History : Apr-May 2015
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 11 sought to cure people through a combi- nation of prayer and penitence. The tictli were organized into a wide array of specialties. For example, there were army surgeons, who owed their deep knowledge of anatomy to their lengthy study of sacrificial cadavers. They learned that to avoid infection the first step in treating a wound is to apply urine directly onto it as a sterilizing agent. They would then apply astringent herbs and a substance derived from eggs. To stop hemorrhages, the wound would be covered with coagulating herbs to help form scars, and, if necessary, stitched with human hair or attached with natural “staples” made from the jaws of a partic- ular ant. This innovative procedure was carried out by pulling together the edges of the wound, to which the live ant was applied. At the very moment the insect sunk its jaws into the skin, its head would be cut off, thus stapling the wound to- gether. If a patient suffered during such a procedure, they might be given pain- killing herbs to chew. From Cradle to Grave Bonesetters also played a role in Aztec medicine. Fractures were treated with splints and plaster casts or, in extreme cases, bone grafts: “The bone itself must be scraped and smoothed, then a brand soaked in resin inserted deep into the marrow of the broken bone to make it rigid. The whole is then firmly bound up.” They also had “cardiologists,” whose study of study of human sacrifice victims allowed them to create a catalog of car- diovascular conditions. There were also doctors who we would today recognize as ear, nose, and throat specialists. What’s more, thanks to their in-depth knowl- edge of plants and herbs, the Aztec ex- celled in treating digestive problems and skin conditions, even tackling cosmetic issues such as hair loss and dandruff. Aztec opticians were skilled in treating what was termed the “overleafing of the eyes”—cataracts—“by cutting the mem- brane with a spike or thorn and putting in drops.” The Aztec could also visit excel- lent dentists, who not only treated tooth- ache and abscesses but also carried out complex cosmetic surgery. This included embedding gemstones such as turquoise into the teeth. Archaeological finds seem to suggest that having a gemstone smile was considered a mark of social distinc- tion among the Aztec. Yet for all their knowledge of herbal remedies, the med- ical instruments used by Aztec physi- cians appear crude. Many were made of stone, though this does not seem to have made them any less effective. Madness and Motherhood In addition to the doctors who treated these bodily ailments, people with more emotional or psychosomatic conditions were looked after by specialists called the tetonaltih. These doctors would of- ten use dream interpretation to restore the patient’s inner balance. Sometimes the symptoms were interpreted as signs of madness, which the Aztec categorized into several types. It is also thought that Aztec physicians recognized the symp- toms of epilepsy and offered treatment for the condition. In certain codices and manuscripts the goddess Tlazoltéotl was represented as experiencing the symp- toms of this illness. The city also boasted no shortage ART ARCHIVE THE VICTIM of a spider bite is massaged by doctors in this illustration from the Florentine Codex.