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Primitive Surgery: Skills Before Science

R. Ted Steinbock, MD
JAMA. 1986;255(1):101. doi:10.1001/jama.1986.03370010111042.
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Surgery is a unique technology in which human hands manipulate a human body. This book provides a brief but interesting survey of prescientific surgery from prehistory to primitive cultures of the present. While most surgery attempted to correct or repair a derangement in body function, other motives of an aesthetic, punitive, or ritual nature may have prompted certain practices extending back to the dawn of culture.

For example, tattooing (a term used by Captain Cook to describe the Polynesian practice) can be identified on South American mummies dating back several thousand years. It reached a cultural and aesthetic peak among the Ainu women of Japan and is currently widespread throughout Oceania. A somewhat related procedure of scarification (cicatrization) has been employed in parts of Africa and Australasia.

Circumcision, subincision, penectomy, and infibulation are widespread forms of minor surgery in Africa and other parts of the world, often performed by religious


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