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An Introduction to Prehistoric Medical Practices



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There has always been injury and disease and from the time people were intelligent enough to use tools, there have been medical interventions. The only way to know what these practices were is to study the clues left behind in the form of bone evidence and tools. It can be assumed that prehistoric man made use of medicinal herbs and plants to heal themselves, but no evidence can survive in the archaeological record to support this theory. Although it is not possible to get a complete picture of what was used, some idea can be obtained through interpreting the evidence found.

During the Stone Age trepanation was a common surgical practice. According to “Stone Age Man’s Cure for Headache” by Professor Roy L. Moodie a burial mound in France revealed 120 individuals, more than a third of whom revealed evidence of trepanation. This practice involved using a sharp stone to cut a hole out of the individual’s skull and was performed as early as 10000 BC. Healing of the bone around the edges of the hole in the skulls shows that many of the patients survived this procedure and lived for a long time afterwards. Since some skulls that were trepanated are also found to have fractures that occurred around the time of the trepanation, it can be assumed that the reason for these trepanations was an attempt to heal a head injury. Since there may well have been brain swelling from the injury that caused the fractured skull, it seems likely that this may have actually helped stave off death in some circumstances. In addition to this, “Prehistoric Surgery – A Neolithic Survival” by George Grant MacCurdy examines evidence of cauterization in a number of skulls at the same time as trepanation was practiced, but not necessarily on the same patients.

Dental surgery is another practice that has a long history. Evidence of drilling in teeth was found in a site in Pakistan dating to around 5500 BC. Since these holes are located in molars, it is reasonable to believe that they were not drilled for decorative purposes and may very well have relieved the pain experienced from cavities in the teeth.  The first evidence of fillings being used to relieve tooth ache was found in a mandible dated between 6655 BC and 6400 BC in Slovenia. The mandible belonged to a man, aged around 24 to 30 years old. A cavity was found in the left canine tooth and the man made use of beeswax to fill this cavity. The beeswax was dated to the same period and scientists have concluded that it was most likely used to fill the cavity while the man was alive.

The complex Egyptian practice of mummification has provided some unique insights into diseases suffered by these ancient people that affected the soft tissue but left no evidence in the bone. A few examples of these diseases include pneumonia, urinary infections, parasites and arteriosclerosis. Apart from that, the very practice of mummification requires the use of specialized tools and a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. Our knowledge of the medical practices of the Egyptian people is based on papyrus scrolls listing ingredients of medications and their uses, and hieroglyphs depicting scenes of circumcision and surgical tools dating between 2400 – 3000 BC. However, since these are historical records they cannot, strictly speaking, be considered as prehistoric.

Injuries such as broken bones have been splinted using bark, although knowledge of setting the bone correctly was not necessarily discovered at the same time. The number and kinds of practices that were implemented to heal injuries have been mostly lost to decay and what can be discovered from what has remained is doubtlessly a small fraction of the knowledge used at the time. What can be assumed is that prehistoric people had intimate knowledge of the world they lived in and would have used every possible method they could imagine to survive in a frequently hostile environment.

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