Prehistoric Medicine

Every aspect of Prehistoric medicine; from their civilisation to surgery.

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Prehistoric Civilisation

  • The defining characterisitic of prehistoric societies is that they could not write
  • This meant that they could not pass on a body of medical knowledge beyond that which could be remembered.
  • Most prehistoric peoples were nomadic
  • The primitive technology of prehistoric peoples put them at mercy of the elements, and led to a system of beliefs that saw humankind as being at the mercy of unpredictable spirits. 
  • These spirits were said to bring life, death, health and disease.
  • Such ideas led to a world in which spiritual rituals and the shaman (witch doctor) dominated medicine.
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Prehistoric Knowledge about the Body and Disease

  • It is impossible to be sure about what prehistoric peoples knew about the workings of the body
  • If we assume that prehistoric peoples were similar to the few remaining primitive peoples of the modern age, we can also assume they knew little about the inner workings of the body.
  • Some of their burial practices (where bones were stripped of flesh, bleached and buried in different piles) suggest that they must have known at least something about the bone structure.
  • It is possible that prehistoric people believed that life and the functions of the body were determined by the spirits (animism)
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Prehistoric Surgery

  • Australian aborigines are able to set broken bones in mud. Some historians suggest that this shows that prehistoric people could have acquired similar skills.
  • Archaeologists have found examples of trephined skulls.
  • Historians have suggested that the motivation of these operations was medical, in so far that it was intended to remove and evil spirit which, for example, was causing epilepsy or headaches.
  • This may be true, but it cannot be proved.
  • The precise cuts that can be seen on some of the trephined skulls, and the re-growth of bone (which proves that the patient/victim survived the operation), do indicate that the prehistoric people had the ability and knowledge to be successful surgeons.
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Prehistoric Methods of Diagnosis and Treatment

  • There is no archaeological evidence that proves how prehistoric people diagnosed or treated illness.
  • The Australian aborigines diagnose disease in a purely spiritual way, by 'seeing' the cause of an illness in a trance, or through magical rituals.
  • Many of their cures are spiritual too, using pointing bones, beads, magic paintings, dancing and ceremonies. 
  • It therefore seems possible, although impossible to prove, that prehistoric shamans diagnosed and treated disease in similar ways.
  • Despite their lack of scientific knowledge, it is possible that prehistoric people knew and used plants and various substances to cure disease.
  • However, healers could well have used these medicinal herbs as part of their spiritual practices and, if the healing proved successful, could certainly have ascribed the success to the spirits, not to the substances they used in the cure.
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Prehistoric Public Health and Doctors

  • There is no evidence that Prehistoric people had any sort of public health system, and it is very unlikely that they did, as they were nomadic.
  • They probably had witch-doctors, who would have combined healing with other spiritual functions.
  • It is probable that prehistoric people did not even have the concept of curing illness through medicine that we have today.
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