The Secrets of Ancient Medicine explains the origins of medical practices in various cultures.
“The first physician who is known to have counted the pulse, Herophilos of Alexandria (born 300 B.C.), lived in Egypt.” James Henry Breasted, author
In this article, we take a brief look at the history, origins, and commonalities between ancient medicinal wisdom. This review can be used as a basis for understanding modern medicine and how we integrate ancient healing philosophies into the 21st century.
What Healing Approach Came First?
The timeline and history of ancient medicine are up for debate and speculation. Many believe it started with the Egyptians. Some think that it dates back further to the indigenous cultures of Australia, South America, India, and Northern America. This question of who came first falls in line with the chicken or the egg scenario. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which came first, but rather which approach is most effective to sustain and maintain health. In addition, which modalities help people heal when they do find themselves in a state of disease or trauma.
We will go into each ancient approach in further detail as this blog evolves, but for now, try and connect the dots forward. Look for the similarities between different cultures and how modern medicine still utilises some of these approaches. We also look at the possibility that we may have forgotten some very simple principles as we became more technologically advanced.
1. Prehistoric Medicine
Prehistoric medicine refers to medicine before humans could read and write. It covers a vast period, which varies according to regions and cultures. Anthropologists, people who study the history of humanity, can only make calculated guesses at what prehistoric medicine was like. This is done by collecting and studying human remains and artifacts. They have sometimes extrapolated data from observations of certain indigenous populations today and over the last hundred years whose lives have been isolated from other cultures.
People in prehistoric times would have believed in a combination of natural and supernatural causes and treatments for conditions and diseases.
There may have been some trial and error in developing effective treatments. However, they would not have taken into account several variables scientists factor in today. These include coincidence, lifestyle, family history, and the placebo effect.
Archaeological evidence of cannibalism also exists among some of the prehistoric communities. Meaning they must have known about our inner organs and where lean tissue or fat predominates in the human body. Most likely, they believed that their lives were determined by spirits.
2. Indigenous Aboriginals
Indigenous medicine is arguably the oldest form of medicine and healing, as it is attributed to perhaps the oldest living cultures in the 21st century.
Findings detailed today in the journal Science, studied the DNA of Australian Aboriginals. Researchers found that their ancestors had split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa, 64,000 to 75,000 years ago. Dr. Joe Dortch, a scientist at UWA, says the discovery turns on its head the existing theory that Aboriginals arrived here less than 50,000 years ago.
Looking into indigenous practices for medicine, Dr. Francesca Panzironi came to Australia several years ago. She studied how international legal standards related to Aboriginal traditional medicine. She was amazed at the lack of research or recognition of this 40,000-year-old body of knowledge.
“These are really highly spiritual people. Their world view is very different to the western model. To them, the spirit world is very real, rather than our western model which is based around germ theory.” Dr. Panzirnoi
In South Australia, Dr. Panzironi found that traditional health knowledge was still alive and well and working in a contemporary setting. There, Ngangkari healers work alongside doctors and medical staff in community clinics and hospitals. They often visit Adelaide to attend to Indigenous hospital patients. In the mental health area, their involvement in the care of Aboriginal people is even enshrined in state law. Ngangkari deal with everything from childhood illnesses to loss of spirit.
“They focus a lot on pain relief, pain management, and spiritual disorders,” explains Panzironi, “so when people feel sick or weak, they may say the spirit is not there, or it’s not in the right place. Through massage and using special powerful sacred tools they are able to return the spirit to its rightful place.”
A local indigenous Aboriginal healer, Cyril McKenzie is from Ernabella in the northern South Australian desert. He says he’s been doing the job since he was “a young fella.” He states, “When I was five years old I started healing, and when I grew up then I started work at the clinics, and then in mental health.”
Unlike modern medicine, McKenzie says he learnt his skills from his grandfather, uncle, and mother.
Babylonian Medicine: Theory and Practice by Markham Geller examines the way medicine was practiced by various Babylonian professionals of the 2nd and 1st millennium B.C.
For the Greeks, the physician healed the body and wisdom of the mind.
There is a vague parallel in Babylonian medicine with the asû tending to symptoms of a disease and the exorcist treated the psyche (mind).
While ‘philosophy’ might not have been the domain of the Babylonians, change and innovation did occur. This happened most drastically in the second half of the first millennium.
This was a period when astrology came to influence scholarship more broadly and in medicine. There were even attempts to place the cause of disease within the body, rather than ascribing it to supernatural forces.
There is evidence that the Hellenistic Babylonian schools were reinterpreting and explaining the received medical texts. Such evidence strongly suggests that theory was part of the teaching and learning procedures in the scribal schools of this period. The division between medicine and magic was gone, and that exorcists, in particular, studied all areas of Babylonian science.
4. Native Americans
The healing traditions of Native Americans go back for thousands of years. As the many indigenous tribes of North America learned that by mixing herbs, roots, and other natural plants, they could heal various medical problems. But remedies were not the only part of the Native American healing process.
With more than 2,000 tribes of indigenous people in North America, the healing practices varied widely from tribe to tribe. These practices involved various rituals, ceremonies, and a diverse wealth of healing knowledge.
While there were no absolute standards of healing, most tribes believed that health was an expression of the spirit and a continual process of staying strong spiritually, mentally, and physically. Each person was responsible for his or her own health, and all thoughts and actions had consequences.
Herbal remedies filled an important role within these healing practices. They stretched beyond the body’s aches and pains and into the realm of the spirituality and harmony.
The major difference between Native American healing and conventional medicine, both in the past and present, is the role of spirituality in the healing process. Today, modern medicine focuses only on science and the mechanistic view of the body. However, many Native Americans continue to include the spirit as an inseparable element of healing.
Referred to as healers, Medicine Men, or Medicine Women by their tribes, these many healers’ primary role was to secure the help of the spirit world. This was focused especially on the “Creator” or “Great Spirit,” for the benefit of the community or an individual.
Masks, which were often grotesque and hideous, were worn by healers to frighten away the spirit causing the disease or pain. Beating drums and shaking rattles while dancing around the patient were also used to exorcise any demons. In addition to herbal remedies, suction tubes or cups were also used by many healers, as well as purging and purification.
5. Ancient Egyptians
The ancient Egyptian word for doctor is “swnw.” This title has a long history. The earliest recorded physician in the world, Hesy-Ra, practiced in ancient Egypt. He was “Chief of Dentists and Physicians” to King Djoser, who ruled in the 27th century BC.
Ancient Egypt, 3300 BC to 525 BC, is where we first see the dawn of what, today, we call “medical care.” Egyptians thought gods, demons, and spirits played a key role in causing diseases. Many doctors at the time believed that spirits blocked channels in the body and affected the way it functioned.
Their medical practices involved trying to find ways to unblock the “Channels.” Gradually, through a process of trial and error and some basic science, the profession of a “doctor of medicine” emerged. Ancient Egyptian doctors used a combination of natural remedies combined with prayer.
Archaeologists have found Papyri, thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, where Egyptians documented a vast amount of medical knowledge. They found that they had fairly good knowledge about bone structure, and were aware of some of the functions of the brain and liver.
6. Ancient Chinese
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which dates back 2,500 years, has a long and rich history. It is also believed to be the third oldest form of medicine. The fact that TCM has existed for thousands of years, and is still used today is a testament to its value as a form of healthcare.
There are four key principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Firstly, the human body is a miniature version of the larger, surrounding universe.
Secondly, harmony between two opposing yet complementary forces, called yin and yang, supports health, and disease results from an imbalance between these forces.
Next, five elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during disease.
Finally, Qi, a vital energy that flows through the body, performs multiple functions in maintaining health.
TCM encompasses many different practices, commonly including acupuncture and Tai Chi.
7. Indian Ayurveda
Ayurvedic Medicine is a simple, natural approach to taking care of the body. It takes into consideration the entire framework of the human body including body, soul, and spirit.
Ayurveda is a medical science dealing not only with treatment of some diseases, but it is a complete way of life. Ayurveda aims to make a happy, healthy, and peaceful society. The two most important aims of Ayurveda are to maintain wellness in healthy people and to cure the diseases of sick people.
Watch this video about the history behind Ayurveda.
8. Aztecs and Incas
The earliest Mexican civilization to leave traces in the central plateau around 955 BC was the Olmec. However, most of the Aztec cultural achievements were inherited from the Toltecs who arrived at Colhuacan in AD 908 and founded their capital Tula in 977.
The medical doctrines and practices of the Aztecs were permeated by profound religious elements. The mother of the gods, Teteoinam or Toci, was the goddess of medicine and medicinal herbs. She was worshiped by physicians, surgeons, phlebotomists, midwives and those women using herbs for abortions.
The anatomical terminology of the Aztecs, showing a detailed nomenclature and knowledge of the exterior and much less of the interior parts of the human body. This seems to have been the result of the extensive practice of human sacrifice by the priests.
Disease, particularly those of a serious nature, were thought to be sent by the gods as a punishment for sin. Occasionally it was believed that they had been induced by enemies. Only in certain instances were natural causes given as the true origin of a disease.
9. Ancient Greeks
Hippocrates was born around 460 BC on the island of Kos, Greece. He became known as the founder of medicine and was regarded as the greatest physician of his time. He rejected the views of his time that considered illness to be caused by superstitions and by possession of evil spirits and disfavour of the gods.
Hippocrates held the belief that the body must be treated as a whole and not just a series of parts. He accurately identified disease symptoms.
He was also the first physician to accurately describe the symptoms of pneumonia, as well as epilepsy in children. He believed in the natural healing process of rest, a good diet, fresh air, and cleanliness. This influenced Greek medicine and carried on into modern times.
10. Ancient Romans
Roman medicine was greatly influenced by earlier Greek medical practice and literature. Yet it would also make its own unique contribution to the history of medicine through the work of such famous experts as Galen and Celsus. Whilst there were professional doctors attached to the Roman army, for the rest of the population, medicine remained a private affair.
The most influential work on drugs was “Materia Medica” by Dioscurides of Anazarbus written in the 1st century CE. In it, Dioscurides mentions a vast number of herbal and plant remedies. Among these were such medicinal classics as poppy juice and the autumn crocus, containing morphine and colchicine respectively.
As with the Greeks, the Romans had no official medical training or qualifications. There was no orthodox medical approach. Methods and materials were down to the individual practitioner who gained the confidence of his patients through the accuracy of his diagnosis and prognosis case by case.
11. Medieval Medicine
One of the prevailing theories about disease in medieval medicine was that of the four humours.
The idea was that the body had four bodily fluids, yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. These were used to analyse the state of a person’s health.
Another belief that was prevalent was that disease was carried by smell. So avoiding anything with a bad smell such as rotting flesh was seen as prudent. To protect themselves in times of epidemics, medieval doctors often carried with them something with a nice smell such as posies. They believed it would counteract the bad smell and prevent them from catching the disease themselves.
Astrology and the stars also played a part in healing practices. For example, during the first plague epidemic, between 1348 – 1350, the Pope’s doctor, Guy de Chauliac, believed it to be caused by a conjunction of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter. He also correctly deduced that poor diet would make people more susceptible to disease.
Despite the appearance of a few universities in Europe, most learning took place in the monasteries. The monks believed in the need for divine intervention for healing the sick. They tended to see it as a punishment from God or even demonic possession.
Hospitals began to appear in the monasteries to help the sick and dying. The earliest was in the monastery of St Gall, built in 820.
The idea grew over time, and by the twelfth century, many larger hospitals were being built across Europe, mostly by Church institutions.
12. Modern Medicine
Modern medicine has produced four advances which have drastically changed the ways of human life. First, preventive medicine had phenomenal success. This began with the infant welfare movement. In the nineteenth century, a series of victories was celebrated over infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
Second, surgery became more sophisticated.
Third, scientific understanding developed of the pathogenesis of endocrine and metabolic diseases. Prevention, control, and cure of these disorders were made possible.
Fourth, the discovery of chemotherapeutic agents has been highly effective in destroying microbial pathogens. This has greatly reduced mortality from infectious disease.
However, considering all the practices, methods and approaches above. How well is it working?
We have seen an increase in people’s length of life for many developing countries. While at the same time we’re seeing a reduction in quality of life in developed countries associated with many chronic preventable diseases. Perhaps, we know enough to balance the scales? We can do that by promoting a fine balance between both length and quality of life.
What is the Future of Medicine?
We believe the future of medicine is an integrated, personalised approach, with a focus on treating the whole person within the context of their environment. Health and wellness will not simply be measured by the absence of disease, but by someone’s overall well-being. This encompasses their health, their happiness, their sense of connection to themselves and the people around them.
At Fill Your Cup, we want to be part of this new dawn. We would like to see a person-centred approach to health and wellness that promotes empowerment and active self-management through education and informed choice. We will pride ourselves on being based on the best available evidence while modeling the strategies getting the best outcomes for the individuals we are serving.
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