Prehistoric Medicine

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Archaeology

Prehistory is defined as the time before written records, which means that it ended at different times for different societies. Some societies are still in prehistory as they don't yet have writing. Writing was introduced to Britain by the Romans in 43AD. Although we can never be totally sure what life was like in prehistory, combining different sorts of evidence allows us a good guess. Archaeology can tell us a lot about prehistoric people:

  • Cave paintings and other prehistoric artwork indicate that prehistoric people believed in a spiritual world. It's likely their explanations of illness would be based on evil spirits and illnesses would require spiritual or religious cures.
  • Archaeology also tells us that our prehistoric ancestors were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, although agriculture developed before the earliest written records. Hunter-gatherers lived in small extended family groups and moved from place to place looking for edible plants and other resources.
  • Social organisation probably didn't extend much beyond family structures, even after the invention of agriculture. Special projects like Stonehenge must have involved large numbers. These probably came together when food was plentiful (late summer/autumn) and then split up in winter. Such gatherings would allow ideas to be shared.
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Medicine

Progress in Prehistoric Medicine would have been slow:

  • The infrequency of mass gatherings and the lack of writing would have made any progress in medical knowledge slow.
  • Evacuations of ancient burials and tombs tell us about people's attitudes to human remains - an important factor in the advancement of anatomy. Some cultures moved the remains of the dead around and may have brought them out for ceremonial purposes. In some of the barrow tombs in Britain skeletons are mixed up and incomplete - skulls in one place, long bones in another etc. Other cultures probably had many more taboos about remains - limiting their knowledge of anatomy.
  • Fine and delicate stone tools have been found, often made of flint and obsidian, which shows that some surgery was feasible.

The key point of prehistory is of course that there was no writing. There's nothing to tell us what they believed - so we have to deduce things. Different prehistoric societies would have had different ideas about things. 

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Aboriginal Cultures

Aboriginal Cultures give us clues about prehistory:

Outsiders visiting prehistoric societies can produce written records of what they see - but their very contact can often change the society they look at.

  • Ancient artefacts and artwork are sometimes similar to things made by modern or more recent aboriginal societies in Australia and elsewhere. Attitudes and practices of modern aborigines have therefore been used in guessing what ancient people thought and did.
  • Some modern aboriginal medicine combines basic practical methods like setting broken bones and bandaging with spiritual explanations of illness and cure.
  • Witch doctors, shamans and 'medicine men' are frequently credited with the ability to both cure and inflict illness.
  • Preventative medicine (warding off evil) is practised as well as healing (driving off evil). Rituals and sacrafice are often involved. Rituals might involve the use of herbs, potions and techniques of practical value - but they are seen as magic rather than medicine.

Prehistoric societies would have had both a practical and a spiritual view of the world. Assumptions of supernatural causes for unexplained events would have discouraged investigation or experimentation - so medical development may have been real slow.

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Archaeopathology

Archaeopathology is the study of ancient disease:

  • Archaeopathology is the study of ancient bodies to see what diseases and health problems they had, how they were treated and how the people died.
  • Most prehistoric bodies have decayed to just bones or even further. This limits the evidence that can be gained from them - e.g. you couldn't tell if someone died from a heart attack or if they'd had surgery on soft tissues.
  • Some bodies, preserved in ice, peat bogs or by mummification, still have soft tissues remaining. They're very important for what they tell us about prehistoric health and medicine.
  • Trephining or trepanning is the cutting of holes in people's heads. Some skulls show that people survived the operation because the bone continued to grow afterwards. We cannot be certain why people did this but it may have been to allow evil spirits out or to grant special powers of communication with the spirit world.
  • There is modern evidence that trephining can lead to altered mental sensations. It is sometimes done by doctors when head injuries lead to a build-up of pressure inside the skull. So ancient trephining could have been done for practical reasons - to treat injury or in an attempt to treat diseases like epilepsy.
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