Despite what you've seen in Monty Python movies or at Renaissance Faires, people in olden days were a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They didn't exactly figure out how to make gold from horse poop (or however alchemy was supposed to work), but they did figure out a few things about our insides and how to make them better.
After all, archeological evidence suggests they were doing things like ...
Life in ancient times probably sucked for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, one of which was the absence of eyeglasses. Think about it. For most of history, being born with weak eyes was like a death sentence -- the nerdiest death sentence of all. You wouldn't be able to hunt, or read facial expressions, or tell whether that thing in the yard was a woolly mammoth or your mom.
You'll never be Chief of the tribe, young Mole-eye.
And then there were things like cataracts. Even if you were born with spectacular vision, and were perfect in every physical and mental way, chances are you'd get rewarded for your superiority by living into old age and getting cataracts. For those of you without grandparents, cataracts are when the lenses of your eyes kind of cloud over, like a fog made of eyeball. Everything turns into a soft-focus glamour shot, minus the feather boas and piercing stares. Great if you're a porn director, not so great if you're just a person trying to get around in the world.
"The beach no longer has any meaning for me."
Of course, these days they can actually correct cataracts with surgery using state of the art technology, including "a thin ultrasound probe" that "uses ultrasonic vibrations to dissolve (phacoemulsify) the clouded lens." But eyeball surgery seems like the kind of thing that you couldn't even get in 1950, let alone centuries ago.
Actually, as far back as 1000 B.C., the Indian doctor Sushruta developed a procedure for declouding the lenses of the eye. Warning: surgical eye-poking ahead.
The operation was simple, really. Sushruta and his minions would hold you down, then use a curved needle to loosen the lens and shove the cataract out of the field of vision, presumably back into the brain -- because hey, why not? Recovery was just a matter of having your eye soaked in warm butter and bandaged with some naan bread.
Apparently, Dr. Sush's little eye-gouging was so successful and kickass that famous Greeks like Pythagorus and Democritus traveled all the way to India to see it performed. And yet cataract-removal fever didn't spread over to Europe. Either the Western world preferred seeing the world through fog-colored lenses, or else they assumed the whole thing was too insane to be anything but a big, gruesome hoax.
It's so easy to look back and judge the past, mostly because ancient people had some stupid-ass beliefs, like that men didn't look ridiculous in dresses, that practicing witchcraft was a bad thing and that pagan orgies were the answer to life's problems. Clearly, modern man has learned all of these lessons the hard way.
Orgies or vaccinations: It's a choice no society should ever have to make.
They also didn't believe in germs, or vaccinations, or even soap. What the Greek and Roman physicians believed in instead was the idea of humors: That the body had four fluids in equilibrium, and if any of those fluids got out of whack -- BOOM! SMALLPOX! (Which was followed by a bigger boom, which was the boom of death.) Not like today, when you get a shot in the arm when you're a kid and just shrug off the killer diseases for the rest of your life.
Because they were so ignorant on the subject, smallpox, the Black Death, measles and mumps could have just been named "Grim Reaper #1," "Grim Reaper #2" and so forth. Oh, except in one corner of the world, where someone figured out exactly how to prevent the devastation of smallpox.
Fire was ancient medicine's Swiss army knife.
In 1000 B.C., Hindu physician Dhanwantari demonstrated the basic principles of inoculation against disease by intentionally infecting patients with lesser versions of the disease. Specifically, smallpox. The same sickness that would put a dent in every population on every continent in the world. That smallpox. Dhanwantari had it under control. Kind of.
"Take the fluid of a pock on the udder of a cow ... upon the point of a lancet, and lance with it the arms between the shoulders and the elbows until the blood appears; then, mixing the fluid with the blood, the fever of the small-pox will be produced."
"Don't mind me. Just harvesting some liquid death."
Gross. Just so we're clear, Dr. Dhan was mixing pus from a cow with cowpox with a person's blood, then putting that blood right back into the person. On purpose. And apparently, it worked. True, the newly cow-ified patients would get a little smallpox in the process, but their chances of dying went from 30 percent to 1 percent.
And here's the worst part: It took over 2,000 years for anyone from the West to notice that the Indian upper crust had smallpox beat. We're going to go with the same reasoning as the cataract surgery: because, lifesaving or not, the process was just too gross to consider.
"So on a scale of one to ten, how dead would you say you feel?"
When you want to hit someone over the head with how easy something is, you can remind them it's "not brain surgery." Brain surgery is the hardest, most complicated thing we can think of.
Now, we've known for a long time that ancient people drilled holes in the brain, a procedure called trepanning, but we've also kind of dismissed "drilling holes in the head" as one of those savage things people used to do because they didn't know any better. Maybe to appease the hole-in-the-head gods, we don't know. And it didn't help that pictures like this exist:
Wait, that's not the way we do it now?
Clearly, brain surgery back then was another term for "Instant death. By drill."
Recently, archaeologists in Turkey discovered a trepanned skull that was 4,000 years old, and not only did these ancient surgeons crack through the brain bone with 1-inch-by-2-inch incisions, their patients survived the ordeal. We know, because the skulls showed evidence of tissue regrowth. And the funny thing about corpses is that they don't regrow skull tissue. At all.
Well, unless you've wronged them in some way.
And that's despite the fact that they were using an obsidian rock as an incision tool. This wasn't just some caveman-style skull cracking -- the holes were precise and uniform. Think about that for a second. Imagine trying to carve through, oh, say, a piece of wood with a sharp rock, and how hard it would be. Now imagine getting through bone with the same tool, but the bone keeps shifting. Because it's on a person. A person who is getting drilled through the skull.
So the question is: Why would anyone drill holes in the brain? To relieve pressure, duh. Like when someone has brain trauma and fluid builds up in the head, surgeons will drill a quick hole before the brain gets compressed. As in, they'll do that today, because sometimes that's what a patient needs.
"Well, OK, I guess. You're the doctor."
So when someone says they need something like they "need a hole in the head," just assume they haven't just experienced a major brain trauma. And when we hear about ancient surgeons doing it, we have to remember that in some cases, it worked.