Saturday November 11, 2006 Chalon Rodriguez, M.D.: Pre-Columbian
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, PerÃº,
and, on two occasions, the Institute of Maya Studies in Miami.
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