Richard Thornton | Aug 9, 2017 | 5
Creek’s ancestors at Apalachicola River town performed brain surgery
The Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River Basin Project
Cataloguing, analyzing and interpolating hundreds of archaeological reports along this 550 mile long river system may seem like drudgery, but the process is constantly providing amazing information about the past, that somehow got left out of the history books. In 1948 and 1949, Dr. Arthur Kelly’s River Basin Survey Team studied a massive town site on the west side of the Apalachicola River across from the Florida town of Chattahoochee. It was labeled the Curlee Site (8JA7) and has almost been forgotten by the current generation of academicians. The town site is just down stream from the Jim Woodruff Dam and Lake Seminole . . . near the old bridge that once connected Chattahoochee with Steads, FL. One of the forgotten discoveries from this site is a real zinger
The archaeologists unearthed a human skeleton from around 1200 AD that had a square hole in it’s skull! The bone had grown back some before the patient died. This means that Apalachicola doctors knew about trephining, which is the surgical technique of removing a section of the skull to relieve pressure or to remove a foreign object. There is no mention in history or anthropology books of this medical procedure being done north of Southern Mexico. However, in 1990 two surgeons at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL wrote a professional paper on the evidence of North American trephining for an obscure medical journal. It mentioned the Curlee Site skull, but inferred that the location was near Cahokia, Illinois . . . not in northwestern Florida. The information in the paper, never made it into mainstream anthropological publications.
The primary weapon used by the peoples of the Andes was a war club. Neither they nor the people of Southern Mexico ever developed the level of skill with a bow that Southeastern Indians obtained. As a result, serious head injuries were commonplace among their soldiers. Trephined skulls are commonplace in Peru and the process is frequently discussed in references and school textbooks, when covering topics about Pre-Columbian Peru. One never reads about Southeastern Indians performing this procedure, though.
A severe concussion causes the brain cavity to fill with fluids. The pressure from these fluids can cause either death or permanent brain damage, if the pressure is not quickly relieved. Prior to the availability of stainless steel or vinyl “brain drains,” cutting a hole in the skull was the only way to drain the brain cavity, and still the only way to remove large objects such as arrowheads and nails.
In order to give the patient a chance at survival, the scalp must be cleanly and carefully cut then rolled back. Sanitation, before, during and after surgery is imperative or microbes will quickly cause encephalitis. The operation must be carried out quickly or the scalp cells will die due to lack of oxygen and nutrients then gangrene will set up over the hole. The scalp was then stitched back together, leaving one or more holes for the fluids to continue draining out until the would healed.
If the patient did not have a fatal brain injury, gangrene or encephalitis was the most likely cause of death after the surgery. Apalachicola doctors obviously had a ointment that would sterilize the stitched scalp or the patient would have died long before bone began to grow.
It is not known what type of cutting tool was used to slice the scalp and then cut the bone. The scalp may have been cut with a copper blade, but only a material such as flint or obsidian would have been sharp and strong enough to cut through bone.
Now you know!
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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