. The process of mummification and the removal of internal organs was actually a rather refined art, consisting of the smallest possible incisions - they even removed the brain through the nose to avoid damaging the outer appearance of the body! However, Egyptian surgery also included treating broken bones, suturing wounds, and dealing with abscesses and boils. They had plenty of surgical instruments on hand - using sutures, clamps, scissors and cauterization to close open wounds as well as saws, forceps, scalpels, and probes to explore injuries. ANCIENT ROME During the Roman Empire’s golden years, the surgical arena was dominated by the works and ideas of Galen. He was significantly fascinated and curious about the human anatomy. However, since it was forbidden to open up human bodies at that time, Galen spent most of his days dissecting animals, including apes. Needless to say, some of his ideas were wrong as he assumed a great similarity between animal and human bodies. However, Galen was a very powerful and influential writer, and his inaccurate works travelled far and wide - dominating the medical field for centuries. ANCIENT INDIA In Ancient India, surgeons were incredibly skilled. Because people were constantly punished by having their noses chopped off, undergoing operations for the “repair” or reconstruction of their noses was widespread. As an inevitable result, India became the birthplace of plastic surgery. As long as humanity has existed, it has required medicine. From skull-smashing and the preservation of the dead to ape dissection and criminal plastic surgery, these primitive operations, even in their flawed design, helped to form the foundation for the advanced surgical field of our modern era. I, for one, am grateful for this extensive evolution of surgical techniques.