Orthopedists of ancient Mexico and remedies of natural origin

05/03/2021

Plants, animals, and minerals were the natural resources used by pre-Hispanic cultures for the treatment and cure of diseases. The clearest evidence of the medicine applied at the time corresponds to the Mexica, who have been considered the first orthopedists of ancient Mexico, and whose efficacy in the care of bone injuries was experienced by Hernán Cortés himself, who was operated on for head injuries.

Due to the constant wars developed by the Mexicas against other peoples, to whom they generally submitted, the most common wounds and injuries they presented were those of the head, such as open or penetrating cranial trauma. The remedy for superficial injuries consisted of washing the wound with urine and the application of maguey juice, obtained from previously cooked stalks. While in the case of skull rupture, the parts were joined with a thin bone.

"And if we see that the helmet is broken, you will take a thin bone and join the helmet one with the other, put on top the juice of the maguey stalk, cooked or raw, ground full of egg or a little bit of hopper leaves with egg", refers in his chronicles Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.

The Mexica represented for the time, one of the most advanced peoples in the treatment of bone injuries, whose knowledge spread to other provinces and even benefited the Spanish soldiers.

The care described by Sahagún was surely effective, and this treatment was surely applied to Hernán Cortés himself, when he suffered a head wound after being chased by Chalca, Texcocan, and Acolhua warriors on his way to Tlaxcala. The Spanish conquistador took refuge in Tlaxcala, along with his soldiers, and there he received food and care. The indigenous doctors were in charge of curing his wounds by order of the lord of Tlaxcala.

In the Letters of Relation, Cortés relates: "in this province of Tlascaltecal I spent twenty days healing the wounds I had, because with the road and the bad treatment they had gotten much worse, especially those of the head, and also healing those of my company who were wounded".

The cure applied to the wound of the conquistador was so effective and he was so impressed, that even in a letter Cortés asked King Charles V, to send him only prelates, priests, and workers, except doctors, because in his expeditions he would be accompanied by the Nahua ticitl (therapists). During the Conquest, the Spaniards did not have enough doctors and barbers for their care, so they preferred the care and treatment of the indigenous people.

The ancient Mexicans had developed a whole healing system based on natural substances, from which the Spaniards benefited with excellent results. The efficacy was such that European medicine itself experienced reverse acculturation, incorporating plants, animals, and even stones in its treatments, as Agustín Farfán (1579) and Juan de Barrios (1607) refer in their works.

The study of the ailments presented by the Mesoamerican peoples, research developed has been supported by three fundamental elements: the bone remains found in tombs and burials during archaeological excavations; the stories and chronicles of historians of the past; as well as the pre-Hispanic materials with representations, such as ceramics, sculptures, codices and mural paintings.

Such was the importance of plants and animals for pre-Hispanic physicians that the tlatoanis had to open botanical gardens and specialized sites for fauna, from which they obtained supplies to carry out their therapeutic work.

By Mexicanist, Source INAH