Hunters and Gatherers
The Ancient Greeks had an explanation for the arrival of diseases and illnesses known as Pandora's box. Judaeo-Christianity has a similar account with the Garden of Eden. They both tell of a golden age when man lived in a paradise where there were no earthly concerns or illnesses. Actually, there is an element of truth in these stories. Hunters and gatherers had a surprisingly healthy lifestyle. They exercised a great deal, they ate fresh food and cleanliness was not a problem as their nomadic lifestyle meant that could leave any mess behind them. The major medical problems they had to deal with were how to deal with cuts, bruises and broken bones from everyday accidents such as falls and fights. It should be said that these could be very serious, especially if infection or gangrene set in. However, early man seems to have escaped the worst ravages of disease and sickness.

There were two main reasons why pre-historic man seems to have escaped from the pathogens and parasites that cause disease: A low population density and a lack of agriculture. These nomads lived in very small groups of people that wandered from place to place. The micro-organisms that carry diseases such as the measles and small pox require large population densities otherwise they would kill their hosts before they could successfully pass it on to another host. Living in small, mobile groups helped man to avoid the worst aspects of disease.

As we will examine in the next section, agriculture introduced a variety of opportunities for man to catch new diseases. Therefore, the lack of agricultural skills was actually helpful to man in avoiding parasites and pathogens.

The Agricultural Revolution
The agricultural revolution started in about 12 - 10,000 BC. Whether the agriculture practiced was the growing of crops or the taking care of livestock, the consequences of the agricultural revolution would be profound.

Probably the most important impact of agriculture on human health was that it introduced a proximity to animals. Living with cows, chickens or even dogs, humans were exposed to the diseases that these animals carried. Back in their hunting and gathering days, humans were only ever exposed to animals for very short bursts of time. With the domestication of animals and the building of farms, humans lived side by side with animals for 365 days a year. It became much easier for micro-organisms to pass from one species to the other.

The loss of a nomadic lifestyle was also important, hygiene became an issue. Pollution of nearby water sources would became important. As was the issue of where to go to the toilet. These were problems that did not concern nomads.

Another major impact of the agricultural revolution is that it allowed higher population densities to live in a smaller area. Especially, when agricultural surpluses led to the formation of towns and markets. The higher the population density became, the larger the potential reservoir of hosts was for the micro-organisms that carry diseases.

Of course, the agricultural revolution also brought many advantages, not least the guarantee of food. But it is possible to see why the Ancient Greeks and the Bible both talked about a golden age of paradise that was ruined by man. It was not deliberate, but something similar did occur.

Medical Procedures
It seems as if pre-historic man was able to do some simple medical procedures. The most common example is that of setting broken bones. There is archaeological evidence that broken bones were successfully set.

One medical procedure that has always been required is that of childbirth. The size of a human baby's head has made this a very dangerous procedure right up until the very recent past. It is likely that many women died during the process of giving birth or were severely weakened by the experience. More than any other reason, it is probably the complications of childbirth that helped to keep the life-expectancy of women to a much lower average than for men.

Perhaps the most unusual (and dangerous) medical procedure peformed by pre-historic man is that of Trepanation (sometimes called trephining). This is the procedure of drilling a hole into someone's skull. It is not known why this procedure was performed. Theories vary from relieving headaches to the idea of casting out evil spirits. Amazingly, it seems as if some of these operations were successful. There are examples of skulls which show an element of healing after the operation. Right up until relatively recently, there have been examples of similar operations being performed in aboriginal societies from South America to Africa.

Spirits
Again, it is hard to say what the role of religion, superstition and the spirit world played in pre-historic medical history. It is tempting to draw parallels with contemporary aboriginal societies where the perceived role of spirits is profound. However, the evidence is limited. Burial sites were arranged in such a way as to suggest that there were important rituals that had to be followed. Also, these sites often contained charms and the remains of discarded nails, hair, etc... This would suggest that some thought had been put in to the burial process at least. It is not unreasonable to assume that religous ritual had a strong role to play in pre-historic life and therefore also in the treatment of illness and disease.
Medicine
Medicine as we know of the term today was unheard of. However, it is likely that natural herbs and plants did play a role in the treatment of some medical conditions. How successful these remedies were is not known. It is likely that an element of trial and error would have discovered some useful treatments. The early ancient Greek civilisation relied heavily on the use of herbs. It is not unreasonable to assume that much of this knowledge would have been collected during the pre-historic period and would have been replicated throughout the various human societies evolving at this time.
Conclusion
Life was by no means easy for pre-historic man. However, they did not passively take whatever nature threw at them. Pre-historic man did try to treat and comfort those who were ill or who were injured. It is paradoxical that the more successful the human societies became the more danger they were exposing themselves to as microbes took advantage of increasing population densities and proximity to animals to communicate more and more virulent diseases to man. A microbe requires a host to live in. The more successful that the host is as a species, the more successful the microbe is going to be. The coming centuries would devastatingly illustrate this point.
Trepanated Skull
Trepanation was one of the first medical procedures attempted
Powerpoints Available
Prehistoric Medicine
Learning Tasks
Hunters and Gatherers Exercise
Agriculture Revolution Exercise
Prehistoric Medicine Crossword
Timeline
c150,000 BC Homo Sapiens emerge
c50,000 BC Ice Age begins
c12,000 BC Ice Age ends
c10,000 BC Agriculture begins
Online Resources
Early Medical Techniques
This page discusses early procedures such as Trepanation
The Skull Doctors
This is a New Scientist article about Trepanation
Pre-History and Ancient Disease
This BBC site explores some of the factors involved.
Resources Available
Focus CD-ROM
History of Medicine
This is a multimedia presentation of the history of medicine
Reference Books
Cule, John
Timetables of Medicine
1999
Johns, Timothy
The Origins of Human Diet and Medicine
2001
Porter, Roy
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind
1997


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by Stephen Luscombe