GCSE HISTORY - Medicine Through Time: Prehistory

- What were prehistoric people like?

- Definitions

- Aborigines


What Were Prehistoric People Like?

Features that prehistoric people shared

- They were nomads.

- They were hunter gatherers - so they got all their food without farming.

- They lived in small groups without complicated political arrangements.

- There were no seperate countries.

- They had a very simple level of technology - spears, bows and arrows, axes, knives and scrapers were their main tools. All of these were made from wood, bone and stone.

- They had no system of writing.

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What Were Prehistoric People Like?

Due to the fact that there was no system of writing, medicinal records could not be passed through generations. Because they travelled so much, it was very easy for disease to spread. Once it started spreading it would not stop as there was no cure. The hunter gatherers may have been injured by an animal and got infected. They would have been left behind. Hunter gatherers moved on so much that they did not leave mess behind. Small communities could share ideas. Tools were used for killing animals and basic surgery (leading to infection). A lack of Government meant there was no organised method for dealing with sickness.

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Trephined Skulls

Trephined skulls have been found in almost every part of the world where prehistoric people lived. 

Trephining - When a hole is cut in a person's skull while they are still alive.

- Both men's and women's skulls have been found.

- A child's skull has never been found.

- Most of the skulls have a growth around the hole made by the operation. This means that the person lived on, probably for many years.

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Theories for Trephination

Theory 1: Holes were made in the skulls so they could be used as drinking vessels. (Dr Prunieres 1865)

Theory 2: The operation was perfomed on children and those who survived were thought to have great magic power. When the person died, the skull and the piece taken out were used as very powerful charms. (Professor Paul Broca 1876)

Theory 3: Trephining operations were originally perfomed on people who had skull injuries and, later, on people with other problems, perhaps epilepsy or very bad headaches. (E.Guiard 1930)

Theory 4: The operation may have been performed to let evil spirits out of the body. (Douglas Guthrie 1945)

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The Aborigines

Historians have a real problem interpreting the evidence about prehistoric medicine. To help provide explanations, historians have looked at the medical beliefs of various groups around the world whose technology and lifestyle are similar to prehistoric people.

The Aborigines of central and southern Australia were visited by anthropologists during the last 19th and early 20th centuries. Before these visits, the Aborigines had little or no contact with the European settlers in Australia.

- The Aborigines lived in the harsh conditions of the Australian desert.

- They obtained their food by hunting and by gathering wild plants.

- They were nomads moving from water hol to water hole.

- They had many spoken languages but no written one.

- In all these ways they were very similar to prehistoric people.

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The Aborigines - Treatment of illness

Natural Causes - Something which is physical, observable and part of this world.

How Aborigines treated illnesses that have natural causes

- Coughs and cold weretreated with tea tree oil.

- Broken arms were incased in clasy which would set hard in the sun, very much like a mordern plaster cast.

- Cuts were covered with clay or animal fat and bound up with bark or animal skin

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The Aborigines - Treatment of illness

Supernatural - Outside the world as we know it, sometimes involving Gods, spirits and unknown forces.

How Aborigines treat ilnesses that have 'supernatural' causes

- Medicine man (traditional healer and spiritual leader). 

- Amulets.

- Prayers and chants.

- If an enemy had captured a sick persons spirit with a pointing bone, then the treatment was to find the bone, which would have the spirit stuck to it.

- If the illness was thought to be caused by an evil spirit in the persons body then the treatment would would be to try and drive the evil spirit out.

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Factors Affecting Prehistoric Medicine

- Communication - No method of writing so it was difficult to preserve knowledge or pass iy on accurately, so progress is difficult.

- Government - An unstable society, large scale projects and long term planning almost impossible so progress is difficult.

- Science and Technology - No understanding of how the body worked so progress is difficult.

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