The tumi or ceremonial knife

Golden Tumi from the Sican Culture (Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art)

The Tumi, a Quechua word meaning a knife, was one of the most used surgical ceremonial instruments to carry out the cranial trephinations. We learned of existence of this kind of cranial surgery when a tumi was first encountered in the Huaca Las Ventanas (archaeological site) located in Batán Grande, community of Poma, in Lambayeque, at the end of 1936 by professor Julio C. Tello. These remains come from 700- 1300 AD. However, tumis are not exclusiveto or inventions of the Lambayeque (Sicán) culture, since tumi specimens have been found dating from Moche times (100 BC – 600 AD). C.) and were also employed by the Chimu and Inca (1300-1435).

The Tumi is one of the most famous pieces of pre-Columbian art. According to the majority of evidences it represents the god or main lord of the region with its hierarchical attributes. Some authors affirm that it is the legendary God Naylamp, represented like an anthropomorphous being attributed to the legend of who was the founder of Lambayeque.

Golden Tumi from the Sican Culture (Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art)
Golden Tumi from the Sican Culture (Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art)

Earlier it was generally believed that the Tumi was used primarily for the performance of cranial trephinations, but possibly also used to behead the prisoners of war.

Of all the pre-Columbian cultures in Peru, the Paracas culture most successfully developed this type of complex surgery. To operate, the patient was anesthetized and for this coca or alcohol was used. The surgeon then proceeded to cut the scalp to the skull and delimited the area to open by marking the perimeter. To cut the skull they used several instruments, among which were obsidian and the Tumi. First, the affected area was removed, then cleaned, and finally the area was covered with bandages of fine cotton from the area.

These operations often allowed the wounded to continue living, as evidenced by the archaeological evidence of trephinated skulls with partial healing found mostly on the Peruvian south coast, especially the Paracas and Nazca cultures.

The healers and surgeons of Inca culture practiced the same skills. It was a high-risk operation, While the Paracas culture developed more medicine, it was in the Inca times when trephination reached perfection.

The Tumi has an anthropomorphic face with eyes similar to those of birds. Its mouth is designed by a horizontal line in low relief with pronounced lips and framed by two vertical lateral lines that simulate the cheekbones and below, the chin. As for the body, it is divided by torso and legs that have the same length. You can see wings, and also you have legs like bird legs, but humanized. The Tumi’s handle has a rectangular or trapezoidal shape. At the lower end is the characteristic mark of the Tumis: a cutting blade in semicircular form). This object was worked with various techniques such as: carving, embossing, filigree and welding.

In the ceremonies of the Inti Raymi (celebration of the sun, celebrated now on June 24 in Cusco) the ritual sacrifice of a llama is performed. The cut that is practiced to the animal is done with a tumi.

Nowadays in the different artisan markets of Cusco, as well as in the traditional market of San Pedro, we can find number of reproductions of Tumis in different materials, from the cheapest in wood and in bronze as a key chain to the most expensive in gold inlay with precious stones. Many tourists buy them to take as souvenirs to their countries. And, the Peruvian Academy of Surgery has a Tumi like emblem as its symbol.

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