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									STUDY IN DEVELOPMENT                                             MEDICINE THROUGH TIME

                            PREHISTORIC MEDICINE

By   the end of this section you should have some idea about:
•    The nature of evidence, its value and its problems
•    Beliefs in spirits and the treatments used by medicine men – spiritual treatments
•    Practical knowledge and resulting treatments – natural treatments

                                          Way of Life

The term “prehistoric” refers to the time before recorded history. This means that we no
written evidence about this time. It is usually said to be about 500,000 years ago.
Prehistoric people lived all over the world but they left the prehistoric period at different
times, depending on when writing developed – Britain remained prehistoric long after Egypt
and the Middle East because writing developed much later in Britain.
The earliest prehistoric people had the following features in common:
• They were nomads.
• They were hunter-gatherers.
• They lived in small groups with no complicated political arrangements.
• They had very simple technology – spears, bows and arrows, axes, knives and scrapers
   made from wood, bone and stone.
• They had no system of writing

Task 1
Complete the Lifestyle section of your summary booklet using the information above.

Task 2
Look at each of the common features of early prehistoric features listed above.
         (b) Explain the feature.
         (b) In each case explain how it might have affected the medicine they used, and
our ability to find out about their medicine.

Over thousands of years things changed slowly. The most important changes were the
development of farming, which meant that people stayed in one place, and metal tools.

Task 3
How do you think the changes in farming and tools would have affected:
        (b) the speed of other changes?
        (b) our ability to find out about their medicine?
                                       Medical Beliefs

GCSE HISTORY                                   1                                    OCR 1905
STUDY IN DEVELOPMENT                                         MEDICINE THROUGH TIME

We know that people in prehistoric times suffered injury and disease but we do not know
how they treated themselves.

Task 4
Why can we find out that they suffered injury and disease but not about how they treated

There is in fact some evidence that a form of surgery was performed. Skulls have been
found with holes deliberately drilled in them. This kind of operation is called trephinning
and is done on living people. The skulls have been found in burial sites with the complete
body of the person and the disc of bone alongside. The disc often has holes in it,
indicating that it could have had a thong threaded through it, so that it could be worn
around the neck. All of the skulls are from adults and most of them show signs of bone
growth around the hole, indicating that people lived, often for some time, after the
operation. It is, however, difficult to find out why this operation was performed.

Some Theories
• 1865 - the holes were made in the skull so they could be used as drinking vessels.
• 1876 - the operation was performed on children, and those who survived were thought
  to have great magic power. When the person died the skull and the pieces of bone taken
  out were used as powerful charms.
• 1930 - they were performed on people who had skull injuries and, later on people with
  other problems, perhaps epilepsy or very bad headaches.
• 1945 - it may have been performed to let evil spirits out of the body.

Now look at the sources below and answer the questions that follow.

Task 5
A. Look at sources A-D. For each source

GCSE HISTORY                                 2                                   OCR 1905
STUDY IN DEVELOPMENT                                            MEDICINE THROUGH TIME

    1) Say whether it is definitely evidence that prehistoric people suffered from
    2) Say whether it tells us anything about how prehistoric people treated disease

 B. Some of the theories (listed above the sources) must be wrong because the evidence
contradicts them. Some of the theories could be right or wrong - we cannot be sure.
Look at each theory in turn:
        1) Describe the theory.
        2) Say whether you think the theory is:
                                              - definitely wrong.
                                              - could be right or wrong.
                                              - definitely wrong.
3) Explain your conclusion, with reference to the information above and to sources A - D,
    in each case.

                                 The Australian Aborigines

The main problem in finding out about prehistoric medicine is the lack of evidence.

Task 1
Think back to the previous worksheet - what facts do we know about prehistoric medicine?

We do not know what people thought about their illnesses so we cannot know exactly how
or why they treated illness.
In order to find out more about prehistoric medicine historians have looked at the medical
beliefs of people around the world, whose technology and lifestyle are similar to
prehistoric people.
At the end of the 19th century anthropologists studied Aborigines in central and southern
Australia, who had had virtually no contact with the European settlers, so their lifestyle
had been unchanged for centuries.

They discovered the following facts:
• they obtained their food by hunting and gathering wild plants.
• they moved from water hole to waterhole & did not settle in fixed places.
• they had many spoken languages but no written one.

In addition they learned about their beliefs:
• they believed that the world started in the dreamtime when their spirit ancestors lived.
• they believed that their spirit ancestors had shaped the world as it was e.g. placed
   streams, waterholes, and plants etc. in particular places.
• they believed that spirits caused all new life - human or animal.
In fact, anything, which did not have an obvious physical explanation, was explained as the
work of spirits.

Medical Beliefs

Their beliefs affected their medicine.
Where the cause was obvious, common sense cures were used.
e.g. 1. Broken arms - encased in clay, which set hard in the sun (like a plaster cast).
       2. Cuts - covered with clay or animal fat and bound up with bark or animal skin.
Where there were no obvious cause two possible explanations were considered:

GCSE HISTORY                                  3                                    OCR 1905
STUDY IN DEVELOPMENT                                             MEDICINE THROUGH TIME

• an evil spirit had entered the sick person’s body.
• the person’s own spirit had left, or been taken from, his or her body.
The treatment of illnesses with spiritual causes:
• drive the evil spirit out.
• find the pointing bone used to extract the spirit - the spirit would be stuck on it.

Task 2
In what ways were 19th century Aborigines like prehistoric people? Explain your answer in

Task 3
(a) Describe an Aboriginal common-sense treatment.
(b) Why do you think they did not use a spiritual treatment for this problem?

Task 4
(a) Describe an Aboriginal spiritual treatment.
(b) Why do you think they did not use a common-sense treatment for this problem?

Task 5
Do you think Aborigines would use spiritual or common-sense treatments for the following
(a) A sprained wrist caused in a fall.
(b) A heart attack.
(c) An epileptic fit.
(d) A spear wound.
Explain the reasons for your answer in each case.

The beliefs and ideas of the Aborigines could help us to understand what prehistoric
people thought and did.

Task 6
Explain how knowing about Aboriginal medicine could help us to understand certain the
medical ideas of prehistoric people e.g. trephinning operations and why they kept the
pieces of skull.
Why can this explanation be only a theory and not a fact?

Task 7
Complete all the appropriate sections in your summary booklet.

GCSE HISTORY                                  4                                    OCR 1905

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