Thursday, July 31, 2014

100,000-70,000 years ago.: The first doctors?

It's difficult for people to understand what life was like on earth 100,000 years ago, although based on archaeological evidence we can make educated guesses.  It's unknown whether asthma, allergies or similar diseases existed back then, although it's known that people got sick due to infections caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites.  Chances are these people got short of breath at times too, and that they simply had to deal with it.  

Or maybe not?  There is evidence that Neanderthals, who roamed the earth for about 60,000 years between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago, grew to love and care for those in their family or clan.  This would be a natural effect of working together for a common goal of surviving the challenges of life; a natural side effect of sitting around the fire in a cozy cave to stay warm on a dark and cold night.  

During the day the women without children, and the men, would use their large, muscular bodies to search for food, and then they'd bring what they could back to the cave to share with the women and children.  They would cook the meat and prepare it in different ways, even sucking the marrow out of the bones.  The women would use wood and stone tools to make clothing from the hide, and ornaments from the bones.

When a hunter wrestled with an animal and broke a leg, the women would take care of him in the cave, and he would be provided a portion of the food.  Those who were too sick or old to work were also taken care of in this way. Evidence suggests they probably didn't live much longer than 30, although those who did must have provided knowledge necessary to survive changes in the environment.

Perhaps the elderly told stories late at night, under the moon lit sky, about what happens before birth or after death.  Perhaps in order to allay the feeling of grief after a mother passed away in childbirth, he explained what life was now like for the person who died, of how she was in a happy place like Heaven.  Or perhaps she was a spirit watching over her children.  By doing this, Neanderthal's created religious beliefs and tradition that were passed on from one generation to the next. 

Before long these stories became realities, and the spirits became living entities.  The elderly may even have used these beliefs to the advantage of the clan or family.  He told of stories of how if you fight with your brother, or if you steal food from the sick, or if you didn't do your share of the work, you would be punished by the spirits.  In this way, he encouraged the young to grow up to be productive and trustworthy members of the clan.

I can speculate like this because there is evidence of Neanderthal burial sites where the dead person was intentionally set in a certain position, and surrounded by items that he could use in the afterlife, such as stick and stone tools. Some speculate this is evidence that these hominids mourned their dead, and believed in an afterlife.  

There may also be evidence some members of the the clan may have specialized in taking care of the sick and injured.  Patricia D. Netzley, in her 1998 book "The Stone Age," quoted archaeologist Richard Leaky's description of a burial site where "dense clusters of fossil pollen show that flowers were arranged around the body making a colorful grave of white, yellow and blue.  The flowers are all medicinal herbs, suggesting the possibility that the man was some sort of doctor and these were the herbs he used in his medicine."  (1, pages 54-55)

  1. Netzley, Patricia D, "World History Series: The Stone Age," 1998, San Diego, CA, Lucent Books

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