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This year in history we are studying Medicine through time. We began
this course with pre - historic Medicine. In my essay I will explain
what pre - history is and the types of treatments and preventions of
By pre - history, we mean history before the written word (up to
10,000 BC). Although we have a lot of information on pre - history it
is actually very difficult to find out about life in the pre -
historic times. This is because we do not have much evidence to work
with. Archaeologists have found clues which tell us something about
medicine in prehistoric times, but much of the evidence is missing and
some the evidence is hard to make sense of. There are two main ways of
finding out about pre - history. The first one is through
archaeological evidence such as left over bones, or preserved bones
and cave paintings. The other way of finding information on pre -
history is life style evidence. Life style evidence is things like
Aborigines and African tribes.
A type of archaeological evidence found is a skull with a hole in the
top. This is called Trepanning or trephining.
Trepanning: an ancient human skull viewed from above. Note the large
What is trepanning / trephining? Trepanning is a technique of drilling
a hole through the skull. Trepanning was used as a way to cure head
aches. This was because people believed that if you had a headache you
would have a spirit stuck inside you and believed that if you put a
hole through the skull you would be releasing the spirit. The symptoms
before trepanation would be things like a headache, hallucinations,
visions or hearing voices in their head. These symptoms made people
believe that person with the illness had an evil spirit inside them so
they would drill a hole in the person's skull to "free" the spirit.
Even though people thought that this was a solution to their problems,
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poor wound healing, pain and sometimes the loss of their brains
functioning after this excruciating procedure called trepanning.
Another type of archaeological evidence is bones. A lot of bones and
cave paintings are found in caves and in mountains. One of these
pieces of evidence the three brothers cave in France. The cave
painting of the three brothers' cave shows a man wearing the antlers
of a stag, dancing. It also shows a doctor wearing a monstrous deer
mask over his face.Cave paintings and symbolic artefacts found by
archaeologists suggest the earliest humans believed in spirits and
supernatural forces. Animals, the stars, the land in which they lived
and dead ancestors all inhabited a spirit world that was connected to
their everyday life. Special individuals, like Shamen, were thought to
be able to contact the spirit world and seek their guidance when they
entered mysterious trances. These men and women would call upon the
spirits to bring good hunting or heal the sick and were possibly the
Spirit healers would perform ceremonies and cast spells to treat the
sick. We also believe that they dispensed the first medicines.
Drinking the blood of a wild animal killed in the hunt would give
hunters special powers or eating special plants known only to the
shaman could treat sickness. It is possible that these treatments
would sometimes have a beneficial effect and it is thought that drugs
like digitalis and morphine were first discovered in this way.
The lifestyles of certain groups of people such as the aborigines and
African tribes show us about prevention of illnesses and diseases.
This is because aborigines and African
Tribes moved around a lot: this left their waste behind them which
prevents things like diseases and certain illnesses spreading around
through the people of the tribes. Furthermore, fewer people lived on
one land together so their was less contact with diseases. In
addition, they ate a healthy diet such as meats, plants, plant roots
and berries. Another thing that prevented disease in African tribes
and aborigines was the fact that they did a lot of exercise as they
moved around a lot.
The aborigines believed there were good spirits and bad spirits. Most
of the time the good spirits looked after the tribe because of the
activities such as dancing and the chanting of the medicine man. The
spirit man stated that he got his power from the spirit world, a world
only he could understand. Through dancing, chanting and picture making
he got in touch with the spirits and receives help to heal the sick.
The medicine man was as respected the chief of the tribe. He was a
mixture of a priest, a doctor and an artist.
The medicine man never actually had the skills of a modern doctor, but
was always accepted as a healer. If he ever failed one of his
treatments it was never his fault. It was always the patients fault
for upsetting the spirits, or sometimes, the spirits were too strong
to be stopped. All this made good sense to the Aborigines,
particularly when we remember the way they lived.
Archaeological evidence can tell us a lot about prehistoric medicine
for example if a skeleton was found this would show us signs or
markings of the different types of treatments they used before 10,000
BC such as trepanning. The evidence for trepanning would be a skull
with a hole in it as shown in the picture above. Another form of
archaeological evidence is cave paintings. An example of this was
found in the three brothers' cave. Lifestyle evidence can also tell us
a lot from the remains of the Aborigine Tribes and the African tribes.
For example images of the medicine man treating his patients show us
different types of cures done by the medicine man from the Aborigine
and African tribes.
A comparison between archaeological evidence and lifestyle evidence is
that aborigine and African tribes used magic to cure and
archaeological evidence was more involved with superstition for
example a spirit having entered your body if you had a headache.
In conclusion, prehistoric medicine was extremely basic the treatments
that were used reflected their close relationship to nature and their
superstition about spirits. Though prehistoric people had very little
idea of how the body worked treatments included:
· Simple cures using medicinal herbs.
· Setting broken limbs.
· Blaming evil spirits for diseases.
· Employing "medicine men" whom they believed wielded power over
The main types of evidence can tell us that there wasn't any
professional treatment during the pre -historic times and that pre -
historic medicine was no more than superstitions and herbal cures.