History

Prehistoric methods of diagnosis and treatment

How did people view their illnesses in prehistoric times? What did they do to get better? Did they have doctors who discovered cures that worked, and told each other about them? No one knows the answers to these questions, but historians have come up with some interesting possible suggestions.

Overview

There is no archaeological evidence that proves how prehistoric people diagnosed or treated illness, but it seems likely that these people knew next to nothing about the real nature of disease.

The Australian Aborigines of recent times diagnosed disease in a purely spiritual way, by 'seeing' the cause of an illness in a trance, or through magic rituals. Many of their cures were spiritual too, using pointing bones, beads, magic paintings, dancing and ceremonies. It therefore seems possible, although it's impossible to prove, that prehistoric shamans [Shamans: A shaman is a generic term for healers and spiritual leaders in tribal societies. ] diagnosed and treated disease in similar ways.

Despite their lack of scientific knowledge, it's possible that prehistoric people knew and used plants and various substances to cure disease. The Native Americans of the 19th century knew of more than 100 herbs and substances that had healing properties.

This, however, should not be seen as proof that primitive medicine had a 'practical', non-spiritual, side. Healers could well have used these medicinal substances as part of their spiritual practices and, if the healing proved successful, could certainly have ascribed the success to the spirits, not to the substances they had used in the cure.

The shaman

Compare these two images of shamans. The first is a 19th-century drawing of a Native American shaman, the other is a replica of a 20,000-year-old cave painting.

19th-century drawing

19th-century drawing of Native American shaman, dressed in bear skin

19th-century drawing of Native American shaman, dressed in bear skin

The Native American shaman thought that, by wearing the skin of the bear, he was absorbing the power of the spirit of the bear, and that this would make him stronger to influence the spirits.

Cave painting

Coloured replica of a 20,000-year-old cave painting found in France - it possibly represents a shaman dressed in a deer skin

Coloured replica of a 20,000-year-old cave painting found in France - it possibly represents a shaman dressed in a deer skin

This cave painting may show a shaman, whose ideas may have been similar to those held by Native Americans of the 19th century. All theories about paintings such as this, however, are pure guesswork.

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