Prehistoric civilisation

Historians' statements about prehistoric medicine are usually based on ancient archaeological discoveries. They are also often based upon comparisons with pre-literate but nevertheless modern-day societies - such as that of Australian Aborigines. These latter may or may not have beliefs similar to those held by the peoples of prehistory, there is no way of knowing for sure. The best we can say about prehistoric times, therefore, is: "It seems that..."


Some knowledge of prehistoric times will help you to understand prehistoric medicine.

sick prehistoric people in cave, awaiting medical help from shaman

Sick prehistoric people in cave, awaiting medical help from shaman

The defining characteristic of prehistoric societies is that the people of these societies could not write. They could not therefore pass on a body of medical knowledge beyond that which could be remembered. However, many of the primitive peoples that survive in the modern age seem to have built up a system of skills and behaviours that keeps them healthy in their environment, despite not having anything written down. They have done this through a process of trial and error and natural selection, and it seems likely that the people of prehistoric times were similar.

Most prehistoric peoples were nomadic - so they did not settle down and build things like hospitals, neither did they have enough consistency in their own lives to observe how all human bodies work the same. Anthropologists have found primitive tribes who have not yet realised that the sex act leads to childbirth.

The primitive technology of prehistoric peoples put them at the mercy of the elements, and led to a system of beliefs that saw humankind as being at the mercy of unpredictable spirits. These were said to bring life, death, health and disease. Such ideas led to a world in which spiritual rituals and the shaman, or witch-doctor, dominated medicine.

Source analysis

Consider the following sources of prehistoric evidence, and the usual interpretations. This table shows how certain items of evidence suggest certain possible theories, but that what we can be certain of is very much less.

Prehistoric evidence and interpretations

EvidencePossible interpretationCertainty
A prehistoric skeleton with a club footPrehistoric people suffered from clubfoot.At least one prehistoric man had a clubfoot, unless this find is a hoax.
Impressions of hands with fingers missingPrehistoric people suffered from leprosy. The fingers may have been lost to leprosy, but also may have been cut off as a punishment, or in war, or lost in accidents. Note that although we can prove that prehistoric people lost their fingers, it is impossible to prove from the archaeological record how much it hurt when this happened.
Cave painting (of antler-being)Prehistoric people believed in spirits.The cave painting may show a spirit-being, but also it may show a shaman dressed in an animal-skin, or it may show the animal itself. The painting doesn't give any proof of the thinking behind the drawing.
Cancerous femurPrehistoric people suffered from cancer of the bone.At least one prehistoric man had cancer of the femur, unless this find is a hoax.
Clay model of a sheep's liverPrehistoric people used auguries (such as the condition of a sheep's liver) to try to predict health and disease.The find is clearly the shape of a liver, with holes for marker pegs, but it does not provide any proof of how it was used.
StonehengePrehistoric people formed well-organised, disciplined societies. Stonehenge proves that prehistoric people were able to organise themselves over long periods of time and place. But it does not tell us what kind of government these people had, or how well they were organised, or whether this was a permanent or temporary feature of their society.

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