General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
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What were the surgery practices among the Aztecs?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Madi: What were the surgery practices among the Aztecs? (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Treating cuts and burns (top) and broken legs (bottom), Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 1: Treating cuts and burns (top) and broken legs (bottom), Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

We know the Mexica were excellent surgeons, and health practitioners in general - the Spanish admitted as such, and learned a lot from them too.
The best authority on this, without doubt, is Professor Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano (he’s on our Panel of Experts), and we can do no better than quote from his superb book Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition. Here’s what he wrote in the chapter ‘Curing Illness’ -
The Aztec treatment of bone injuries was... possibly the most advanced aspect of Aztec surgery... They used traction and countertraction to reduce fractures and sprains and splints to immobilize fractures... They also treated complications such as swelling around the break, incising it with an obsidian lancet [blade] or applying a mixture of plants as a plaster. For failure of the bone callus [bridge] to consolidate in fractures ‘the bone is exposed; a very resinous stick is cut; it is inserted within the bone, bound within the incision, covered over with the medicine mentioned’ [Florentine Codex - see pic 1]. [The medical historian] Viesca Treviño called this ‘a simple and unpretentious description of an intramedullar nail - a technique not used in Western medicine till the twentieth century.
We now know that obsidian (see pic 3), a volcanic glass, is one of the sharpest natural materials in the world, its edges thinner and sharper than modern surgical steel. This gives it an advantage even today in delicate cataract surgery, in which ‘the thinnest incision is desired’.

Pic 2: Treating a broken leg, Florenine Codex Book 10
Pic 2: Treating a broken leg, Florenine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Writing in 1615 the Spanish Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada mentioned that Aztec battle surgeons tended their wounded skillfully and healed them faster than did the Spanish surgeons. As Ortiz de Montellano explains, ‘one area of clear Aztec superiority over the Spanish was the treatment of wounds...’
The three steps of treatment were: 1) wash the wound with warm, fresh urine; 2) treat with [the herb] matlalxihuitl (Commelina pallida) to stop the bleeding; and 3) dress the wound with hot, concentrated sap obtained from Agave leaves, with or without added salt. Treatment was repeated if inflammation indicated infection was present.
Clearly, as the Aztecs were regularly at war with neighbouring tribes, they had plenty of opportunities to practice and develop their skills!

Pic 3: Human bones and obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 3: Human bones and obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

‘Health Profiles: Aztec Warrior v Spanish Conquistador’

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