Knowledge of Skull Base Anatomy and Surgical Implications of Human Sacrifice Among Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Cultures

Raul Lopez-Serna, M.D.; Juan Luis Gomez-Amador, M.D.; Juan Barges-Coll, M.D.; Nicasio Arriada-Mendicoa, M.D.; Samuel Romero-Vargas, M.D., M.Sc.; Miguel Ramos-Peek, M.D.; Miguel Angel Celis-Lopez, M.D.; Rogelio Revuelta-Gutierrez, M.D.; Lesly Portocarrero-Ortiz, M.D., M.Sc.

Disclosures

Neurosurg Focus. 2012;33(2):e1 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Human sacrifice became a common cultural trait during the advanced phases of Mesoamerican civilizations. This phenomenon, influenced by complex religious beliefs, included several practices such as decapitation, cranial deformation, and the use of human cranial bones for skull mask manufacturing. Archaeological evidence suggests that all of these practices required specialized knowledge of skull base and upper cervical anatomy. The authors conducted a systematic search for information on skull base anatomical and surgical knowledge among Mesoamerican civilizations. A detailed exposition of these results is presented, along with some interesting information extracted from historical documents and pictorial codices to provide a better understanding of skull base surgical practices among these cultures. Paleoforensic evidence from the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan indicates that Aztec priests used a specialized decapitation technique, based on a deep anatomical knowledge. Trophy skulls were submitted through a stepwise technique for skull mask fabrication, based on skull base anatomical landmarks. Understanding pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religions can only be realized by considering them in their own time and according to their own perspective. Several contributions to medical practice might have arisen from anatomical knowledge emerging from human sacrifice and decapitation techniques.

Introduction

Before the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the central region of the continent, known as Mesoamerica (extending from Central Mexico to Nicaragua), was inhabited by prosperous ancient civilizations that flourished before the Spanish colonization that began in the 16th century.[14] Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies (Olmecs, Mayans, Totonacs, Aztecs, and Mixtecs) shared not only a geographical area but also several cultural traits.[14] As early as 7000 to 6000 bc, they domesticated the wild teosinte and gradually transformed it by selection of seeds into the ancestor of modern maize. It became the major crop of Mesoamerican societies by the time of Spaniard exploration.[2,13,18] Improvement of agricultural techniques and domestication of maize and other vegetables (beans, squash, and chilies), as well as the raising of turkeys and the Mexican hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintli), caused a transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers (foragers) to established agricultural villages.[16]

During the centuries following the establishment of the first agricultural settlements, several common social and cultural features evolved among Mesoamerican societies, such as complex calendar and numeral systems, rich and colorful mythological traditions, advanced astronomical knowledge, and a distinct architectural style, whose vestiges still remain. Human sacrifice became a common cultural trait during the advanced phases of Mesoamerican civilizations.[5,12] This phenomenon, influenced by complex religious beliefs, included several practices such as decapitation,[3,9,12] cranial deformation,[20] and the use of human cranial bones for skull mask manufacturing.[15] Archaeological evidence suggests that all of these practices required specialized knowledge of cranial, skull base, and upper cervical anatomy.[10] In the context of a world of perpetual war among tribes and hand-to-hand combat,[3] considerable surgical applications might have emerged from this anatomical knowledge, such as the use of gold and silver to perform cranioplasties, refined surgical techniques to treat combat wounds, and the development of head protection devices.[11]

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