Medicine – Part One

A look at medicine in prehistoric times

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

We are often regaled with tales of Our NHS and the wonders it can produce. Indeed it reached a high point recently when it managed to cure the Skripals, who had been poisoned with a nerve agent supposedly 5-8 times more potent than VX. This just goes to show the wonders that modern medicine can achieve. So how did medicine get where it is today? (This series is a summary of medicine in each period. It will not cover everything due to time and space constraints. Inevitably some things will be missed or only covered briefly. Click on the links for more info on a topic.)


Let us begin at the beginning, before there was recorded history. This covers the period from around 10,000 B.C. to around 3,000 B.C. There were no written records so we have to put ourselves at the mercy of archaeologists. I did a couple of archaeology units at Uni alongside history. First lecture: “This is nothing like Indiana Jones.” Delivered by a guy in jeans, a leather jacket and wide brim hat. I kid you not. Anyway, one of the other things he said was that that you could only go on the evidence of what is actually there, and not read too much in to things or create back stories to explain how things came to be there. Clearly he hadn’t seen Time Team. But I digress.

We can study the bones of those long dead to look for evidence of treatment and what conditions they suffered from. We can see what may have caused their deaths e.g. if an arrow head is lodged in them, this is a clue. Age can also be determined. Some have had their last meal examined. There is also some evidence from cave paintings and tools, etc. Some have also studied cultures that may resemble those around in prehistory, such as Aborigines. Medicine at this time was a mix of supernatural and rational. Supernatural attributes causes or treatments to spirits, gods, etc. If you can imagine people being afflicted with illnesses or dropping dead without an obvious course, then people would seek to explain it somehow. Rational deals with obvious causes. For example a broken arm or legwhich would need a splint, or a large wound inflicted which is covered up in some way.

Trepanning is one form of surgery that is shown to have been carried out. This involved drilling a hole in the skull. Many skulls had signs of regrowth showing that the patient survived the operation for some time afterwards. Stone tools provide evidence of how trepanning may have been carried out in prehistory. I often wonder if some of our modern day politicians have undergone this procedure.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Cave paintings indicate that people believed the practice would cure epileptic seizures, migraines, and mental disorders. The bone that was trepanned was kept by the prehistoric people and may have been worn as a charm to keep evil spirits away. Evidence also suggests that trepannation was primitive emergency surgery after head wounds to remove shattered bits of bone from a fractured skull and clean out the blood that often pools under the skull after a blow to the head. Such injuries were typical for primitive weaponry such as slings and war clubs.-Infogalactic

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Photo by tsaiproject on Flickr

A feature at this time was that many people were nomads and hunter gatherers moving from place to place. Gradually this changed to farming. Studies of Aborigines and other similar nomadic cultures have given further insights in to what medicine may have been like. One feature is the medicine man. It is thought they acted as an intermediary with the supernatural, e.g. spirits or gods. The may have also performed some surgeries such as trepanning and for other minor ailments.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Plant materials (herbs and substances derived from natural sources) were among the treatments for diseases in prehistoric cultures. Since plant materials quickly rot under most conditions, historians are unlikely to fully understand which species were used in prehistoric medicine. A speculative view can be obtained by researching the climate of the respective society and then checking which species continue to grow in similar conditions today and through anthropological studies of existing indigenous peoples. Unlike the ancient civilisations which could source plant materials internationally, prehistoric societies would have been restricted to localised areas, though nomadic tribes may have had a greater variety of plant materials at their disposal than more stationary societies. The effects of different plant materials could have been found through trial and error. Gathering and dispensing of plant materials was in most cultures handled by women, who cared for the health of their family. Plant materials were an important cure for diseases throughout history. This fund of knowledge would have been passed down orally through the generations.” –Infogalactic

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Life expectations would have been low. Many died young and many women died in childbirth. There was no formal anaesthetic, analgesics, antiseptics, etc. Surgery was rudimentary and life threatening in itself due to the risk of infection. People didn’t know about bacteria and viruses. Treatments were hit and miss and due to no written languages no one wrote down what was successful. There is a tendency to think people in the past were stupid. This is false. They simply didn’t know. Technological and scientific progress takes time. Progress can stand still for ages, leap forwards with a new breakthrough or even go backwards. So how did we get from prehistory to surviving Russian nerve agents? Next stop, ancient Egypt…

© Jonathon Davies 2018

(Photos obtained from Flickr under the Creative Commons Attibution Generic 2.0 license and the Public Domain.)

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