page contents

Doctor, Who?

It is intriguing to think about how early humans lead their daily lives given what little knowledge they had then (like what they eat, what happens if they actually fall ill, how do they cure illnesses and so much more) - think The Flintstones. In this post, we would be covering how people of prehistoric times as well as the Greeks cope with illnesses and finding a cure for them.

Prehistoric Medicine

  香港歷史博物館  史前時期的香港. By   Musetress (Own work) [     CC BY-SA 3.0  ], via Wikimedia Commons.

香港歷史博物館史前時期的香港. By Musetress (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Prehistoric medicine is referred to as the use of medicine before the invention of any written language or forms of communication. It is said to cover a vast period ranging and varying according to different regions and cultures (generally from when the first appearance of our closely related ancestors who are both behaviourally and physical similar to us modern humans till the appearance of written and recorded history). Anthropologists, made many conjectures at what prehistoric medicine was like by studying human remains and ancient artifacts from that era. They sometimes obtain information and infer from observations of current indigenous populations and those who lived lives that have been isolated from other cultures over the past few centuries.

It is said that prehistoric people would have believed in both natural and supernatural forces when it comes to the human body, diseases and treatments. Unlike the luxury we have now to study and cultivate germs, bacteria and viruses, prehistoric people would probably have to depend on trial and error before coming up with treatments that are deemed effective. Well, what can they do when they didn’t have the benefit of looking at things in a scientific viewpoint or the knowledge to study disposition, lifestyle, family history and so on. Not to forget this was before written language was invented.

However, we cannot say for sure that we know exactly how the prehistoric people think and how much do they actually know about the human body. Therefore, based on what we have, we make assumptions that they might have known a little something about bone structure given archeological evidence from their burial practices and maybe even from their unique taste for fellow human flesh and meat (cannibalism was practiced in some prehistoric groups and communities) that they must have known about our inner organs or lean and fat tissues in the human body.

What medicine did the prehistoric people use?

Anthropologists believe that prehistoric people did use medicinal herbs. However, it is ultimately rather impossible to be sure what exactly were the types of specific herbs used, because plants decompose and die quickly. Therefore, all we had for us to work with are what little we can gather from the past, coupled with observations of indigenous people today and over the past centuries.

Here are some evidence from archaeological sites:

 At Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal. By Alexander Baxevanis. [ CC BY-SA 2.0  ], via Wikimedia Commons.

At Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal. By Alexander Baxevanis. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium) is said to be an astringent (causes contraction of tissues, helps reduce bleeding), stimulant, diaphoretic (promotes sweating), and a mild aromatic. It was probably used for wounds, cuts and abrasions.
  • Mallow - may have been prepared as a herbal infusion for its colon cleansing properties.
  • Rosemary - there is evidence in several parts of the world that it was used as a medicinal herb. It is claimed to have so many different medicinal qualities, depending on which part of the world one is in, that it is difficult to be sure what it was used for.
  • Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), a plant common in the European Alps, may have been used as a laxative. Archeologists found traces of this plant in a mummified man. Botanists say the plant can induce diarrhea when ingested.

List above obtained from

 Girl skull, trepanated with a silex; neolithic (3500 BC) ; patient survived. Natural History Museum, Lausanne. By Rama (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Girl skull, trepanated with a silex; neolithic (3500 BC) ; patient survived. Natural History Museum, Lausanne. By Rama (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Some practices carried out by the prehistoric people:

 After the first rain in months, mud is the best toy. By  David K from Dallas, USA. [ CC BY-SA 2.0  ], via Wikimedia Commons.

After the first rain in months, mud is the best toy. By  David K from Dallas, USA. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Geophagy (consumption of soil-like or earthy substances like chalk and clay) - animals and humans have been found to have done this for many thousands of years. Maybe prehistoric humans have seen animals doing that and received healing qualities and thus copied this act. Several aboriginal people worldwide still use clay both internally and externally for treatments of wounds.
  • Trepanning (act of drilling a hole or holes into the human skull for the treatment of health problems: mostly headaches and migraines) - it is found with evidence that since Neolithic times, humans have been doing this in attempt to cure diseases or to rid victims from demons and evil spirits.

Ancient Greece Medicine

The Greeks were considered to be great philosophers and their physicians tend to lean towards rational thinking when dealing with medicine although they originally thought that illness was a part of God's wrath. Further, it has been said that Ancient Greek medicine might actually be the basis of modern scientific medicine!

Although the ancient Greeks initially regarded illness and healing as part of God's intervention, with the approach of the 5th century BCE, the Greeks attempted to identify real causes for the illnesses rather than attributing it all to spiritual reasons as they gradually move away from superstition and more towards what is currently known as scientific enquiry. However, it must be noted that the two (spiritual and scientific) aspects are not entirely independent of each other.

The Greek Approach

Greek medicine was not considered a whole consistent body of knowledge and practice but instead, consisted of a variety of collection of methods and beliefs which depended on many factors ranging from geography to time period and to more specific factors like local traditions and the gender of the patient. However, despite the differences, there are common threads such as the preoccupation with the positive and negative effects of diet and a belief that the patient could do something to improve and alleviate their complaints as compared to a mindset that was more fixated on spiritual factors previously. Regardless of that, the line between spiritual and physical worlds are usually blurred for example, the god Asclepius was said to be ‘in-charge’ of healing as well as being a highly skilled practical doctor. Many patients frequently seek help from Asclepius at his many different sanctuaries (especially Epidaurus) to have him provide advices through dream that allow the site practitioners to act upon, showing the lack of distinction between spiritual and physical worlds in the context of medicine.

The Big Bosses

 Portrait of Hippocrates from Linden, Magni Hippocratis...1665. By Van der Linden, J.A. editor. [ CC BY-SA 4.0  ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Hippocrates from Linden, Magni Hippocratis...1665. By Van der Linden, J.A. editor. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hippocrates of Kos (or Cos) (460 BC - 370 BC) is considered one of the fathers of medicine and played a huge role in the history of medicine. He also founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine, further adding to his credentials of contributions to the field of medicine. Whatever that was taught in his school, revolutionised medicine, allowing medicine to be established as a profession in its own discipline instead to being linked to philosophy and the practice of rituals and incantations.

Did You Know: The Hippocratic Oath was said to be created by Hippocrates thus the name BUT some scholars believed that the oath was created by Pythagoreans instead. Nobody can say for sure. But given its name, I guess I’ll go with the former?

Hippocrates was said to have advanced the systematic study of clinical medicine, that is, the study of disease by examining the living patient directly (sounds familiar?) He was also considered, together with those from his school, the first people to fully and properly document diseases and disorders.

Other big bosses in the field included two famous Greek philosophers Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) and Plato (424/423 BC - 348/347 BC) who concluded that there is no practical use for the human body once a person dies, resulting in a new way of thinking and the initiation of the act of dissecting bodies and studying them, furthering our insights and knowledge in medicine, up until now.

 Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic aryballos. By Marie-Lan Nguyen. [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic aryballos. By Marie-Lan Nguyen. [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


As mentioned above, the evolution of medicine during ancient Greek times did in fact, provided us with much more insights into the field of medicine. Without the contribution of Hippocrates back in those days, we might probably still be probing around looking for spiritual ways to treat our illnesses.


800 BCE - 700 BCE
Homer's Iliad is composed with mention of medical treatment in Greek warfare.

700 BCE
First Greek medical school opens in Cnidus.

c. 500 BCE
Asclepius becomes principal god of worship at Epidaurus.

c. 460 BCE - c. 370 BCE
Traditional dates for the life of Hippocrates in Greece, the "father of medicine" and inventor of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.

400 BCE - 390 BCE
A sanctuary to Asclepius is built at Agrigento.

325 BCE - 280 BCE
Life of Herophilus of Chalcedon, who studied the brain and the nervous system, attributing intelligence to the brain.

Timeline obtained from here


By Ruiying Lim & Ezebel Teo