Prehistoric Medicine

Revision notes for GCSE History prehistoric medicine (OCR)


How do we know abiout prehistoric medicine?

Hunters and Gatherers

- short, brutish, harsh lifestyle

- killed sick + babies if slowed the group up

- suffered badly from worm and lice etc

- often deformed, had arthritis, injured, broken limbs, gangrene and rabies


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How do we know abiout prehistoric medicine?

They did not suffer from many common diseases. This was because:

- they were nomadic so did not stay long enough to pollute water supplies or pile up filth that attracts disease-carrying insects

- they did not live close together so no infectious diseases, like smallpox and measles

- they did not keep cattle or poultry

- they ate a wide range of plant and animal food so they got all nutrients they needed


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How do we know abiout prehistoric medicine?


Once humans settled:

- people could specialise in certain activities

- population increased so airbourne diseases spread

- mice, rats, mosquitos, malaria, parasitic worms spread disease

- dogs, cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry spread disease through water

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What evidence have we got from prehistoric times?

Trephining Skulls

- to release an evil spirit

- to relieve headaches or epilepsy

- some patients survived because bone at the edges begun to grow again


- made of bone

- charm worn as a protection against evil spirits

Cave Paintings

- medicine men had God given powers to heal the sick usng effigies or magic rituals

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Prehistoric Medicine

One way of finding out about prehistoric medicine is to study primitive modern societies, eg Aborigines of Australia or the Azande of southern Sudan, Africa

There are two ways to explain illness:

1. Natural causes : hunger, climate, accidents, parasites and wounds

2. Supernatural causes : spirits of the dead, planets, witches and magic

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- discovered use of plants and knew that heat relieved pain and swelling

- believed that illness is caused by something evil being introduced into the body by magic

- many herbs and plants used by Aborigines were effective: some were antiseptics, others were anaesthetics

Aboriginal pointing bones

- evil spirits made to enter a person's body by pointing the bone at the victim and chanting

- could also be used to make someone ill by taking their spirit away from them

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- only consult oracles when the illness is serious

- in cases of mild injury, illness is usually treated

- whenever members of the group became ill, they blamed witchcraft or sorcery.

- witches were born with a "witch organ;" a large cyst under the liver. they had no control over the effects of the organ.

- sorcerers could contol their bad magic and deliberately made people ill. the Azande consulted the oracle to find out who was harming them. this was done by giving a chicken poison. it is commanded to die if the person named is guilty.

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