Sacred Text Describes Successful Brain Surgery in Ancient Tibet
The history of brain surgery may date back as far as the late Stone Age, and some medical historians consider it the earliest operation ever performed. Recently, a specialist on Tibetan culture uncovered an intriguing account of ancient brain surgery in the 2,900-year-old Tibetan Tripiaka, a collection of Buddhist texts passed down orally for thousands of years before being recorded in Sanskrit during the third century B.C. Perhaps most significantly, the description suggests that ancient Tibetan doctors conducted craniotomies and related procedures to ease patients’ symptoms and not as part of a religious ritual, as some scholars have suggested.
The Tibetan Tripiaka.
Karma Trinley, an associate professor of Tibetan language and literature at Tibet University in Lhasa, found the passage on brain surgery after studying the Tripiaka for four decades. In it, a veteran surgeon performs the operation on a man who suffers from such severe headaches that he would resort to banging his head on hard objects to relieve the pain. Tsogyel, a young Indian doctor who happens to be watching the procedure, counsels the surgeon to heat his tweezers, presumably in order to disinfect them.
“Tsogyel was a well-reputed doctor and was good at all medical practice except brain surgery,” Trinley told Xinhua News, China’s state-run news agency. “But the surgeon followed his advice and the surgery later proved successful.” Tsogyel’s sterilization technique went on to improve recovery rates for brain surgery during that time and helped him establish his own career as a surgeon, Trinley said.
Evidence of ancient brain surgery on the Tibetan Plateau first surfaced in 1998, when archaeologists unearthed human skulls bearing cracks that had healed before death. Researchers surmised that these early craniotomies, some performed more than 5,000 years ago, were intended to heal the spirit rather than the body. “Some believed it was a religious ritual to dispel evils or bring happiness, while others held that it was a therapy used by witches and wizards,” Trinley explained.
Because it includes details on the patient’s symptoms, the brain surgery scene in the Tripi?aka implies that doctors performed at least some of these operations for legitimate therapeutic reasons, Trinley said. Brain surgery is not the only medical treatment that appears in the Tripi?aka, which aggregates the teachings of Buddhism’s founder, Siddh?rtha Gautama (also known as ??kyamuni), and commentary by his disciples. “The Tibetan Tripi?aka contains ??kyamuni’s classifications of 440 ailments that were believed to be associated with wind, bile and phlegm, and were categorized accordingly,” Trinley said, adding that some of this knowledge is still used by Tibetan doctors today.
Many other ancient civilizations used brain surgery for both religious and medical purposes hundreds or even thousands of years before the advent of modern medicine, including the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and some pre-Incan societies.
New evidence into the mysterious cause of the extinction of an ancient empire.
Description of photo: The interior of Yok Balum cave in Belize, where scientists harvested a telltale stalagmite
The agriculture-based Mayan Civilization occupied the Central America region, what is now know as Guatemala, and the surrounding area, beginning in 1,800 B.C. They were known for their magnificent stone monuments; the last one erected before their collapse was the Kukulkan pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico.
The Mayan culture experienced a remarkable expansion, which has been studied and evidenced in architectural, political and textual artifacts from what is known as the Classic Period, until its decline beginning around 800 AD. Just 300 years later the culture suffered its eventual fate of devastating and absolute demise.
As reported in the recent issue of Science, anthropologist Douglas Kennett lead an international team of researchers, in an investigation of a cave located within 1.5 km (.9 mi.) of one significant Mayan site and 19 mi. (30 km) of three others.
The scientists harvested a stalagmite from this cave in the jungles of Belize, for the purpose of determining how long ago it started growing. Since they know that the rate of growth for stalagmites to be about four one-thousandths of an inch to about 0.5 years, they were able to calculate the birth of the one they confiscated to be 40 B.C.
Why is this information important? Why bother to go to such effort and expense to measure the life of a hard to reach stalagmite?
Because it is believed that the up and down cycles of the Mayans and their ultimate decline, may have been climate related and specifically drought related. Rainfall absorbed by the ground seeped into the cave and was incorporated into the composition of the caves stalagmites.
This process of nature allowed the scientists to determine which time point, what century, during the stalagmite’s development, had wet or dry climate cycles. They reported their findings of droughts lasting at least a few decades each and that they occurred from 200 to 1100 AD.
The droughts coincided repeatedly with times of upheaval in the Mayan culture, which point to climate as one possible culprit of the downfall of the great Mayan civilization.