The ancient Egyptians were one of the first great civilizations on the planet. They built the pyramids at Giza, the Great Sphinx, and the Library of Alexandria. As a foundational well-structured society, the Egyptians had a sophisticated agricultural economy, a highly organized government, and proper law enforcement.
These social institutions created a sense of stability in their everyday lives that nurtured research and documentation. Through trial and error, the ancient Egyptians were able to discover medical treatments that were far ahead of their time, many of which are still employed today. So today we’re going to take a look at what surgery was like in ancient Egypt.
The procedures were performed as early as 3300 BCE
Ever the overachievers, the ancient Egyptians have practiced medicine as far back as 3300 BCE. Their knowledge was accumulated slowly and was largely tested and verified through the long, arduous process of trial and error.
They started fairly small, treating battle wounds, snakebites, scorpion stings, and other topical ailments. But as this body of knowledge began to build up, it eventually put them ahead of other civilizations in the same era — medically speaking, at least.
But despite all of the medical knowledge, the average life expectancy at the time was still just about 34years in ancient Egypt. That being said, it pretty much goes without saying that you are much better off in a society that was able to heal burns and set broken bones than ones where such injuries were considered a death sentence. For reasons that should be fairly obvious, invasive surgery was something that was simply not done in ancient Egypt.
The lack of anesthesia and antiseptic made it essentially impossible, as it would have resulted in excruciating pain and almost certain death from infection. However, the ancient Egyptians were quite adept at topical remedies.
With the use of wooden splints and linens, they had a functional knowledge of how to set broken bones and correct dislocations. They also knew to stitch wounds and make effective herbal ointments to heal burns. While this might sound more like low-level first aid to modern folk, in the ancient world, even these simple cures could mean the difference between life and death.
The ancient Egyptian society was one of the considerable innovations. And thanks to archaeologists, we know that those innovations included some of the first truly effective surgical tools that aided in medical treatment.
Primarily crafted from the newly discovered metal of copper, the ancient Egyptians had versions of pincers, forceps, spoons, saws, hooks, and knives, all of which can be found in medical facilities today. They also crafted excellent bandages and had the foresight to infuse them with willow leaves to treat inflammation, a practice that was incredibly ahead of its time.
Prosthetics and Circumcision
Among numerous other medical firsts, it’s very likely that the world’s first-ever prosthetics were used in ancient Egypt. How do we know? Well, a female mummy who died somewhere between 950 and 710 BCE was discovered near Luxor, Egypt, and she was found to have a prosthetic toe made from wood and leather.
While the idea of a cosmetic replacement for a severed toe is itself an impressive innovation, researchers at theUniversity of Manchester suggest it may have actually been functional and helped the woman to walk.
The prosthetic toe showed significant signs of wear, which prompted university researchers to conduct a study that tested the gait of its participants with and without the aid of the replicated digit. What was found was that walking in ancient Egyptian sandals, which was the common footwear of the time, would have been incredibly difficult without a big toe.
Prosthetics similar to the one found in the Luxor mummy would have gone a long way to assisting the afflicted. Just goes to prove the old saying about necessity being the mother of invention. While the jury is out on the definitive origins of the practice, it has been speculated by some that the ancient Egyptians may have invented the act of male circumcision.
Some of you fellows may want to gird your loins for this next section because it’s important to note that anesthesia did not exist at the time. What we do know for sure is that, whether or not they originated it, the Egyptians certainly shared their knowledge of circumcision with other cultures.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the mid-fifth century BCE, the Egyptians are the only people in the world — they, at least, and such as have learned the practice from them — who use circumcision.
They practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely. The ancient Egyptians also appear to have performed circumcision in the males’ preadolescence phase and not at infancy, as it is usually practiced in other cultures.
This has led some to believe that it was a ritual to commemorate the transition from boyhood to manhood. The practice does not appear to have denoted social class or status, however, as not all kings preserved through mummification appear to be circumcised.
The first female doctors in recorded history
In 1849, a British woman named Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to ever be granted an MD degree in the United States. It was a pretty impressive feat for the time, but Elizabeth actually missed out on being the first female doctor in history by roughly 4,500 years, give or take a few years.
The ancient Egyptians weren’t just ahead of the curve in technology. And being the first at so many milestones of medicine, it should come as little surprise that the earliest recorded instance of a female doctor occurred in ancient Egypt.
The first known female doctor was named Merit-Ptah, and according to archaeologists, she lived somewhere in the neighborhood of 2700 BCE. She likely held the title of chief physician, meaning she had the authority to teach, had supervision over other doctors, and personally attended to the monarch of that time.
Though invasive surgery was an almost unheard-of practice in ancient Egypt, their doctors still managed to accumulate a pretty solid knowledge of the internal organs and how they functioned. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest preserved documents regarding medical practices, illustrates the thoughts on the workings of vital organs at the time. While some of the theories are slightly off, there are some which are impressively spot on.
For starters, they knew a fair amount about the heart. In the words of the Ebers Papyrus, which we’ve slightly adapted into more modern terms, from the heart there are vessels to all four limbs to every part of the body. Of the respiratory system, they knew that when we breathe in through our noses, the air enters our hearts and lungs and then the entire belly.
They also had knowledge of the liver, which they believed is supplied with liquid and air via four vessels. When they overfill the liver with blood, they cause many diseases. And of course, because it’s pretty hard to miss, they knew of the anus and had quite a few thoughts on it, including that the liquid and air that comes out of the anus comes from the vessels that exist in the arms and legs when they are overflowing with waste. OK, so it’s not exactly what you’d learn in a modern medical school, but it’s still pretty impressive when you consider all of this was written down around 1550 BCE.
Dental surgery was painful and ineffective
Almost nobody really loves going to the dentist, but imagine having to go to the dentist in an era when dental care didn’t really work. Well, that’s exactly what the ancient Egyptians faced when they had tooth problems.
For starters, the diet of the average ancient Egyptian was not exactly conducive to a great set of teeth. The tools used to grind food often left behind traces of sand and stone, which are naturally abrasive. And this often meant tooth loss at an early age.
Now, the ancient Egyptians did have some remedies for these kinds of dental ailments, but they were fairly bizarre and typically painful. For example, according to the Ebers Papyrus, the treatment for a toothache was rubbing a powdered mixture of onion, cumin, and incense on a tooth.
Now, if you’re wondering how that promoted healing, it didn’t. There are cases where the ancient Egyptians filled cavities with a mix of resin and a greenish mineral that contained copper and drilled into jawbones to drain abscesses of fluid. But curiously, the process of tooth extraction, which can be lifesaving cases of infection, was almost never used.
Post-Mortem dissection was common
If the ancient Egyptians are known for anything, it’s the pyramids, the sphinx, and their surprisingly sophisticated process of mummification, the latter of which has led to an understanding of how they functioned as a society and how they viewed public health.
The mummification procedure was an incredibly invasive one that involved thorough dissection to remove moisture from the body. The process included the removal of brain tissue through the nostril via a gruesome hook implement.
And that being the case, the priests who performed the sacred act got a fairly up-close and personal look at the internal organs of the human beings they prepped for the afterlife. Curiously, the knowledge gleaned from mummification was not employed for any medical use.
While nobody knows exactly why these areas were so discreet, a strong possible explanation is that priests and doctors of the time simply did not operate in the same circles. So the communication just wasn’t there. It’s been regarded as a strange oversight for a civilization that practiced such thorough documentation.
Used both science and supernatural to treat injuries
Though the ancient Egyptians used many legitimate medical remedies, the primary method of care still relied heavily on magic. You see, they believed that all diseases had supernatural causes. That being said, they assumed that healing also logically relied on the supernatural as well.
So medical treatment often came with a spell that was believed to aid recovery. One example of this would be a remedy for whooping cough. The medical treatment would consist of a grounded, roasted mouse mixed into milk, followed by the magical aid of a lullaby that drove off evil spirits.
Sounds like it would be a disaster. But archaeologists have found evidence of the effectiveness of such treatments. So does this mean that magic works? Well, we can’t rule that out entirely — actually, we can — but most modern scientists and doctors believe the success rate was likely due to a powerful placebo effect. So what do you think? How is your health care compared to ancient Egyptians’? Let us know in the comments below
Originally published at https://www.thecomprehensivepost.com.