Tuesday, October 09, 2012

30,000 B.C.: The dawn of medicine

The first humans in Europe were cro magnums.  They are thought
to have marched into Europe sometime around 40,000 B.C. 
So humans must have developed empathy early on, and they would make sacrifices to help the suffering in any way they could.  Perhaps this meant something as simple as pulling out a splinter, or sacrificing a meal to feed a child.  Or perhaps it means pulling an arrow you accidentally shot into your brother, or providing a sympathetic shoulder to your mother who was having trouble breathing.  By around 30,000 B.C. such empathy would reach a culmination of sorts, into an era that many refer to as the dawn of medicine.

Once again, it's hard to know what internal ailments man suffered from 2.5 million years ago, let alone 30,000 years ago.  It's highly probable, or so I would think, that heart and kidney failure have plagued mankind since the beginning, and Lord knows these ailments cause shortness of breath, even air hunger, or what the ancient Greeks referred to as asthma (and what later was referred to as dyspnea, allowing the term asthma to take a different route).

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to suffer from heart failure, bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or any such respiratory disease 2.5 million years ago, let alone 30,000 years ago.  The asthmatic boy leaned up against a tree or rock and dealt with the agony as best he could, trying hard to keep up with his clan, performing the duties expected of him.  But as his breathing worsened, or failed to get better, he'd more than likely become a burden to his clan, and they'd have to go out of their way to help him, to guide him along, to feed him, to provide him with drinks, to provide him with incantations and magical words of healing. Of he died it was because he was poisoned, if he lived it was because of the magic.

By pondering about the world around them, by learning from such events as this that they observed and experienced, and speculating about that of which they could not learn by empirical means, these people created the first myths about what happened before birth, and what happened after death, and why a person got sick.   Perhaps it was by this means that fears of the unknown lead to evil spirits abounding all around, peering amid the trees, and in the dark crevices of caves, and in the fields, and in the sky, even lurking in dreams. Some of these possessed friends and family members, and no doubt one of these had entered the asthmatic boy.  Other spirits became real beings in the Heavens, and these turned into the first gods, and these gods became the first physicians who were responsible for health and healing.

A young girl was excited to see her mother give birth, and after her brother was born, her mother became very sick and she died.  That night the girl did not sleep, instead she was haunted by the creepy sounds in the night.  She decided the sounds must have been made by her mother, who died too soon.  Her mother was now a ghost or spirit, and she was ever present and probably very unhappy because she died too soon.  She might protect her family, or she might be too blind sighted by her own death and haunt those show loved when she was alive.  As noted by Henry Sigerist in his 1951 history of medicine: (6, page 137)

Particularly feared are the ghosts of people who died without having fullfilled their mission on earth, young children, brides, women in childbirth or childbed. they more than any other dead must be eager to return to life or, feeling lonely, they may wish to kill some who were close to them so as to enjoy their company in the world of the spirits. (6, page 137)
One early man or woman realized a sharp bone could be used to slice into prey, and another learned to attach this sharp object to a stick to be used as an ax for killing prey or cutting down brush or trees for making shelter.  By cutting up food the heart was found to still be beating, and the heart was learned to be the best target when hitting prey with a knife, spear or arrow.  The head was learned to be the best target for the blunt ax as it shattered the skull. As noted by Plinio Prioreschi in his 1999 history of medicine: (5 Prioreschi, page 29)
Neolithic man must have noticed that the results of the wounds inflicted by the two kinds of weapons were quite different. Deep wounds of the abdomen and chest inflicted by piercing weapons were always mortal either soon or after, or some time later (in the later case because of infection -- e.g. peritonitis). On the other hand, head blows delivered with blunt weapons often had strange results: the animal (or the enemy) would immediately fall "dead" and whereas sometimes it (or he) would stay dead, sometimes, after a short period, it (or he) would revive, that is, would become "undead." The individual who became "undead" after a head blow had always a small head wound, whereas those who failed to revive usually showed a massive injury. (5, page 29)
It must have been assumed that the "undead" was a person with magical powers, or who was blessed by the demons, spirits or a god.  He was thus "brought back from the dead." He was "cured." Those who came into contact with this "cured" person were blessed. This was probably where superstitions and religion were started. Yet it was also by these observations where people learned what weapons were best for what purpose.  In this way, people learned by trial and error, and they speculated, and they came to conclusions.

People learned early the benefits of bathing in the rivers, lakes and streams to keep themselves clean and pure, because purity was the way to keep the body in balance and to keep the evil poisons out of your body.  This may have been the first observation that cleanliness resulted in better health; the first hygienic practices.  Some men washed daily, and maybe had their wives check them for ticks and fleas or whatever bugs crawled onto them while they were busy hunting in the forest.

Slowly the tree of knowledge blossomed and grew.  Mankind learned that by working together they could accomplish more in life, and as part of working together they learned how to socialize.  They therefore learned to have empathy for a fellow human who was suffering, as was evidenced by the efforts to emphasize and help the ailing boy.  They learned they could make a difference in the lives of others by the love they offered, or simply by offering a kind shoulder to lean on.  Although the earliest help was primitive indeed, this was the beginning of medicine. (1, page 2)

Perhaps a dad provided pressure on a cut to stop bleeding, or made a splint out of stick to aid the healing of a broken finger, or used wool of a sheep to produce a basic bandage, or used a sharp stick or stone to pluck out a sliver.  When the cause of suffering was unknown, incantations were chanted to suck out the evil spirits and demons.

So while allaying illness may have originally been a personal task -- each man or woman for him or herself, it eventually became a task of the many.  People developed consciences; they learned to love, care and appreciate the people in their lives.  They cared for and doted the sick, young and old.  Each person becoming pseudo nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists. So in essence, all of these jobs were born amid the primitive or prehistoric world by savage humans.

An elderly man, perhaps, found relief for his ailing back when he stood by the hot fire.  He learned that by removing the splinter of wood in a boy's hand this would speed recovery of the wound. Perhaps by the quest to find food when hungry, early humans discovered the poisonous and medicinal properties of various herbs.  An elderly lady must have mixed some herbs with berries and learned it didn't make such a good meal, although later she rubbed some on her skin and found it to have soothing or healing properties. (6, page 115-116)

Perhaps by such experimentation, these early humans came up with the first herbal remedies, creating the first recipes that turned into salves, ointments,  potions, pills and even inhalents. Perhaps, just perhaps, an elderly lady was experimenting with poppy seeds.  It is believed by many historians that poppy seeds, or opium, was one of the first remedies used by mankind for its hallucinogenic and pain relieving effects.  Perhaps this was one of the most important drugs of the primitive world (5, page 7), as it relieved pain and suffering.

Perhaps she experimented with the leaves and roots of a belladonna plant, and she laid them out in the hot sun for days to dry, and then after they dried she tried to make food or a potion from them, and she learned that when ingested the result was soothing to the mind, definitely a gift from the gods.  And one day, when the asthmatic boy was huffing and puffing over the fire, she inadvertently discarded the remaining roots and stems into the fire, and the smoke created by them was inhaled by the boy, and his breath instantly, his mind at ease by the hallucinogenic effects.

The boy's father investigated this remedy, and he remembered the recipe, creating easy to remember lyrics so the recipe could be shared from one generation to the next.  By trial and error, in this way, they learned what remedy works best for what ailment.  If an elderly lady was sick, for example, her husband, or sister, or friend, used knowledge obtained by lyrics sung by the campfire late at night to help in any way they could.  Perhaps an elderly sister rubbed salves on her aching back, or made her drink a soothing potion (perhaps containing a drug such as opium). And it was rationalized these remedies had powers of healing because they were gifts from the gods above. (5, page 35)  

If the magic available to these folks didn't work, it was time to call for the medicine man, who was able to form a link between the patient and the spirits, demons and gods. He was the wisest member of the tribe, the one who remembered all the recipes, and held all the esoteric knowledge of the privileged few. He was the earliest magician/ sorcerer/witch/priest/physician all rolled into one, who had the ability to create a link between the sick and the spirits, demons and gods that were ubiquitous and invisible.  He would dress in animal skins to mimic a spirit or demon, he'd use rattles and drums to set the milieu, and he'd suck out the evil spirit from the sick woman. He had different names in different places of the world, although some called him Shaman or Seer, because he had the ability to "see" into the netherworld. (3, page 22)

If this magic didn't work, there were other options the medicine man, or woman, might experiment with, and one was was called trepanation. Experts have shown this can be easily done using flint knives and "scratching the (parieetal) bone (of the scull), or by making a circular incision that was gradually deepened, or finally by drilling a series of small holes arranges in a circle and then cutting the bridges between them." (6, page 110-113)

Many such sculls have been found by archaeologists in various parts of the world,  and no one knows exactly why this procedure was performed, although many speculations have been made.  Perhaps the patient was driven insane or possessed by demons, and this was a last ditch effort to cure the person. Perhaps the person was seizing due to epilepsy.  Perhaps the person had end stage emphysema, or was having a severe, prolonged asthma attack. (Lord help help the boy with asthma if this was the remedy.)(6, page 110-113)

The medicine man may provide the sick lady, or her family, with an amulet and an incantation to recite at various times of the day.  An amulet was blessed with magical powers of healing, and could be made of the teeth of animals, claws of eagles, knives, axes, dried rabbits heart, dried rabbits foot, the bone fragment from trepanation (called rondelles), or just about anything. He may also provide such an object as a talisman, and these would be for good luck, to keep you healthy, and to keep you alive. Such objects may also be just about anything, from a wood carving or replication of an eye, heart, liver, kidney, liver, arm or leg. It could be a dried rabbits foot, necklace, bracelet, etc. (6, page 145)

In times when suffering and death inflicted several members of the clan, in times of epidemics of disease, the medicine man would use his magic on the entire family or clan.  They would gather around the fire at night, under the moon-lit sky, and the medicine man would shake his rattles and beat his drums and hum magical incantations and prayers, and he would toss the dried and crushed herbs of opium or belladonna onto the fire, and the smoke would be inhaled, and the recipients would sit around the fire and hallucinate about the world around them. These hallucinations would surely be revelations from the gods, and they would be interpreted by the medicine man.  These were the first mass inhalations, or fumigations.  In times of trouble, in times of great plagues, such fumigations would provide an explanation for the suffering, and a divination of the end of the suffering, or what could be done to end it.  

Much of this knowledge had matured into a flourishing tree by 30,000 B.C.  Knowledge that was slowly picked up by previous generations was now habitual.  Basic methods of maintaining health, and for offering healing, were standard.  The cause of illness, and the reason for healing, was by the wishes of the ubiquitous spirits, demons and gods.  Some historians consider this period as the dawn of medicine.

  1. Wilder, Alexander, "History of Medicine, a brief outline of medical history and sects of physicians, from the earliest historic period; with an extended account of the new schools of the healing art in the nineteenth century, adn especially a history of the American eclectic practice of medicine, never before published," 1901, Maine, New England Eclectic Publishing Co.
  2. Netzley, Patricia D, "World History Series: The Stone Age," 1998, San Diego, CA, Lucent Books
  3. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An Introduction to the history of medicine," 1921
  4. Unknown reference
  5. Prioreschi, Plinio, "A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Vol. 1, 1999, reprinted edition, originally published 1995, Horatius Press
  6. Sigerist, Henry E "History of Medicine," volume I: Primitive and Archaic Medicine, 1951, New York, Oxford University Press
  7. Suter, Joanne, "Fearon's World History," 2nd edition, 1994, U.S., Globe Fearon Educational Publishing

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