Prehistoric medicine

Prehistoric medicine is any use of medicine from before the invention of writing and the documented history of medicine. Because the timing of the invention of writing varies per culture and region, the term "prehistoric medicine" encompasses a wide range of time periods and dates.[1]

The study of prehistoric medicine relies heavily on artifacts and human remains, 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.[2]

Crane-trepanation-img 0507
A skull showing evidence of trepanning

Disease and mortality

Different diseases and ailments were more common in prehistory than 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. For example, the transport of latte stones, though this practice only started during the neolithic era which involved hyper extension and torque of the lower back, while dragging the stones, may have contributed to the development of micro fractures 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, as they did not have sufficient ways to treat infection.[3] There is also evidence of rickets, bone deformity and bone wastage (Osteomalacia),[4] which is caused by a lack of Vitamin D.

The life expectancy in prehistoric times was low, 25–40 years,[5] 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 humans may be malnutrition; also, men as hunters may have sometimes received better food than the woman, who would consequently have been less resistant to disease.[6]

Treatments for disease

Plant materials

Rosmarino fiori
Herbs such as rosemary may have been used for medical purposes by prehistoric people.[7] [8] [9]

Plant materials (herbs and substances derived from natural sources)[10] 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[11] and through anthropological studies of existing indigenous peoples.[12][13] 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.[14] Gathering and dispensing of plant materials was in most cultures handled by women, who cared for the health of their family.[15] Plant materials were an important cure for diseases throughout history.[16] This fund of knowledge would have been passed down orally through the generations.

The birch polypore fungus, commonly found in alpine environments, may have been used as a laxative by prehistoric peoples living in Northern Europe, since it is known to bring on short bouts of diarrhoea when ingested, and was found among the possessions of a mummified man.[17]

The use of earth and clays

Earths and clays may have provided prehistoric peoples with some of their first medicines. This is related to geophagy, which is extremely widespread among animals in the wild as well as among domesticated animals. In particular, geophagy is widespread among contemporary non-human primates.[18] Also, early humans could have learned about the use of various healing clays by observing animal behaviour. Such clay is used both internally and externally, such as for treating wounds, and after surgery (see below). Geophagy, and the external use of clay are both still quite widespread among aboriginal peoples around the world, as well as among pre-industrial populations.


Trepanning (sometimes Trephining) was a basic surgical operation carried out in prehistoric societies across the world,[19][20] although evidence shows a concentration of the practice in Peru.[16][19][21] Several theories question the reasoning behind trepanning; it could have been used to cure certain conditions such as headaches and epilepsy.[22][23]. There is evidence discovered of bone tissue surrounding the surgical hole partially grown back, so therefore survival of the procedure did occur at least on occasion.[16]

Many prehistoric peoples, where applicable (geographically and technologically), were able to set broken or fractured bones using clay materials. An injured area was covered in clay, which then set hard so that the bone could heal properly without interference.[1] 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, where its head would be removed allowing the pincers to remain and hold closed the wound.[24]

Magic and medicine men

Yupik shaman Nushagak
Yup'ik shaman exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy.[25]

Medicine men (also witch-doctors, shamans) maintained the health of their tribe by gathering and distributing herbs, performing minor surgical procedures,[26] providing medical advice, and supernatural treatments such as charms, spells, and amulets to ward off evil spirits.[27] 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 formulas, prayers, and drumming. The medicine man then, from patients' 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 spirits or gods and use their supernatural powers to cure the patient, and, in the process, remove evil spirits. If neither this method nor trepanning worked, the spirit was considered too powerful to be driven out of the person. Medicine men would likely have been central figures in the tribal system, because of their medical knowledge and because they could seemingly contact the gods. Their religious and medical training were, necessarily, passed down orally.[28]


Archaeologists in Mehrgarh in Balochistan province in the present day Pakistan discovered that the people of Indus Valley Civilization from the early Harappan periods (c. 3300 BC) had knowledge of medicine and dentistry. The physical anthropologist who carried out the examinations, Professor Andrea Cucina from the University of Missouri, made the discovery when he was cleaning the teeth from one of the men. Later research in the same area found evidence of teeth having been drilled dating to 7,000 B.C.E.[29]

The problem of evidence

There is no written evidence which can be used for investigation into the prehistoric period of history by definition. Historians must use other sources such as human remains and anthropological studies of societies living under similar conditions. A variety of problems arise when the aforementioned sources are used.

Human remains from this period are rare and many have undoubtedly been destroyed by burial rituals or made useless by damage.[30][31] The most informative archaeological evidence are mummies, remains which have been preserved by either freezing or in peat bogs;[32][33] no evidence exists to suggest that prehistoric people mummified the dead for religious reasons, as Ancient Egyptians did. These bodies can provide scientists with subjects' (at the time of death): weight, illnesses, height, diet, age, and bone conditions,[34] which grant vital indications of how developed prehistoric medicine was.

Not technically classed as 'written evidence', prehistoric people left many kinds of paintings, using paints made of minerals such as lime, clay and charcoal, and brushes made from feathers, animal fur, or twigs on the walls caves. Although many of these paintings are thought to have a spiritual or religious purpose,[35] 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 Khoikhoi.[36]

The writings of certain cultures (such as the Romans) can be used as evidence in discovering how their contemporary prehistoric cultures 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 environments in which nomadic people lived; prehistoric people who once lived in Britain for example, cannot be effectively compared to aboriginal peoples in Australia, because of the geographical differences.[37]

See also


  1. ^ a b Kelly, Nigel; Rees, Bob; Shuter, Paul (2003). Medicine Through Time. Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-30841-4.
  2. ^ "Traditional Medicine". World Health Organization. Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  3. ^ "The History of Medicine, Pre-history". Student reference and support materials. St Boniface's College. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  4. ^ "Babylon to Birmingham, A short journey through medicine to the end of the 18th Century". Revolutionary Players. History West Midlands. Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  5. ^ Schools History Project (26 September 1996). Medicine & Health Through Time: an SHP Development Study. Hodder Education. ISBN 978-0719552656.
  6. ^ "Prehistoric Medicine". HealthGuidance.Org. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  7. ^ Browning, Marie (1999). Natural Soapmaking. Sterling Publishing. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-8069-6289-4.
  8. ^ "Aboriginal Plant Use in SE Australia". Australian Government, Australian National Botanic Gardens. Archived from the original on 2015-05-13. Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  9. ^ "Medical use of Spices". UCLA Library, History and Special collections. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  10. ^ "Use Of Spices As Medicines". UCLA Library, History and Special collections. Retrieved 2009-02-19. Mentions spices being used by some prehistoric cultures
  11. ^ Lock, Robin (2002). Plants of the Humid Tropics Biome. Eden Project books. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-90391913-2.
  12. ^ Moerman, Daniel E. (2009). Native American Medicinal Plants: an ethnobotanical dictionary. Portland, OR / London: Timber Press. ISBN 978-0-88192-987-4.
  13. ^ "Native American Herbal Remedies". Cherokee Messenger. Cherokee Cultural Society of Houston. 1996. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  14. ^ Schools History Project. "BBC - GCSE Bitesize, Prehistoric Civilisation". GCSE Bitesize. BBC. They have done this through a process of trial and error and natural selection.
  15. ^ Hobbs, Christopher. "Herbal Medicine: An Outline of The History of Herbalism An Overview and Literature Resource List". HealthWorld Online. Retrieved December 30, 2015. ... women prepared food and healing potions--women generally practiced herbalism on a day to day basis, taking care of the ills of other members of the family or tribal unit
  16. ^ a b c "Primitive Medicine". HistoryWorld. Retrieved December 30, 2015.
  17. ^ Wilford, John Noble (December 8, 1998). "Lessons in Iceman's Prehistoric Medicine Kit". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved December 30, 2015.
  18. ^ Krishnamani, R.; Mahaney, William C. (2000). "Geophagy among primates: Adaptive significance and ecological consequences". Animal Behaviour. 59 (5): 899–915. doi:10.1006/anbe.1999.1376. PMID 10860518.
  19. ^ a b "Pre-Columbian Trephination". NEUROSURGERY://ON-CALL/Cyber Museum of Neurosurgery. American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  20. ^ Piek J, Lidke G, Terberger T, von Smekal U, Gaab MR (July 1999). "Stone age skull surgery in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: a systematic study". Neurosurgery. 45 (1): 147–51, discussion 151. doi:10.1097/00006123-199907000-00033. PMID 10414577. A small but informative text
  21. ^ "Trephination, An Ancient Surgery". UIC Oral Sciences OSCI 590: Hominid Evolution, Dental Anthropology, and Human Variation. University of Illinois at Chicago. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved December 30, 2015. In Peruvian practice there is considerable evidence that many of the operations were performed for the naturalistic purpose of removing a bone fragment ... and trephination undertaken as a supernatural curative procedure by shamans (sancoyoc) with little technical ability as surgeons.
  22. ^ Siegfried, Juliette. "History of Brain Surgery". Retrieved December 30, 2015.
  23. ^ Osler, Sir William (1922). The Evolution of Modern Medicine: A Series of Lectures Delivered at Yale University on the Silliman Foundation in April, 1913. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 6–9. See the section "Origin Of Medicine"
  24. ^ Gudger, E. W. (1925). "Stitching Wounds With the Mandibles of Ants and Beetles". J. Am. Med. Assoc. 84: 1861–4.
  25. ^ Fienup-Riordan, Ann (1994). Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-585-12190-1.
  26. ^ "Mysteries of Africa". Encounter South Africa. Encounter Magazine. Retrieved December 30, 2015. Stories of Medicine Men in Africa
  27. ^ Ackerknecht, Erwin Heinz (1982) [1955]. A Short History of Medicine (Johns Hopkins Paperbacks ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-2726-6.
  28. ^ "Healing Secrets of Aboriginal Bush Medicine". Big River Internet. Retrieved December 30, 2015. Trained from an early age by their elders and initiated into the deepest of tribal secrets...
  29. ^ "Stone age man used dentist drill". BBC News. 2006-04-06. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
  30. ^ Coulson, Ian. "Prehistoric Medicine In Kent". The History of Health and Medicine in Kent. Kent County Council. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2015. It is a matter of luck because only some skeletons survive
  31. ^ WP:CIRCULAR Wikipedia's Ötzi the Iceman Article '..three or four of his right ribs had been squashed when he had been lying face down after death, or where the ice had crushed his body.'
  32. ^ Mystery of the Mummies, Five Documentary
  33. ^ Malam, John (2001). Secret Worlds: Mummies, and the Secrets of Ancient Egypt. Megabites. DK Children. ISBN 978-0-78947976-1.
  34. ^ WP:CIRCULAR Wikipedia's Article on the Mummy Juanita
  35. ^ Ganeri, Anita; Martell, Hazel Mary; Williams, Brian (2007). World History Encyclopedia: A Complete and Comprehensive Guide to the History of the World. Parragon. ISBN 978-1-40549120-4.
  36. ^ Janssens PA (October 1957). "Medical Views on Prehistoric Representations of Human Hands". Med Hist. 1 (4): 318–22. doi:10.1017/s0025727300021499. PMC 1034309. PMID 13476920. Pages 318–21 are of particular interest in this subject
  37. ^ "Prehistoric Medicine". History GCSE / History of Medicine Lessons. Education Forum. Retrieved December 2015. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

External links

Bare Island projectile point

The Bare Island projectile point is a stone projectile point of prehistoric indigenous peoples of North America. It was named by Fred Kinsey in 1959 for examples recovered at the Kent-Halley site on Bare Island in Pennsylvania.

Celt (tool)

In archaeology, a celt is a long, thin, prehistoric, stone or bronze tool similar to an adze, a hoe or axe-like tool.


A cist ( or ; also kist ;

from Greek: κίστη or Germanic Kiste) is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Examples can be found across Europe and in the Middle East.

A cist may have been associated with other monuments, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow. Several cists are sometimes found close together within the same cairn or barrow. Often ornaments have been found within an excavated cist, indicating the wealth or prominence of the interred individual.

This old word is preserved in the Swedish language, where "kista" is the word for a funerary coffin.

Cumberland point

A Cumberland point is a lithic projectile point, attached to a spear and used as a hunting tool. These sturdy points were intended for use as thrusting weapons and employed by various mid-Paleo-Indians (c. 11,000 BP) in the Southeastern US in the killing of large game mammals.

Eden point

Eden Points are a form of chipped stone projectile points associated with a sub-group of the larger Plano culture. Sometimes also called Yuma points, the first Eden points were discovered in washouts in Yuma County, Colorado. They were first discovered in situ at an ancient buffalo kill site near Eden, Wyoming by Harold J. Cook in 1941. The site, named after discoverer O. M. Finley, eventually yielded 24 projectile points, including eight Eden points, eight Scottsbluff points and one complete Cody point, both other sub-groups within the Plano group. Eden points are believed to have been used between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago by paleo-indian hunters in the western plains.

Eden points are the most common paleo-indian projectile points found today. They have been discovered across the western plain states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana.

Folsom point

Folsom points are a distinct form of knapped stone projectile points associated with the Folsom tradition of North America. The style of tool-making was named after the Folsom Site located in Folsom, New Mexico, where the first sample was found by George McJunkin within the bone structure of a bison in 1908. The Folsom point was identified as a unique style of projectile point in 1926.

Grattoir de côté

A Grattoir de côté (translates from French as Side Scraper) is an archaeological term for a ridged variety of steep-scrapers distinguished by a working edge on one side. They were found at various archaeological sites in Lebanon including Ain Cheikh and Jdeideh II and are suggested to date to Upper Paleolithic stages three or four (Antelian).

Grinding slab

In archaeology, a grinding slab is a ground stone artifact generally used to grind plant materials into usable size, though some slabs were used to shape other ground stone artifacts. Some grinding stones are portable; others are not and, in fact, may be part of a stone outcropping.

Grinding slabs used for plant processing typically acted as a coarse surface against which plant materials were ground using a portable hand stone, or mano ("hand" in Spanish). Variant grinding slabs are referred to as metates or querns, and have a ground-out bowl. Like all ground stone artifacts, grinding slabs are made of large-grained materials such as granite, basalt, or similar tool stones.

Lamoka projectile point

Lamoka projectile points are stone projectile points manufactured by Native Americans what is now the northeastern United States, generally in the time interval of 3500-2500 B.C. They predate the invention of the bow and arrow, and are therefore not true "arrowheads", but rather atlatl dart points. They derive their name from the specimens found at the Lamoka site in Schuyler County, New York.

Outline of prehistoric technology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to prehistoric technology.

Prehistoric technology – technology that predates recorded history. History is the study of the past using written records; it is also the record itself. Anything prior to the first written accounts of history is prehistoric (meaning "before history"), including earlier technologies. About 2.5 million years before writing was developed, technology began with the earliest hominids who used stone tools, which they may have used to start fires, hunt, cut food, and bury their dead.

Pesse canoe

The Pesse canoe is believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and certainly the oldest known canoe. Carbon dating indicates that the boat was constructed during the early mesolithic period between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. It is now in the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands.

Plano point

In archeology, Plano point is flaked stone projectile points and tools created by the various Plano cultures of the North American Great Plains between 9000 BC and 6000 BC for hunting, and possibly to kill other humans.

They are bifacially worked and have been divided into numerous sub-groups based on variations in size, shape and function including Alberta points, Cody points, Frederick points, Eden points and Scottsbluff points. Plano points do not include the hollowing or 'fluting' found in Clovis and Folsom points.

Prehistoric numerals

Counting in prehistory was first assisted by using body parts, primarily the fingers.

This is reflected in the etymology of certain number names, such as in the names of ten and hundred in the Proto-Indo-European numerals, both containing the root *dḱ also seen in the word for "finger" (Latin digitus, cognate to English toe).

Early systems of counting using tally marks appear in the Upper Paleolithic.

The first more complex systems develop in the Ancient Near East together with the development of early writing out of proto-writing systems.


In archeology, a racloir, also known as racloirs sur talon (French for scraper on the platform), is a certain type of flint tool made by prehistoric peoples.

It is a type of side scraper distinctive of Mousterian assemblages. It is created from a flint flake and looks like a large scraper. As well as being used for scraping hides and bark, it may also have been used as a knife. Racloirs are most associated with the Neanderthal Mousterian industry. These racloirs are retouched along the ridge between the striking platform and the dorsal face. They have shaped edges and are modified by abrupt flaking from the dorsal face.

Rock shelter

A rock shelter — also rockhouse, crepuscular cave, bluff shelter, or abri — is a shallow cave-like opening at the base of a bluff or cliff. In contrast to solutional cave (karst) caves, which are often many miles long, rock shelters are almost always modest in size and extent.

Stone row

A stone row (or stone alignment), is a linear arrangement of upright, parallel megalithic standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes, usually dating from the later Neolithic or Bronze Age. Rows may be individual or grouped, and three or more stones aligned can constitute a stone row.

Tool stone

In archaeology, a tool stone is a type of stone that is used to manufacture stone tools,

or stones used as the raw material for tools.Generally speaking, tools that require a sharp edge are made using cryptocrystalline materials that fracture in an easily controlled conchoidal manner.

Cryptocrystalline tool stones include flint and chert, which are fine-grained sedimentary materials; rhyolite and felsite, which are igneous flowstones; and obsidian, a form of natural glass created by igneous processes. These materials fracture in a predictable fashion, and are easily resharpened. For more information on this subject, see lithic reduction.

Large-grained materials, such as basalt, granite, and sandstone, may also be used as tool stones, but for a very different purpose: they are ideal for ground stone artifacts. Whereas cryptocrystalline materials are most useful for killing and processing animals, large-grained materials are usually used for processing plant matter. Their rough faces often make excellent surfaces for grinding plant seeds. With much effort, some large-grained stones may be ground down into awls, adzes, and axes.


In archeology, a uniface is a specific type of stone tool that has been flaked on one surface only. There are two general classes of uniface tools: modified flakes—and formalized tools, which display deliberate, systematic modification of the marginal edges, evidently formed for a specific purpose.

Yubetsu technique

The Yubetsu technique (湧別技法, Yūbetsu gihō) is a special technique to make microblades, proposed by Japanese scholar Yoshizaki in 1961, based on his finds in some Upper Palaeolithic sites in Hokkaido, Japan, which date from c. 13,000 bp.

The name comes from the Yūbetsu River (湧別川, Yubetsugawa), on the right bank of which the Shirataki (白滝遺跡, Shirataki Iseki) Palaeolithic sites were discovered.

To make microblades by this technique, a large biface is made into a core which looks like a tall carinated scraper. Then one lateral edge of the bifacial core is removed, producing at first a triangular spall. After, more edge removals will produce ski spalls of parallel surfaces.

This technique was also used from Mongolia to Kamchatka Peninsula during the later Pleistocene.

East Asian
and Southeast Asian
Middle Eastern

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