Human beings have flourished on Earth for at least 2.5 million years. The study of history in its broadest sense is a record of humanity and its accomplishments from its earliest origins to modern times. This record of human achievement has reached us in many forms, as written documents, as oral traditions passed down from generation to generation, and in the archaeological record sites, artefacts, food remains, and other surviving evidence of ancient human behaviour. The earliest written records go back about 5,000 years in the Near East, in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and in India. Elsewhere, written history begins much later: in Greece, about 3,500 years ago; in China, about 2,000 years ago; and in many other parts of the world, after the 15th century C.E. with the arrival of Western explorers and missionaries.
Oral histories have an even shorter compass, extending back only a few generations or centuries at the most. History, which remains primarily though not exclusively the study of written documents, covers only a tiny fraction of the human past. Prehistory, the span of human existence before the advent of written records, encompasses the remainder of the past 2.5 million years. Prehistorians, students of the prehistoric past, rely mainly on archaeological evidence to study the origins of humanity, the peopling of the world by humans, and the beginnings of agriculture and urban civilization.
It is difficult to imagine anything other than modern medical treatments but for thousands of years humans have become ill and for the same amount of time people have tried to cure them. Our ideas about medicines in prehistoric times come from archaeologists who have excavated and explored ancient sites. Although the knowledge of prehistory is considerable from fossils, palaeontology, physical anthropology, paleopathology, sculpture, and cave art, the answers to many of our questions related to the life and medicine in prehistory are still conjectural.
Archaeological findings unravelled the evidence of diseases in prehistoric times but we do not have much knowledge of how they were treated. The mummified remains of Oetzi the Iceman who lived 5300 years ago, found in the Alps, revealed that he had used the fungus Piptoprus betulinus to treat an intestinal parasite. The fungus contains oils that are toxic to worms, and have antibiotic properties, indicating that ancient humans did adopt effective therapies for common ailments. However, it is believed that prehistoric humans generally attributed the occurrence of disease to the wrath of evil spirits and no symptomatic records are available since the written word was unknown at that time.
Links to the spirit world
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 Shaman, 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 first doctors.
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.
Primitive Herbal Medicine
Herbal Medicine, sometimes referred to as Herbalism or Botanical Medicine is the use of herbs for their therapeutic or medicinal value. A herb is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, aromatic or savoury qualities. Herb plants produce and contain a variety of chemical substances that act upon the body.
In the long process of discovering which plants are edible, humans in the Stone Age also identify many which seem to cure ailments or soothe a fever.
Herbal medicine is the earliest scientific tradition in medical practice, and it remains an important part of medicine to this day – in a line descending directly from those distant beginnings. The early physicians stumbled upon herbal substances of real power, without understanding the manner of their working.
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healthcare known to mankind. Herbs had been used by all cultures throughout history. It was an integral part of the development of modern civilization. Primitive man observed and appreciated the great diversity of plants available to him. The plants provided food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Much of the medicinal use of plants seems to have been developed through observations of wild animals, and by trial and error. As time went on, each tribe added the medicinal power of herbs in their area to its knowledgebase.
They methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the 20th century much of the pharmacopoeia of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin. Indeed, about 25 percent of the prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material. Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.
The snakeroot plant has traditionally been a tonic in the east to calm patients; it is now used in orthodox medical practice to reduce blood pressure. Doctors in ancient India gave an extract of foxglove to patients with legs swollen by dropsy, an excess of fluid resulting from a weak heart; digitalis, a constituent of foxglove, is now a standard stimulant for the heart. Curare, smeared on the tip of arrows in the Amazonian jungle to paralyze the prey, is an important muscle relaxant in modern surgery.
The long centuries of primitive experiment mean that Susruta, a physician working in India in about the 6th century BC, is able to list hundreds of herbal remedies.
Even so, herbal substances form only a small part of the repertoire of the tribal physician, for it is generally agreed that serious illnesses have spiritual rather than physical causes. The doctor’s main duty is to appease or expel the evil spirit troubling the sick person.
Incantation, spells and self-induced trances (often assisted by herbal drugs) form the standard practice of the medicine man or shaman. Even the world’s earliest surgical operation, practised at least 4000 years ago, is more probably intended to strengthen the doctor’s own powers than to cure a patient.
Herbal Medicine can be broadly classified into various basic systems: Traditional Chinese Herbalism, which is part of Traditional Oriental Medicine, Ayurvedic Herbalism, which is derived from Ayurveda, and Western Herbalism, which originally came from Greece and Rome to Europe and then spread to North and South America.
Chinese and Ayurvedic Herbalism have developed into highly sophisticated systems of diagnosis and treatment over the centuries. Western Herbalism is today primarily a system of folk medicine.
A Hole in the Head: perhaps from 2000 BC
The earliest surgical operation in human history is carried out in prehistoric times in several parts of the world – in Europe, in Asia and particularly in Peru, where well-preserved mummies survive. Many of these mummies have the hole in the skull which is the result of trepanning (also known as trephining or trephination).
Healing in the bone around the wound in these mummies, and in skulls found elsewhere, suggests that as many as 50 percent of the ‘patients’ survive the operation.
The reason for the alarming decision to cut a hole in a living skull is likely to have been religious rather than medical in any modern sense. To let out evil spirits perhaps, or to give spiritual authority to a shaman who submits himself to the knife.
Merely by surviving the operation, the shaman proves that he is favoured by the spirits. And his hole in the head, healed over with a flap of skin, will continue to suggest that he has an open channel of communication with unseen influences.
It is not known how such operations were done. One method may be cutting and scraping away at the bone of the skull with a sharp flint until a hole is virtually rubbed away. Another may be making a circle of small holes with a flint drill and then cutting between them.
Whatever the method, it is to be hoped that there is a herbal mixture of some kind to serve as at least a mild form of anaesthetic.
Traditional Aboriginal Bush Medicine in Australia
Aboriginal people traditionally were much healthier than they are today. Living in the open in a land largely free from disease, they benefited from a better diet, more exercise, less stress, a more supportive society and a more harmonious world view.
Nonetheless, Aboriginal peoples often had need of bush medicines. Sleeping at night by fires meant they sometimes suffered from burns. Strong sunshine and certain foods caused headaches, and eye infections were common. Feasting on sour fruits or rancid meat caused digestive upsets, and although tooth decay was not a problem, coarse gritty food sometimes wore teeth down to the nerves. Aborigines were also occasionally stung by jellyfish or bitten by snakes and spiders. In the bush, there was always a chance of injury, and fighting usually ended in severe bruises and gashes.
To deal with such ailments, Aboriginal people used a range of remedies – wild herbs, animal products, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string amulets and secret chants and ceremonies.
Some of these remedies had no empirical basis, but it is clear from the accounts of colonists that they worked. Many of the remedies worked by healing directly through their chemical or physical action. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich inner barks and kinos have well documented therapeutic effects. Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids or other compounds with healing effects.
Aboriginal remedies varied between clans and in different parts of the country. There was no single set of Aboriginal medicines and remedies, just as there was no one Aboriginal language.
Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of traditional Aboriginal medicine has been lost. Very little is known of medical practice in southern and eastern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture was largely obliterated more than a century ago.