Episode #1 of the course “Brief History of Medicine”
“Prehistory” generally means the time period before information began to be written down. The medical practices of prehistory are only known to people today because of anthropological and archaeological studies, and there are many unanswered questions. Bones from excavations in different parts of the world show signs of broken bones that were set, dental work, and even some surgical procedures. The shamans, or “medicine men,” of most prehistoric societies were responsible for maintaining the health of the tribe, and they would practice not only natural remedies from disease and pain but supernatural ones as well.
Prehistoric peoples were likely limited to only using their local resources to heal wounds and treat disease. Based on the bones of some prehistoric peoples, researchers can determine that certain herbs were used to treat wounds and improve immunity against disease. Some bones show evidence of being set in hardened, molded clay casts after they were broken. Some prehistoric people show evidence of being knowledgeable about dentistry, with drillings into teeth being dated to as long as 6,000 years ago.
Women were often the individual caretakers responsible for the health of their family members, and they would have learned about the helpfulness of some plants and animal matter to treat disease, ease childbirth, and nurture wounds. The average life expectancy of a prehistoric person was about 30 years, and the rate of women and children who died in childbirth was much higher than today. Men often lived longer because as hunters, they had greater access to nourishing food. However, men often sustained more injuries during hunting, and their bones show that these wounds were more likely to be fatal than the wounds sustained by women, who did not hunt.
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