When discussing prehistoric medicine the analysis is not limited to a particular date. Rather, prehistoric medicine encompasses any and all medicinal-related practices developed or performed before the creation of writing. Therefore, prehistoric medicine can include the methods of many different cultures, regions and religious groups. Because of this, today’s studies of prehistoric medicine require the use of various anthropological methods designed and altered to properly analyze the investigated group, region or treatment.
Anthropological study of prehistoric medicine commonly takes the form of studying human remains or observing communities living under the same or similar conditions as their ancestors. The difficulty with analyzing human remains is that very few remains exist due to deterioration by natural resources. Discovered remains that are more or less intact, similarly, have usually been corroded by natural resources. This makes their study difficult and requires anthropologists to guess which aspects of the remains are attributable to medical treatment and which are the result of natural, ecological impactful causes.
Prehistoric beliefs about the causes of disease included both natural and supernatural causes. Discovery and research on an ice-preserved prehistoric man indicates that medicine during his time included the use of plants to heal or manage identified illnesses. The plant traces found in the prehistoric body kill intestinal parasites. As this plant would have to be knowingly and voluntarily ingested, many anthropologists argue that it indicates that prehistoric cultures knew that some illnesses had material causes and were willing and able to counteract those causes if possible.
Plants and herbs are largely believed to have been the main source of medicine in prehistoric times. The limitations on travel mean that individuals would have only been able to use local, natural plants to cure their ailments. Knowledge of a plant’s healing abilities would only be discovered through trial and error, and lessons learned from their use would have been passed to younger generations orally. Study of these plants is difficult because of their susceptibility to destruction from the environment and extinction.
Illnesses for which there was no visibly identifiable cause or known treatments were often ascribed to be inflicted by deities, evil spirits or witchcraft. In the latter two cases a medicine man, commonly referred to as a Shaman, would attempt to remove the evil spirits or curses through a ceremonial procedure to scare them away. Sometimes, Shaman’s performed “trepanning” for this purpose. In trepanning, a circular portion of the patient’s skull is removed. The fact that this procedure left the patient exposed to infection and the lack of proper training and medical supplies made it unlikely for patients to survive post-surgery.
Clay and other similar materials also played an important role in prehistoric medicine. Some types of clay that harden were used to set broken bones. Other types of clay were used for their ability to prevent infection or treat wounds. Clay also served as a method to record treatments and other medical information. While prehistoric cultures did not have a developed language, they used pictures to relay information. Often, these pictures were drawn on flattened, dried pieces of clay.
Prehistoric cultures also engaged in dentistry. Many times, dentistry was for decoration, such as sharpening teeth. However, holes found in a prehistoric man’s molars were identified as being made by a drill, indicating that corrective dentistry also existed. Prehistoric dentistry tools have also been discovered, further supporting the idea that medical treatments extended to an individual’s teeth.
Although having rudimentary writing and medical skills, prehistoric populations engaged in many types of medical research and even attempted to treat their illnesses. While treatments were undoubtedly identified through trial and error, the process permitted cultures to identify local natural resources that would help repair their injuries or medical problems.