How Africans Performed Brain Surgery with Simple Tools and Herbs Long Before Colonization

The traditional brain surgery, specifically “Trepanation” of the cranium which is the oldest evidence of brain surgery through the ages have been practised all over the world. However, like many African practices, the west didn’t know that it was also practised in sub-Sahara Africa. The Busoga tribe of Uganda and the Kikii tribe of Kenya who carried out the practice up until when it was documented in the 1980s, change the narrative.

Research has shown that East Africans independently developed and practised Trepanation at about the same time it was practised by some other civilizations. When discussing the history of neurosurgery and craniotomy most part of the world are mentioned including Germany, China, France, past south pacific civilizations, and so on. The most documented mention of Africa in the history of brain- or neuro-surgery is the record of neurosurgery found in Edwin Smith’s papyrus discovered in Egypt. The papyrus is actually a very detailed presentation of spinal cord trauma with its mechanism and symptomatology, not Trepanation. Though the ancient Egyptians knew about trepanation, it was not mentioned in the papyrus. It was concluded that they rarely practised it, thereby suggesting that the people of Uganda and Kenya developed their practice independently.

Image source: Traditional Craniotomies of the Kisii Tribe of Kenya, Annals of Plastic Surgery 1985

Trepanation is a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull, exposing the dura mater to treat health problems related to intracranial diseases or release pressured blood buildup from an injury. According to a review: Traditional Craniotomies of the Kisii Tribe of Kenya, published in 1985 in Annals of Plastic Surgery by a team of medical researchers from the United States and Kenya who studied what remained of the ancient practice of traditional craniotomy of the Kisii tribe of Kenya, the surgery operation was done by the Kisii people mainly for two conditions: acute cranial trauma and posttraumatic headache. The researcher concluded that the rational of their procedure is anatomical, the mortality rate was low and the satisfaction rate was high.

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The surgical operations were carried out using sharp knives for incision, “j” shaped scrapers for scraping the bones, retractors to hold back skin or tissue during the surgery and fine sharp-pointed picks for the most delicate part of the operation and several herbs for hemostasis (of stoppage of bleeding). They used the watery sap from a banana stem as sterile irrigation solution to bath the wound during the surgical operations. Soft materials such as a bundle of clean feathers is used to clean the would while it is irrigated. Fat from the tail of ram or chicken fat is placed on the wound after the operation. The surgeons who carried out the surgeries learnt the trade as apprentices to older relatives, usually their grandfathers.

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There are so many isolated advancements like this by Sub Sahara civilisations in ancient times in other human endeavours that were and has not been documented. But sadly the world including Africans rely on works from westerns historians whose biased writings dominate history collections on Africa despite them only knowing about Sahara Africa when they first discovered the region, and even as further investigations and archaeological discoveries continue to prove them wrong. The region obviously had thousands of years of history that they know nothing about which only Africans would be able to properly dig out and explain themselves.


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