Prehistoric Medicine - The Problem of Evidence

The Problem of Evidence

The definition of "prehistoric" dictates that there is no written evidence which can be used for investigation into this period of history. Historians must use other sources such as human remains and anthropological studies of societies living under similar conditions. A variety of problems arise when the aforementioned sources are used.

Human remains from this period are rare and many have undoubtedly been destroyed by burial rituals or made useless by damage. The most informative archaeological evidence are mummies, remains which have been preserved by either freezing or in peat bogs; no evidence exists to suggest that prehistoric people mummified the dead for religious reasons, as Ancient Egyptians did. These bodies can provide scientists with subjects' (at the time of death): weight, illnesses, height, diet, age, and bone conditions, which grant vital indications of how developed prehistoric medicine was.

Not technically classed as 'written evidence', prehistoric people left many kinds of paintings, using paints made of minerals such as lime, clay & charcoal and brushes made from feathers, animal fur or twigs, on the walls caves. Although many of these paintings are thought to have a spiritual or religious purpose, there have been some, such as a man with antlers (thought to be a medicine man), which have revealed some part of prehistoric medicine. Many cave paintings of human hands have shown missing fingers (none have been shown without thumbs), which suggests that these were cut off for sacrificial or practical purposes, as is the case among the Pygmies and Khoikhoi.

The writings of certain cultures (such as the Romans) can be used as evidence in discovering how their contemporary prehistoric cultures practiced medicine. People who live a similar nomadic existence today have been used as a source of evidence too, but obviously there are distinct differences in the environments in which nomadic people lived; prehistoric people who once lived in Britain for example, cannot be effectively compared to aboriginal peoples in Australia, because of the geographical differences.

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