Andean - MO - Healers in Peru carried out cranial surgery more than a thousand years ago to treat a host of conditions - often successfully.

Without the benefits of a sterile operating theatre, state-of-the-art surgical instruments, anaesthetic and pain medication, the ancient people of the South American country undertook a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the skull using a hand drill or a scraping tool - a practice called trepanation.

It was used to treat a variety of ailments, mainly head injuries but even, bizarrely, a broken heart.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, University of California bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (around AD 1000-1250).

Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence.

‘When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do,’ said Kurin, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbera and a specialist in forensic anthropology.

According to Kurin, trepanations first appeared in the south-central Andean highlands during the Early Intermediate Period (circa AD 200-600), although the technique was not universally practised.

Still, it was considered a viable medical procedure until the Spanish put a halt to the practice in the early 16th century.

But Kurin, whose findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, wanted to know how trepanation came to exist in the first place and looked to a failed empire to find some answers.

‘For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work — the Andahuaylas — was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari,’ she said.