Prehistoric medicine is a term used to describe the use of medicine before the invention of writing. Because writing was invented at different times in different places, the term "prehistoric medicine" encompasses a large number of time periods and dates, and should not be thought of as a set period in time. Prehistoric medicine predates written records and so study of the subject relies heavily on artifacts and skeletons, and on anthropology; previously uncontacted peoples and certain indigenous peoples who live in a traditional way have been the subject of anthropological studies in order to gain insight into both contemporary and ancient practices
Beliefs and ideas of disease
Prehistoric people believed in both supernatural causes and cures for diseases, beliefs which would continue in part to be used by the Ancient Civilisations (see Medicine in ancient Rome, Ancient Egyptian medicine, Ancient Greek medicine). They blamed certain, usually serious or disabling, diseases which did not have a rational or obvious cause on the supernatural—gods, evil spirits and sorcery. They believed that evil spirits could 'inhabit' the body and cause a person to become ill, and that these spirits could be removed from the body through the skull by the patient undergoing Trepanning, and through other treatments carried out by a Medicine man.
Prehistoric people used their common sense to understand the causes of many diseases and injuries, but most primarily the latter for which there was usually a clear cause; they did not have to blame injuries on the gods or spirits because they were able to understand how they were caused; if someone was injured by a fall then they realised that the fall must have been the cause. The discovery of a mummified body in the Tyrolean Alps in Northern Italy in 1991 gave rise to the suggestion that prehistoric people may have known more about the causes of disease than was previously thought. In a Lancet study, Dr. Luigi Capasso concluded that "the discovery of the fungus suggests that the Iceman was aware of his intestinal parasites and fought them with measured doses of Piptoporus betulinus." Although the person found could not have had a detailed understanding of intestinal parasites, the findings suggest that prehistoric people were willing to accept a practical outlook on disease.
Disease and mortality
Different diseases and ailments were common in prehistory than are prevalent today; there is evidence that many people suffered from osteoarthritis, probably caused by the lifting of heavy objects which would have been a daily and necessary task in their societies. (The transport of latte stones, involving hyperextension and torque of the lower back, while dragging the stones, probably contributed to the development of microfractures in the spine and subsequent spondylolysis.) Things such as cuts, bruises and breakages of bone, without antiseptics, proper facilities or knowledge of germs, would become very serious if infected. There is also evidence of rickets bone deformity and bone wastage (Osteomalacia), which is caused by a lack of Vitamin D.
The life expectancy in prehistoric times was very low, 25–40 years, with men living longer than women; archaeological evidence of women and babies found together suggests that many women would have died in childbirth, perhaps accounting for the lower life expectancy in women than men. Another possible explanation for the shorter life spans of prehistoric women may be malnutrition; men, as hunters, generally received better food that their female counterparts, who would subsequently have been less resistant to disease.
Treatments for disease
Herbs, and substances derived from natural sources (e.g. spices), would have been one of the only treatments for diseases in all prehistoric cultures. However because herbs will rot away in most conditions and because no written notes could have been made about them or their uses, historians are unlikely ever to know exactly which herbs were used in prehistoric medicine. Of course an idea of which herbs they used has been obtained by looking at the area in which the prehistoric tribes lived in and the herbs that grow there naturally, and of course through anthropological studies of existing indigenous peoples; unlike the Ancient Civilisations who were able to transport and trade herbs from across their own and others empires, prehistoric people would have relied on locally sourced herbs. Of course if they were nomadic, as many of the earliest tribes were, they would have been able to move their settlements closer to different herb sources, subsequently increasing the range of herbal treatments available to them. The effects of different herbs would have been found through trial and error, on behalf of the medicine man of the tribe, most likely resulting in many deaths. They would have been dispensed and gathered by medicine men or by women; women usually looked after the health of their family. Herbs have remained an important cure for diseases throughout history, despite the advancement of other cures and techniques, and are known to be an effective way of treating many ailments. As they would not have been able to record the effects of different herbs, knowledge of them would have been passed down orally through the generations.
There has been suggestion that the fruit of the birch fungus, Piptoporus betulinus, which are commonly found in alpine environments, could have been used as a basic laxative by prehistoric peoples living in those areas (Northern Europe), since it is know to bring on short bouts of diarrhoea when ingested, and was found among the possessions of a mummified man.
Trepanning (or sometimes called trephining) is a basic surgical operation which was carried out, usually by medicine men, in prehistoric societies across the world, although particularly in Peru. There are many theories as to why it was carried out, some say it was used to cure certain conditions such as headaches and epilepsy, but also that prehistoric humans might have considered these conditions effects of having an evil spirit trapped within someone. Despite it being medically inappropriate in the vast majority of cases, and very dangerous procedure to carry out (if the drill went into the brain then the patient would have died) there is evidence that many people survived it; skeletons have been recovered showing signs that the bone tissue surrounding the hole has partially grown back. The plate of skull bone (sometimes as large as 5cm/2in in diameter) was kept with the person (often as a lucky charm) until their death when it was buried with them, supposedly returning the body to its full state for the afterlife. Trepanning is one of the few surgical operations that would have been carried out in prehistoric times; other kinds of, more complicated, surgery were not usually undertaken and would have undoubtedly failed if they had; Medicine men had neither the training or the specialised equipment required to do surgery on the internal body.
There is evidence to suggest that many prehistoric peoples, where the climate and resources allowed, were able to set broken or fractured bones using clay; the broken area was covered in clay, which then set hard so that the bone could heal properly without interference. Also, primarily in the Americas, the pincers of certain ant species were used to close up wounds from infection; the ant was held above the wound until it bit it, then its head would be removed but the pincers holding the wound would remain.
Magic and medicine men
Medicine Men (or witch-doctors/shamans), along with the women (who cared for the health of their families), would have looked after the health of their tribe, gathering and distributing herbs, performing minor surgical procedures, providing medical advice and supernatural treatments, such as charms, spells and amulets to ward off evil spirits. In Apache society, as would likely have been the case in many others, the medicine men initiate a ceremony over the patient, which is attended by family and friends. It consists of magic forumlas, prayers and drumming. The medicine man then, from the patient's recalling of their past and possible offenses against their religion or tribal rules, reveals the nature of the disease and how to treat it.
They were believed by the tribe to be able to contact the gods and use their supernatural powers to cure the patient, and therefore in the process remove the evil spirits. If both this method and trepanning did not work, the spirit was considered too powerful to be driven out of the person. A medicine man would likely have been a central figure in the tribal system, because of the their medical knowledge and because they could seemingly contact the gods; many prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered showing a medicine man wearing antlers, which seems to agree with this theory. Because they would not have received any formal training in medicine (due to the fact there was no way to record medical details), it is likely that any medical knowledge would have been passed down orally.
The problem of evidence
Because of the nature of the time period (by definition before the invention of writing) it is harder for historians to gather strong evidence on matters relating to prehistoric medicine. As there is a lack of written evidence they have turned to other sources such as skeletons and anthropological studies of people nowadays who live a similar nomadic lifestyle, though there are problems with both sources of evidence.
Human skeletons are very rare (many having been destroyed or removed due to burial rituals) and it is a matter of luck as to which ones survive (and many that are recovered may have been damaged). The best kinds of archaeological evidence are mummies, bodies which have been preserved either by freezing (in colder regions), or in peat bogs; there is no evidence to suggest that prehistoric people purposely mummified the dead for religious reasons, as the Ancient Egyptians did. From these bodies scientists can discover the subject's weight at the time of death, any illnesses they were suffering from, their height, weight, diet, age (at time of death) and condition of bones, all of which give vital indications of how prehistoric medicine worked. However, even with all of the physical evidence, without written evidence it is impossible for us to find out exactly what certain prehistoric societies believed, thought and felt.
Though not technically classed as 'written evidence', prehistoric people left many kinds of paintings, using paints made of minerals such as lime, clay & charcoal and brushes made from feathers, animal fur or twigs, on the walls of the caves they inhabited. Although many of these paintings are thought to have a spiritual or religious purpose behind their creation, there have been some, such as a man with antlers (thought to be a medicine man), which have revealed some part of prehistoric medicine; many cave paintings of human hands have shown missing fingers (none have been shown without thumbs), which suggests that these were cut off for sacrificial or practical purposes, as is the case among the Pygmies and Hottentots.
The writings of certain cultures (such as the Romans) can be used as evidence in discovering how their contemporary prehistoric cultures (who had not yet discovered writing) practiced medicine. People who live a similar nomadic existence today have been used as a source of evidence too, but obviously there are distinct differences in the environment in which nomadic people lived; prehistoric people in Britain for example cannot be effectively compared to aboriginal peoples in Australia, because of the obvious differences in what resources would have been available to each.