Medical Prehistory

What ancient medical treatments worked?

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130 Responses to Medical Prehistory

  1. j says:

    Kidney stone surgery

    • Jim says:

      Even before anesthesia gallstones were sometimes surgically removed. The operation was rushed as fast as possible causing considerable tissue damage but patients sometimes survived.

      Even after anesthesia was available there was a tendency for surgeons to try to do operations quickly until experience showed that proceeding more slowly and carefully did less damage. Anesthesia and antiseptics made for a tremendous improvement in medicine.

  2. Difference Maker says:

    Probably trepanning

  3. SonOfRekab says:

    cesarean section.

    As far as i know, the one procedure that is practiced today very much the same way it was in ancient times.
    To a lesser extent probably circumcision had its advantages.

  4. B says:

    All of them which were not fatal, for the placebo effect if nothing else.

    As for the ones that would have probably worked beyond a placebo effect, trepanation (8K+ years old,) lithotomy (maybe 7K years old), tracheotomy (about 5.5K years old,) many other surgeries:

    I wonder how prevalent serious surgical infections were in those days, in a healthy patient, if a surgeon worked cleanly.

  5. Steve Johnson says:

    Craniotomy goes back to 8000-5000 BC.

  6. In some very, very limited conditions, bleeding?

  7. jsammallahti says:


  8. Anonymous says:

    Avoiding sick.

  9. Leonard says:

    Since placebos work, we can include many witch-doctor type procedures. Take acupuncture, for example. Needling someone apparently doesn’t hurt him, at least if you can keep the needles clean.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Unblocking a urinary tract?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Fermented drinks. Still about the only medicine that works effectively.

  12. n/a says:

    Traditional Chinese Medicine is slowly being confirmed for some level of scientific merit. Safe to assume some of it was developed before recorded history..

  13. DdR says:

    Using leeches to stimulate circulation in a wound area? Using maggots to disinfect a wound?

    Otherwise the ancients knew how to use some herbs to alleviate pain, combat colds, etc. Nothing compared to present-day pharmaceuticals though.

    • Jim says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me if some primitive tribe in the middle of Borneo knows knows of some plant with medicinal applications of great value completely unknown to modern science.

      • DdR says:

        The only thing that I can think of at the moment is ayahuasca.

      • athEIst says:

        It would surprise me. Since WWII the drug companies have been scouring the undeveloped world for “plants with medicinal value”. They found many, at first at least. I doubt they missed Borneo,

  14. Probably quite a few efficacious renal remedies have been known since prehistoric times.

  15. Tim says:

    One word. Drugs.

    Opium. Cannabis. Ephedra. Coca. Various mushrooms. Coffee. Tea.

    Still used for the same purposes 1000s of years later.

  16. Dale says:

    Bladder stone surgery seems to have actually worked. Jan de Doot is claimed to have done it successfully on himself.

  17. NuclearLabRat says:


  18. Dale says:

    I’ve seen published allegations that about 1/2 of traditional drugs have some clinical efficacy. Self-medication of various sorts is seen in many mammals.
    An Agatha Christie novel mentioned a poultice for an infected cut made from moldy bread.

  19. Polynices says:

    The secret with bladder stone removal is that the bladder can be accessed without going through the peritoneum which was close to a death sentence before antisepsis. Still yucky.

    Does removing rotten teeth count? Someone mentioned drilling cavities. How about fleeing plagued areas to the countryside? No good if you bring the fleas with you but if you get out before they get to you…

    The Hippocratic Oath includes a bit about not performing abortions so that implies that the ancients could successfully perform them.

  20. Andrew Ryan says:

    Ge Hong in 4th century China was the first to use human feces (brewed as a tea) as a treatment for digestive disorders. We now know that fecal transplants are the most effective treatment for C. difficile diarrhea and are being explored for other diseases like IBD.

    The Egyptians and Greeks put moldy bread on wounds to prevent infections, thousands of years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (made by a mold).

  21. JayMan says:

    Well I can tell you one thing that sure didn’t work: blowing smoke up someone’s ass.

    Considering that it doesn’t work, one wonders why it’s still so widespread…

  22. sabracakeboo says:

    The Maori people have been practicing Rongoa since they arrived on the shores of New Zealand in 700 AD. Rongoa utilizes over 200 different species of plants.Infusions from the bark of the Manuka bush (Leptospermum Scoparium)were ,and are still use to treat fevers, gastric issues urinary infections and as a sedative.It wasn’t until European colonists arrived and brought domestic bees in the early eighteen-hundreds, that the bio active properties of manuka honey became widely used.Manuka honey has unique anti-bacterial properties as well as antifungal and antiviral. The bio activity occurs from high peroxide levels that remain stable throughout the entire digestive process.This is probably not as ancient as you were looking for but for something that has been used since 700a.d.and is widely in use today its certainly worth mentioning especially since Manuka honeyKills MRSA and there Is no drug resistance from repeated use.I’ve been using it to fight off chronic sinus infections successfully for about a year after surgery failed to alleviate the problem stemming from a nasal concha bullosa and deviated septum . Also not related but if anybody on here suffers from recurrent sinus infections,I’ve worked out a Nifty littleNeti Pot rinseUsing baby shampoo Yeah I know it sounds weird but the surfactant in the shampoo break down the slime layer of the bacterial cell wall,Manuka honey, A.C.V. and a few other things.If anybody wants the exact recipe just say the word and I’ll post it. It works like a charm.

    • dearieme says:

      More likely about 1200 AD.

      • sabracakeboo says:

        When they paddled over from East Polynesia Is currently up for debate. I’m not sure they’ve got it nailed down yet exactly. I’ll have to do some reading it could be closer to 1200. In any case I’m going to go out on a limb and guess they had some sort of herbal knowledge that they added to vs. just starting from scratch at that point

        • Jim says:

          Wikipedia gives 1280 AD as the settlement date for New Zealand and 1500 AD for Chatham Island.

          • sabracakeboo says:

            Yep I’m sure Wikipedia says that but I wouldn’t take it as the gospel.The date has already been moved around a few times. The accepted time was 700 a.d..then around the fifties I think it used to be something like 1400 before the scientific community realized that that was incorrect and moved the date back to 700 a.d. Now carbon dating has them springing forward again to 1200 in a kind of bi-polaresque cake walk. Im going by the oral history of the Maori for now. I dnt argue with the Maori..(.I also wouldn’t call a Samoan wearing skirt a sissy to his face either)But I digress that’s unrelated

    • the cruncher says:

      Sure, I’ll bite – I’ve got a brother who suffers from that.

  23. Douglas Knight says:

    Electroshock therapy.

  24. AppSocRes says:

    Not prehistoric but (1) cataract surgery by the Greeks and Romans and maybe earlier; (2) surgical amputations; (3) treatment of wounds with a variety of naturally occurring antibiotics, e.g., honey and various molds; (4) dental extractions; (5) use of certain warrior ant heads as sutures by various African and South American peoples; (6) bone setting as mentioned by others earlier; (7) various pain killers as mentioned earlier; (8) a large variety of purgatives and emetics that were sometimes used to good effect, e.g., as vermifuges and cures for constipation; (9) A variety of techniques for dealing with parasitic infestations, e.g. guinea worm [a symbol for doctors in classical times was a worm wrapped around a stick]; (10) Ancient and classical military medicine had a variety of advanced techniques for dealing with battle wounds, burns, etc. The Romans had military hospitals better than anything existing up through the early part of the 20th century.

    This is just off the top of my head. There is a lot in Galen and the earlier Egyptian, Babylonia, Greek, Roman, etc. writers that is as applicable today as it was then. We moderns have a tendency to under-rate the amount of human knowledge that built up in ten or twenty thousand years of prehistory and advanced rapidly with pre-scientific civilization.

  25. Anomaly says:

    According to Dorothy Crawford in The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses, some early modern Brits discovered that by scraping off scabs from people with smallpox and inserting bits into a cut in one’s arm, or cutting it up like cocaine and snorting it, some people were innoculated against catching it. In other words, a vaccine was created before the germ theory of disease, and before any of the mechanisms were deeply understood. Trial and error.

  26. Boris Bartlog says:

    One major problem in answering this question is figuring out whether a society that used some particular treatment actually had a good enough decision process to make it useful. For example, amputating a limb can in principle save someone’s life if they have gangrene, but it isn’t clear whether doctors during the US Civil War actually saved lives on net by doing it. Similarly, the trepanning that was performed in many places in prehistoric times could be a useful treatment for subdural hematoma, but I’m highly skeptical that it was used that way. As a general rule I would expect medical professionals (by which I include shamans and witch doctors), in the absence of science, to overshoot i.e. to extend their treatments even to cases where they’re not beneficial.

    • sabracakeboo says:

      The manuka honey is keeping me off antibiotics. I’ve been dealing with some pretty nasty gram negative stuff off and on for yearsAnd I’ve had very good success with it.So far everyone wants to debate when the Maori first arrived in New Zealand .

  27. Pyrrhus says:

    Honey and alcohol as anti-bacterials for wounds. Henry V was treated with such, and he recovered despite a nasty arrow wound.

    • mapman says:

      Honey and alcohol as anti-bacterials for wounds

      Honey for wounds is likely to have killed more than cured. Honey commonly contains C. botulinum spores that thrive under anaerobic conditions. Probably gave gangrene more frequently than inhibited growth of aerobic bacteria.

      The answer to Greg’s question is “some basic surgery, some basic dentistry, and lots and lots of semi-efficacious plant- and fungi-based concoctions”

      • gcochran9 says:

        I don’t think that medicos in Classical times, or for that matter until much later, could deal with any infectious disease. Quinine is the first example (in the western world) of an effective antimicrobial drug, as far as I know.

        • mapman says:

          I don’t know for sure but sphagnum moss (common wound dressing in ancient times) supposedly has some antibacterial properties. Probably better than nothing or mud anyway.

        • st says:

          Really. You give too little credit to ancient medicine (or too much to contemporary). Romans knew about microorganism. The medical doctors in 19th century Vienna didn’t. I wonder how that might have happened since back in the 17th century they knew as well:

          “The following, according to an order published at the end of the seventeenth century, were the measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town.

          First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another, the ‘crows’, who can be left to die: these are ‘people of little substance who carry the sick, bury the dead, clean and do many vile and abject offices’. It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.

          Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: ‘A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance’, guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, ‘as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion’. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels. Every day, the intendant visits the quarter in his charge, inquires whether the syndics have carried out their tasks, whether the inhabitants have anything to complain of; they ‘observe their actions’. Every day, too, the syndic goes into the street for which he is responsible; stops before each house: gets all the inhabitants to appear at the windows (those who live overlooking the courtyard will be allocated a window looking onto the street at which no one but they may show themselves); he calls each of them by name; informs himself as to the state of each and every one of them – ‘in which respect the inhabitants will be compelled to speak the truth under pain of death’; if someone does not appear at the window, the syndic must ask why: ‘In this way he will find out easily enough whether dead or sick are being concealed.’ Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked – it is the great review of the living and the dead.

          This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor At the beginning of the ‘lock up’, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears ‘the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition’: a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call. Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits – deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates. The magistrates have complete control over medical treatment; they have appointed a physician in charge; no other practitioner may treat, no apothecary prepare medicine, no confessor visit a sick person without having received from him a written note ‘to prevent anyone from concealing and dealing with those sick of the contagion, unknown to the magistrates’. The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it.

          Five or six days after the beginning of the quarantine, the process of purifying the houses one by one is begun. All the inhabitants are made to leave; in each room ‘the furniture and goods’ are raised from the ground or suspended from the air; perfume is poured around the room; after carefully sealing the windows, doors and even the keyholes with wax, the perfume is set alight. Finally, the entire house is closed while the perfume is consumed; those who have carried out the work are searched, as they were on entry, ‘in the presence of the residents of the house, to see that they did not have something on their persons as they left that they did not have on entering’. Four hours later, the residents are allowed to re-enter their homes.”

          • gcochran9 says:

            Maybe one Roman suspected that there were microorganisms: in general they had no power over infectious disease, at all. One reason that the Classical world looks better in that respect, up to a certain time, is that really were fewer serious infectious diseases than in more recent time. No smallpox in classical Greece, no malaria in republican Rome, no syphilis, apparently no typhus.

          • Hereward says:

            In Dafoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” the narrator discusses possible means of transmission. He considers and rejects what sounds like germ theory: “…vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures, who enter into the body with the breath, or even at the pores with the air…”

            This put it out of question to me, that the calamity was spread by infection; that is to say, by some certain steams or fumes, which the physicians call effluvia, by the breath, or by the sweat, or by the stench of the sores of the sick persons, or some other way, perhaps, beyond even the reach of the physicians themselves, which effluvia affected the sound who came within certain distances of the sick, immediately penetrating the vital parts of the said sound persons, putting their blood into an immediate ferment, and agitating their spirits to that degree which it was found they were agitated; and so those newly infected persons communicated it in the same manner to others. And this I shall give some instances of, that cannot but convince those who seriously consider it; and I cannot but with some wonder find some people, now the contagion is over, talk of its being an immediate stroke from Heaven, without the agency of means, having commission to strike this and that particular person, and none other—which I look upon with contempt as the effect of manifest ignorance and enthusiasm; likewise the opinion of others, who talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures, who enter into the body with the breath, or even at the pores with the air, and there generate or emit most acute poisons, or poisonous ovae or eggs, which mingle themselves with the blood, and so infect the body: a discourse full of learned simplicity, and manifested to be so by universal experience; but I shall say more to this case in its order.

        • Peter Lund says:

          Didn’t Caesar get malaria as a teenager/young man?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Yes, Suetonius says that Caesar suffered from quartan fever as he hid from Sulla. It is controversial whether we should trust him on this detail because of the centuries in between. Cicero’s letter to Atticus VII 2 is a contemporary source that mentions Atticus sick with quartan.

            But we should be careful about what we mean by “malaria.” On other occasions, Greg was careful to say that it was falciparum that did not reach Republican Rome. Quartan is “benign malaria,” not even as bad as vivax.

    • athEIst says:

      But not for long,
      Henry V died suddenly on 31 August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes, apparently from dysentery,[22] which he had contracted during the siege of Meaux. He was only 36 years old and had reigned for nine years.

    • Hereward says:

      A detailed description of Henry’s treatment:

      Bradmore “devised a pair of hollow tongs the width of an arrowhead with a screw-like thread at the end of each arm and a separate screw mechanism running through the centre. The wound had to be enlarged and deepened before the tongs could be inserted and this was done by means of … large and long probes made from ‘pith of old elder… stitched with purified linen cloth.. infused with rose honey. When Bradmore judged he had reached the bottom of the wound he introduced the tongs at the same angle as the arrow had entered, placed the screw in the centre and maneuvered the instrument into the socket of the arrowhead.’
      henry v
      —The scar Henry V carried from his arrow wound to the face might the a reason why this portrait of him is a profile (side) view.

      In Bradmore’s on words “Then by moving it to and fro (with the help of God) I extracted the arrowhead”. Barker than goes on to recount how ‘he cleansed the wound by washing it out with white wine and placed into it new probes made of wads of flax soaked in cleansing ointment, which he had prepared from an unlikely combination of bread, sops, barley, honey and turpentine oil. These he replaced with new wads every two days with shorter wads until, on the twentieth day, he was able to announce with justifiable pride that ‘the wound was perfectly well cleansed’. A final application of ‘dark ointment’ to regenerate the flesh completed the process”

  28. Bob says:

    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing….

  29. Killing any and all strangers from a distance works wonders as an infectious disease prevention technique. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There had to have been a connection made between infectious diseases and getting too close to people you had never seen before. People had no stinking clue about germs, they just thought strangers had bad mojo. Besides, one dead stranger means one less competitor for food. So in hunter gatherer societies the best medicine is to kill all strangers from a distance. We didn’t monkey around too much with Denisovans, living in hot and humid southeast Asia for eons they must of had lots of nasty diseases moderns had no defense to. So the word got out, kill ’em from a distance. After you kill them, please, they might be fat and tasty but don’t eat them. Kill all strangers from a distance and don’t be a cannibal was the apple a day strategy pre agricultural revolution.

    After the agricultural revolution one domesticated animal, the pig, was the most likely animal to spread disease. The connection was made so the pig was considered loathsome and inedible by many early cultures. There seems to be merit in the connection, most cultures that raised pigs did not experience population collapse while ones not exposed to pigs dropped like flies once exposed to the evil pink omnivores both two and four legged.

    • Jim says:

      “Kill the stranger but do not eat him.”

      Sentinel Islanders kill strangers. I’m not sure whether or not they eat them.

      • sabracakeboo says:

        Besides the ewe gross ick factor, theres the matter of prions. In a population the possibility of a genetic mutation resulting in the whole , kuru or creutzfeldt jakob type folding protein thing makes my brain cringe. Hey! Now that weve killed the fellow, lets all take a bite….and iif all the other guys are eating folks too…i imagine sooner or later youd have everybody in the village teetering around in circles babbling.

  30. Greying Wanderer says:

    Would leeching have worked on Haemachromatosis?

    “The usual treatment is quite simple. Blood is removed from the body on a regular basis”

    I wonder if some ancient remedies worked on one thing and then got used generally.

  31. j says:

    Alcohol. Used from prehistory. I think it does a lot of good in addition to reducing the risk of heart attack and CVI.

  32. melendwyr says:

    We don’t have reliable information about medical techniques in prehistory. A lot of relatively modern folk wisdom has been influenced by relatively modern thinking – concepts like the doctrine of signatures or astrology taint a lot of medical practice, which dispenses with the ancient trial-and-error knowledge gained by ancient peoples. Presumably they had their own magical beliefs, but these tended not to be complex, sophisticated theoretical systems which (since they’re usually wrong) tend to produce complex and complete errors. The value of pragmatism and lack of (incorrect) theory among ‘primitive’ peoples is often underestimated.

  33. Name Withheld says:

    Colchicine – used to treat gout – discovered by the Ancient Greeks.

  34. TWS says:

    Hot springs. Best way to relax as long as it’s clean.

    • Name Withheld says:

      I read a story in a travel book about a guy who cured himself of mustard gas poisoning in WWI by going to hot springs for a couple years and sweating out the toxins.

  35. Maybe not ancient, but quinine is at least pre-modern:

    I’ve read that the Jesuit’s bark is worse than his bite.

  36. Frau Katze says:

    If you’re talking before any written history, how does one know what people were doing?

  37. Leon says:

    Packing a penetrating wound with sugar and treating an earache with olive oil.

  38. oo-ee-oo-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang says:

    sylphium. We can’t know for sure, because it was so wildly popular as an abortifacient that it was hunted to extinction, but the fact that it was hunted to extinction suggests it probably worked out pretty well

  39. Brian says:

    Trigger point therapy.

  40. MawBTS says:


    It seems to have worked. I don’t see many evil spirits around.

    • st says:

      That’s because there’re not many witches left to summon them. Fire.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Northampton, Mass is rife with witches – apparently we didn’t get them all the first time.

        • Those of us who know the place appreciate you mentioning this. (I was born nearby and my brother teaches out there.) If we believed they could kill the cattle or cause barrenness in our daughters we’d still punish them, you know. We’d sue them for millions instead of burning them, but we’d be just as angry. No moral advance since 1692, just different scientific belief.

          Humorous sidenote; When national highschool lacrosse tournaments and wiccan gatherings occur at the same time in the summer in Western MA, the ability of ultra-white people to ignore each other viciously while sharing hotels and restaurants is uproarious.

          • gcochran9 says:

            You know better than that. There’s a fragment of a novel in my head, in which our hero’s minions are shouting ” Burn them! Burn them!”
            He responds ” What kind of savages are you? You know that’s not the American way.
            Hang them. “

          • st says:

            I pulled off the conversation but it does not mean i am not reading it.

          • st says:

            Those of you who are from MA don’t have antiquity.
            Greg’s been asking about ancient medicine.
            Not sure if “antiquity” is the same thing to Greg as it is to me though. When saying “antiquity” he must be thinking G.Bush the Elder and I mean Plini the Elder. Not the same thing.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You are spiritually blind.

    • ohwilleke says:

      Obviously not for the reason practitioners believe, but ancient rituals for addressing supernatural phenomena have a demonstrated efficacy in dealing with mental health conditions that rivals all but the best of the talk therapy approaches for mental health issues.

  41. pam32 says:

    Dracunculiasis (Guinea worm)
    Wrap the emerging end of the worm around a stick and slowly pull it out.
    (3,500 years later, this remains the standard treatment.)

  42. Oliver Cromwell says:

    How many work today?

    Maybe going too far – how many are cost effective? What is that cost effectiveness?

    If we chucked sanitation but kept the whole formal medical industry, would death rates look more like they do today, or more like they did in 1800? Does medicine deserve the credit for the advances it has taken credit for?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Some of the progress is from formal medicine, most is from civil engineering, better nutrition ( ag science and physical chemistry), less crowded housing.

  43. Tolmides says:

    Hippocrates told people to eat in moderation and exercise more. While being based on solid observational data, it worked about as well back then as it does today, no doubt — ie., not at all.

  44. This isn’t strictly prehistory, but Dr Harley studied how the Mano treated patients.;jsessionid=5BF011A95B615A8F4FD93185F7CC1678

  45. Tom bri says:

    Chewing spruce in winter to prevent scurvy: Northern A Indians.
    Isolation and bathing: the Hebrews.
    Foxglove/Digoxin for cardiac ailments: Not sure how far back this goes, but well before scientific medicine.

  46. Dale says:

    There’s a case of chimpanzees: They occasionally pick a leaf off a specific species of tree (one whose leaves they do not ordinarily eat), carefully accordion-fold it, and swallow it whole. Apparently the leaf has lots of little barbs that hook intestinal worms and drag them out.

  47. A. Zeeman says:

    Artemisia for malaria from Chinese medicine.

  48. Peter Lund says:

    I wonder if the yoga internal cleansing thing where they drink mildly salty water in order to empty their intestines reduce the parasite load.

  49. Peter says:

    The BBC reports that “Bald’s leechbook” contains an eye salve that effectively kills MRSA.

    9th century anglo-saxon – not sure if that constitutes “ancient”.

    I heard that the word “leech” meant (at that time) “medicine”, and that the repulsive invertebrates got the name from the meaning “medicine”, (not the other way around, as you might expect.) A good story if it is true.

  50. Fasting
    Sweat bathing (Scythians used after funerals; also sterile place for childbirth)
    Fermentation (alcohol, live culture foods)
    Prayer / meditation (even as a placebo, but also likely real benefits)
    Any belief that kept people from going to a doctor
    Hand washing
    Spending time in the country side (away from city)

  51. ohwilleke says:

    Many food taboos (Kosher, Halal, Hindu) and ritual purity laws were precursors to the germ theory of the disease with similar kinds of benefits although not as great as the germ theory because the theories weren’t as accurate.

  52. Tom Bri says:

    As I was browsing the hospital library, there was a book on display that discussed just this question. Atropine was mentioned as used by the Incas, along with a variety of mind-altering substances, including some that numbed pain.
    Iroquois used sutures.
    Nothing much on really ancient medicine, since little is known, other than that bones were often well-set. I wonder if some ‘drug’ treatments wouldn’t leave long-lasting residues in bones that could be ferreted out.

  53. tommy says:

    Herbal remedies were probably the most productive: Solanaceous plants containing tropane alkaloids from genera like Atropa, Scopalia, Datura, and Mandragora were widely employed in the few ancient Old World remedies that have come down to us. Opium, of course, was also widely used. Milder remedies probably had some limited efficacy: valerian as a mild sedative and what not.

    We know Greek and Egyptian doctors frequently prepared complex combinations of herbs but we know very little about how this might have increased the effectiveness of their cures. We, of course, also know little about the use of more obscure and localized herbs–the ones that haven’t played a big role in the development of the modern pharmacopeia. One might also imagine that ancient civilizations probably experimented with things like alcoholic fermentation of herbs, oxidative “fermentation” of the sort that separates green from black tea, or other methods of modifying their chemical make-up, but we know next to nothing here. In some civilizations, like ancient Egypt, anything that might have been a truly novel development in medicinal “alchemy” might well have been a guarded secret kept by some priesthood.

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