Saturday November 11, 2006 Chalon Rodriguez, M.D.:  Pre-Columbian Medicine.

In his presentation, Dr. Chalon Rodriguez discussed some aspects  of the practice of medicine and surgical procedures of the Inca, Maya and Aztec.  Citing primarily the tenth book of the Florentine Codex written by   Bernadino de Sahagun, as well as an Aztec herbal of 1552, written in Nahuatl by Martin de la Cruz, now called the Badianus Manuscript after its translator, Dr. Rodriguez illuminated the highly sophisticated medical practices of the three cultures. These texts were supplemented with references to the letters of Cortes, testimonies of the Spanish who came to Peru, and the writings of Diego de Landa.  For all three cultures, medicine and religion were interlinked: illnesses could have supernatural, natural or human generated causes, and they could be cured by prayer, exorcism, herbs, or even surgery. 

              The Inca often sought supernatural causes for illnesses, but they utilized chicha, coca, and even tobacco as herbal treatments for illnesses such as syphilis, leprosy, and arthritis, as well as urinary and bowel ailments. They were particularly skilled in surgical arts; using lancets and drills to practice trephination and other surgical procedures. One Inca skull showed evidence of two trephinations, one of which was partially healed. Most interesting was the Inca use of large tropical ants for suturing.  After the jaws of the ants were clamped to the wound, pulling it together, the thorax was sliced off, leaving the head with the jaws still clamped to the wound.

             Both the Inca and Maya practiced cranial deformation.  Maya shamans often sought human activities such as witchcraft and curses as causes of illness.  They would use strong tobacco and other psychotropic substances to induce trance states in which they implored the deities to cure the afflicted subject.   Maya ceramics are another rich source of information about Maya medicine.  Dr. Rodriguez displayed a photograph of a bloated Colima figure which appeared to be suffering from fluid retention, while a Nayarit figure appeared to display a surgical incision in its abdomen.

             The Aztec found causes of illness in such things as flouting the gods and breaking societal rules. Oddly, they also believed that an ill wisher could insert foreign objects into a person.   They used trances to determine the identity of the malevolent enemy and the location of the object.  A woman curer would then suck the foreign object from the body.  The Badianus Manuscript is organized by illnesses, and beautifully depicts the different herbs that could be used as cures. Many of these treatments were described by Dr. Rodriguez.In one of his letters, Cortes described an entire street devoted to herbal medicine in the  Tenochtitlan marketplace, and he utilized a native shaman to heal him when he was wounded.

              Dr. Rodriguez, a retired physician, was one of the founders of The Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, D.C.   He has studied pre-columbian cultures for over 35 years, through visits to archaeological sites and principal museums through out Central and  South America.  He has been a conference speaker on this matter at numerous locations, including The Organization of American  States, The Library of Congress, The Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, D.C.,  Catholic  University, Washington, D.C., The Cultural  Center of the Inter-American Development Bank,  The Pre-Columbian  Society of Philadelphia,  The Miami Hispanic  Library, The Instituto Cultural Peruano-Norteamericano, Lima, Perú, and, on two occasions, the Institute of Maya Studies in Miami.

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