An Introduction to Prehistoric Medicine

Victorian ideas that prehistoric humans were unthinking brutes still pervade many people’s thinking. Just because prehistoric humans could not read or write, it does not mean that they were not cultured. Prehistoric societies certainly had culture and medicine. Prehistoric medicine is a fascinating, interesting topic, about which archaeologists are still learning. Archaeologists and anthropologists now know that prehistoric humans knew how to treat illness and disease; their prehistoric beliefs about medicine might be different from modern beliefs and practice, but doctors still use some of their treatments.

The prehistoric “doctors” were male and female. It is possible that the tribal priest or shaman worked together with the tribe’s healer to care for the medical needs of the tribe. The tribe healer would have known about which herbs were helpful in disease. Prehistoric societies, like documented societies after them up until modern times, believed disease had spiritual causes and so the priest or shaman would intercede with the spirits for the patient’s delivery from evil spirits. Cave paintings show ancient priests performing rituals and casting spells and it is likely that, along with asking for good hunting, the priests conducted healing rituals, much like primitive societies do today. The famous “Ice Man”, a mummified man’s body, who died around 4000 BC, discovered in the Italian Tyrol in 1991, carried birch bark fungus. Birch bark fungus is a natural laxative and antibiotic. Doctors today use morphine and digitalis in drug form, but pre-historic humans used these substances in medical treatment, too, and these are not the only medical substances early humans used that are still used in modern medicine. Historians know that people used them long before writing existed.

Early hunter-gatherers led a healthy lifestyle. They had plenty of exercise, fresh food and lived in quite sanitary conditions, because they followed the food, animals and plants, they moved on often, thus their impact on the landscape was minimal. They did not farm; populations were very low and scattered over large areas, so it was not easy for disease-carrying organisms to spread quickly enough and fewer opportunities for humans to encounter such organisms.

When farming evolved, between 12000 and 10000 BC, it became much easier for disease to spread for two reasons. Where hunter-gatherers had limited exposure to animals, farmers lived with their animals full time and therefore were more likely to catch animal diseases. Farming allows much higher populations to live in a smaller area, and denser populations allow easier disease transmission. Water pollution and sanitation issues led to more disease problems that nomadic hunter-gatherers did not face.

Archaeologists found evidence that pre-historic humans could set broken bones and skulls showing partly healed trepanning procedures, the old practice of drilling a hole into a living skull. Why they used trepanning is unclear and theories abound, ranging from relieving headaches to releasing evil spirits.

Prehistoric humans were not animals or brutes. They cared for sick and injured people and tried to make them feel better. Early humans knew about some medicines that doctors still use today. Prehistoric humans were not cruel brutes, but thinking, feeling people, just like modern humans.