Historians studying prehistoric medicine have to use many types of evidence. Examples include archaeological finds, such as skeletons or seeds, skeletons can show what kind of injuries people had or in what condition their teeth were in, also how long people lived. There are also written descriptions by people who visited Britain, as well as evidence recorded by the Roman conquers soon after the prehistoric period.
Historians can also get evidence from how aborigines live today, as their way of life and their approach to medicine is believed to be very similar to the people in prehistoric times. These types of evidence are valuable, as they tell us about prehistoric people and medicine.
However, there are problems with using these types of evidence.
Skeletons only help to answer some specific questions but not everything. Bones may have been damaged during the excavations, this makes it harder for historians to know if an ‘injury’ was caused due to a careless excavator or a battle injury or trephining.
There are only a few sites that actually contain human bones. This is believed to be because prehistoric people used to leave dead bodies exposed and allowed them to rot, and only after that would the remaining bones be buried. As the body was left exposed, animals could have access to it. This meant that these animals could carry some of the bones away.
The skeletons found at the site may also not represent all the ages that lived in the area, as only the bones of certain people were buried. In some cases the people might have only have kept the skulls of their enemies as trophies.
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Belief in supernatural spirits was very strong and they were at the heart of the prehistoric peoples world. They believed that spirits had created the world and that everyone had their own personal spirit.
They also believed that if a spirit leaves your body, you would become sick. Another way you could become ill was if an evil spirit could find its way into your body, for example when you were asleep.
People in prehistoric times had a dual approach to medicine, which meant that they used natural, as well as supernatural and spiritual remedies. For example they used to wear ‘magic’ charms to ward off the evil spirits that could potentially cause disease. These charms could be made of plant seeds or parts of a human body.
People also took great care to bury their nails, excrement or their hair. This was to stop evil spirits or an enemy to cast a spell on them. Even if this was not the case, it was good hygiene and stopped diseases from spreading.
Another way to treat illness was by using herbs. They were used if the problem had a clear and obvious cause, for example a cut or a broken bone. People would chew specific plants leaves to get rid of pain or use them on cuts and bruises.
Each generation would pass down their knowledge on specific herbs and techniques to the next generation.
Sometimes, they also used very basic surgery, such as surgery to set broke bones. But there is also evidence of a surgical treatment called trephining, which meant cutting a hole in the skull and removing a piece of the bone. This was a very dangerous operation, but there is evidence that it was sometimes carried successfully as there are skulls that show signs of healing after the surgery.
This could have been used because of bad headaches or to ease the pressure of swelling after an injury. Another reason for this operation was t let out evil spirits that were causing the illness or pain.
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The people who treated illness in prehistoric times were ‘medicine men’, who were very important people in the community, as they had the ability to understand and deal with spirits. People would visit him if they had an illness. The medicine man would lay the patient down and start chanting to put the patient in a trance. He would then rub and massage the place were the pain was. This was to get rid of the spirit. When he had gotten the spirit out he would ‘trap’ it in a quartz crystal.
Women also treated illness and injuries, especially as mothers and wives. There is written evidence that women were responsible for day-to-day health care, as they knew about healing powers and herbs.