Medical and surgical practice as represented in cultural figures from the pre-conquest mesoamerican territories

James Tait Goodrich, Fernando Chico Ponce De Leon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Objective To review medical and surgical practices in pre-Conquest Mexico in the Olmec and Mayan regions and areas of West Mexico as depicted on terra-cotta, stone, and stelae figures. Methods A search was undertaken to locate and describe interesting and unusual medical and surgical figures from the pre-Conquest period of Mesoamerica. Using the details of these figures, descriptions of medical and surgical practices are outlined. Results Neurosurgery was not a defined or developed surgical technique in the Mesoamerican territories; nevertheless, elements of medical and surgical practice were clearly widespread. Two important cultures that developed in the pre-Conquest period were the Olmec and the Mayan civilizations. Both cultures had a written language; however, most of their manuscripts were destroyed by the Spanish during the Conquest in the 16th and 17th centuries. These early cultures were rich in sculpted artifacts: stone and terra-cotta figures depict scenes that reveal much about this period and, in particular, early medical and neurosurgical practice. A similar but not quite so advanced civilization was also developing in West Mexico in what are now the States of Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco. Sculptures and figures from these periods illustrate some of the early medical and surgical practices and provide interesting insights into the rich and varied cultures of these Mesoamerican territories. The focus of this article is on two important cultures and periods: the Olmec (1200 bc200 ad) and the classical Mayan (200 ad900 ad) societies, as well as the West Mexico cultures (100 bc500 ad). Conclusion Review of the data and images reveals a sophisticated society clearly interested in detailing various medical and surgical practices in Mesoamerica and hints at some early neurosurgical practices in this era.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-96
Number of pages16
JournalWorld Neurosurgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2010


  • Cranial deformation
  • History of medicine
  • History of neurosurgery
  • Pre-Columbian neurosurgery
  • Trephination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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