Prehistoric medicine refers to medicine before humans were are to read and write. It covers a vast period, which varies according to regions and cultures. Anthropologists, people who study the history of humanity, can only make calculated guesses at what prehistoric medicine was like by collecting and studying human remains and artifacts. They have sometimes extrapolated from observations of certain indigenous populations today and over the last hundred years whose lives have been isolated from other cultures.
People in prehistoric times would have believed in a combination of natural and supernatural causes and treatments for conditions and diseases. The practice of comparing a placebo effect with a given therapy did not exist. There may have been some trial and error in coming to some effective treatments, but they would not have taken into account several variables scientists factor in today, such as coincidence, lifestyle, family history, and the placebo effect.
Nobody can be absolutely certain what prehistoric peoples knew about how the human body works. However, we can make some calculated guesses, based on some limited evidence. There is evidence from their burial practices that they knew something about bone structure. Bones have been found that were stripped of the flesh, bleached and piled according to what part of the body they came from.
There is also archeological evidence of cannibalism among some of the prehistoric communities – so, they must have known about our inner organs and where lean tissue or fat predominates in the human body. Most likely, they believed that their lives were determined by spirits. Aboriginals peoples around the world today often correlate illness with losing one’s soul.
The aboriginals in Australia were described by colonists as being able to stitch up wounds, and encased broken bones in mud to set them right. Medical historians believe these skills probably existed during prehistory. However, most evidence found in prehistoric graves shows healthy but badly set bones, indicating that they did not know how to set broken bones.
There was no concept of public health in prehistoric times
Homo Habilis, who lived about 2.33 to
1.4 million years ago, probably the first
prehistoric humans to use tools. They were
hunter-gatherers and most likely suffered
many cuts and skin wounds
Public health focuses on preventing the spread of disease, good hygiene practices, the provision of water so that people can keep themselves, their animals and their homes clean. Medical historians are fairly sure that prehistoric peoples had no concept of public health. They tended to move around a lot and not remain in one place for long, therefore, there would have been no need or thought towards building public health infrastructure.
During pre-history, people were afflicted with ailments and diseases, just like we are today. However, because of very different lifestyles and lifespans, they did not suffer from the same diseases so commonly.
Below are some diseases and conditions which were probably very common in prehistoric times:
- Osteoarthritis – many people had to lift and carry large and heavy object frequently. According to archeological remains, osteoarthritis was common.
- Micro-fractures of the spine and spondylolysis – large rocks were commonly dragged over long distances.
- Hyper-extension and torque of the lower back – caused by the transport and raising of massive rocks and stones, such as Latte Stones.
- Infections and complications – people were hunter gatherers and were much more likely to suffer cuts, bruises and bone fractures. There were no modern antibiotics, vaccines, antiseptics, and most likely no knowledge of bacteria, viruses, funguses and other harmful pathogens and the impact of good hygiene practices in preventing infection complications. Infections were much more likely to become serious and life-threatening, while contagious diseases used to spread rapidly and turn into epidemics easily.
- Rickets – anthropologists have evidence that rickets was widespread throughout most prehistoric communities, probably due to low vitamin D levels.
- Life expectancy – this ranged from about 25 to 40 years, depending on regions and per-historic periods. People would have been much more susceptible to the ravages of nature, such as a decade-long cold period (or longer), droughts, floods, and diseases which killed off large numbers of their food sources. Men lived longer than women, probably because males were the hunters; they would have had access to their kills before the women, and possibly suffered less from malnutrition.
What medications did prehistoric people use?
Prehistoric people did use medicinal herbs, say anthropologists. Although we have some limited evidence of herbs and substances derived from natural sources used as medicines, it is very hard to be sure what the full range might have been, because plants rot rapidly.
Anthropologists have had to go with what little evidence they may have gathered from the past, plus observing indigenous peoples today and over the last couple of centuries. We can be sure that any medicinal herb or plant would have been a local one – there was hardly any trade going on, and definitely no long-distant commerce. Nomadic tribes may have had access to a wider range of materials.
There is some evidence from present-day archeological sites in Iraq that mallow and yarrow were used about 60,000 years ago:
- Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium) is said to be an astringent (causes contraction of tissues, helps reduce bleeding), stimulant, diaphoretic (promotes sweating), and a mild aromatic. It was probably used for wounds, cuts and abrasions.
- Mallow – may have been prepared as a herbal infusion for its colon cleansing properties.
- Rosemary – there is evidence in several parts of the world that it was used as a medicinal herb. It is claimed to have so many different medicinal qualities, depending on which part of the world one is in, that it is difficult to be sure what it was used for.
- Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), a plant common in the European Alps, may have been used as a laxative. Archeologists found traces of this plant in a mummified man. Botanists say the plant can induce diarrhea when ingested.
Women would have gathered and administered herbal remedies, and were in charge of treating sickness and keeping their families healthy. As people did not read or write in those days, knowledge of the benefits and harms of various medications would have been passed down by word of mouth.
Geophagy and Trepanning were probably practiced by prehistoric peoples
Geophagy refers to eating soil-like or earthy substances, such as chalk and clay. Animals and humans have done this for hundreds of thousands of years. In Western and industrialized societies geophagy is related to pica, an eating disorder.
Prehistoric humans probably had their first medicinal experiences through eating earths and clays. They may have copied animals, observing how some clays, when ingested, may have had healing qualities. Some clays are useful for treating wounds. Several aboriginal peoples worldwide use clay externally and internally for the treatment of cuts and wounds.
Trepanning – drilling a hole into the human skull for the treatment of health problems. There is evidence that since Neolithic times, humans have been boring holes into people’s heads in an attempt to cure diseases or free the victim of demons and evil spirits.
A Human skull with trepanations at Monte Albán – Museo del Sitio (Del Sitio Museum)
According to cave paintings, anthropologists believe that they were used in an attempt to cure people of mental disorders, migraines and epileptic seizures. The extracted bone may have been kept by the patient as a good-luck charm.
There is also evidence that trepanning was used in prehistorical times to treat fractured skulls.
The Medicine man or Shaman
Medicine men, also known as witch-doctors or shamans existed in some prehistoric communities. They were in charge of their tribe’s health and gathered plant based medications, mainly herbs and roots, carried out rudimentary surgical procedures, as well as casting spells and charms. Tribespeople would also seek them out for medical advice.