top of page

Medicine in Prehistoric Times

If we consider that medicine is a conscious effort to treat diseases, it follows that this branch of science is as old as human consciousness, but since we do not have documentary evidence, we can only speculate about what it was like in the early days of medicine. However, when examined in the light of the evidence presented by palaeontology and anthropology, as well as research in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is revealed that the origins of medicine extend to magic and religious practices. The average age of people in the prehistoric period was between 30 and 40 years old, based on bone data. All studies have shown that men lived longer than women. This is due to the burden that pregnancy and childbirth events bring to women. Seeing that the people around him are under the influence of some unknown forces, prehistoric man begins to believe that the unknowns that cause pain, such as illness and death, are the work of evil spirits. On the other hand, he also thinks that there are good souls who do the good things in life. He tries to appease these events, which are supernatural for him, through worship and offerings. Over time, sorcerers emerge who claim to know how to appease the stars and evil spirits, and to know poisons and herbs. Thus, from these instinctive and empirical practices, a field of "magic medicine" is born. In addition, boys were better fed than girls because they would be hunters when they grew up. Çatalhöyük mother goddess figurine from the Neolithic age (ca. 6500-5700 BC). In terms of medical history, it is one of the earliest examples of birth. Sorcerers were the first to pierce the skulls of living things with surgical instruments. As a result of the examinations made on many skulls found in various parts of the world, it is understood that the circumference of the punctured site has lost its sharpness, the bone tissues have healed over time, and the patients have survived these surgeries.


The origin of the Mesopotamian civilization dates back to the community that lived in Southern Mesopotamia and was called the Sumerians. By 3500 B.C., the Sumerians had first developed many of the features that could be observed in the civilizations that would emerge in later years. The full beginning of civilization is considered to be 3100 BC, the date when cuneiform writing began. Cuneiform was developed by the Sumerians and involved making wedge-shaped shapes on moist clay tablets. Information on Mesopotamian medicine was obtained from Akkadian texts that used Sumerian medical knowledge. Today, only two texts on Sumerian medicine have been found. One of them includes a single medicine recipe. The other contains fifteen medicine recipes. Drugs can be divided into three groups according to the way they are administered. In the first group there are porridges, which include 8 drug recipes. In general, the substances on the list are pulverized. Then a poultice is made with a liquid, and the place where the wound is is plastered with oil, then wrapped with poultice. As ancient documents show, Sumerian physicians used vegetable, animal and mineral resources as raw materials. The most well-known minerals are; table salt (sodium chloride), saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and crude oil. Of the animal products, wool, milk, tortoise shell and water snake were used. However, the vast majority of pharmaceutical products came from herbal products. Thyme, mustard, plums, pears, figs, willows, persimmons, myrtles, firs, mints, figs and pine, and processed products such as beer, wine and vegetable oil are understood to be used. The greatest work of medical treatment obtained from ancient Mesopotamia is known as "Medical Diagnosis and Treatment". Diagnostic-based treatment is organized and compartmentalized for all diseases from head to toe (such as digestive problems, gynaecology and paediatric diseases).


As far as the tablets are learned, there were two types of professional medical practitioners in ancient Mesopotamia. The first type was called "ashipu". In earlier records of Mesopotamian medicine, they were often called sorcerers. Their major function was to diagnose the disease. In the case of internal diseases, ashipu determined which god or demon caused the disease. The other type of professional medical practitioner is "Asu". This person is an expert in herbal medicine, and for that time he can also be described as a doctor in a sense. For example, when treating a wound, Asu performs three basic practices; washing, bandaging and closing the wound. All three techniques are the oldest known medical methods in the world (c. 2100 BC). Asu's knowledge of preparing bandages is remarkable. These ancient bandages, which had therapeutic properties, included some complex applications such as heating vegetable resin or animal fat with alkali. When this mixture was heated, soap was obtained, which could help in eliminating bacterial infection. Although the relationship between Ashipu and Asu is not certain, it is highly likely that they worked together to heal the patient.


A significant part of ancient Mesopotamian medicines was devoted to herbal medicines. The vast majority of identifiable medicines are herbal extracts, resins or spices, and many have antibiotic and antiseptic properties. According to the information obtained from clay tablets, Mesopotamians in the treatment of their diseases; cereals, vegetables, parts of trees, spices, various weeds, for example; They benefited from plant sources such as Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomun cassia), myrtle tree (Myrstus communis), devilwort (Ferulaasa-foetida), thyme (Thymus sp.), willow (Salix sp.), pear (Pyrus communis), fir (Abies), fig (Ficus carica), date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), poppy (Papaver somniferum), banon (Hyoscyamus), oak thuja (Gallae Quercinae), mint (Mentha), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), saffron (Crocus), mandrake (Mandragora), mustard (Sinapis). In the Akkadians and Sumerians, it is seen that beer and milk were used as a medium for melting and mixing medicines. As a result, some successful basic practices of medicine, such as bandaging, and the establishment of libraries containing medical texts first started in Mesopotamia. In addition to magic and divination practices, they also resorted to various methods that can be considered more scientific and influenced many civilizations that came after them.


In the Nile valley, medicine was mostly practiced to save the sick from evil spirits, and all methods of treatment were revealed by the Gods through revelation. A spirit, God, or the spirit of a deceased person could cause the illness of a living person. Egyptian shaman-doctors had two important functions. First, to discover the nature of this harmful influence on the person, and then to chase it or destroy it. This was a spell that included some rituals, prayers, and supplications. Some herbs were also used to reduce pain while the spell was going on. Egyptian medicine, although it used practical cures, herb mixtures, minerals, and various animal parts, was very magical-religious.


While the people of ancient Mesopotamia wrote their medical texts on clay tablets, texts containing medical subjects written on papyri have been found in Ancient Egypt. Unearthed in Cairo in 1873, Ebers' papyri, thought to date from 1553-1550 BC, is probably a collection of texts created during the time of the first eight rulers who built the pyramids of Cheops, Khafre and Mikerinos in the ancient empire (3200-2360 BC). There are a large number of (877) recipes and preparations of medicines in this valuable historical work. Here we see how many herbs were used by ancient herbalists, such as poppy, flax, castor oil, cumin, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, flaxseed, and aloe. Bunches of garlic have been found in Egyptian tombs, including Tutankhamun's temple. In another papyrus, there are various prescriptions for the treatment of wounds, fractures and dislocations. The Egyptians used birch boards wrapped in bandages for fractures. It was also understood that the lesions on the right or left side of the head were related to paralysis in the opposite directions of the body. In the papyri found, there are also expressions that predict the outcome. In one of the papyri, the treatment of a disease is described as follows: "When I touch it, I think that a vascular tumour in the form of a callus, hard as a stone, is the kind that can be treated with surgical methods. After the operation, burn the wound so that it does not bleed too much. An interesting part of his papyri are healing prayers and sayings. Before drinking an herbal mixture, a person should say: "Come, my cure. Get this devil out of me that has entered my stomach and joints." Many methods are described in the treatments mentioned in the texts: pills, poultices, massages, eye drops, mouthwashes, steam inhalations. In addition to herbs that obviously had therapeutic properties, the Egyptians did not hesitate to add animal, mineral, and other things to their pharmacopoeia (lists of medicines). A good medicine would contain substances such as meat, fat, blood, milk, animal excrement, mud, and powdered leaves and roots of plants. The Ramasseum papyrus, one of the oldest medical papyri in Egypt, was found in two parts. It was written during the 12th – 13th dynasties (1991-1640 BC). The first part of the papyrus is about maternity wards and newborn children, while the second part is about rheumatism and joint diseases. In this papyrus, scientific medicine and magic therapy are mixed. The Hearst papyrus, which contains common sections with the Ebers Papyrus, deals with the dressing of fractures and dislocations.


Garlic (Allium sativum):

In his writings, Herodotus mentions that the people who worked on the construction of the pyramids ate large amounts of onions and garlic. Garlic was an important source of healing for the Ancient Egyptians, as it is today. Raw garlic was often given to asthmatics and other people with bronchial-lung problems. Fresh garlic would be crushed well in equal parts vinegar and water. This mixture was drunk for gargling, rinsing the mouth, or relieving some wounds and toothache. Garlic has been relieving internal and external pain, giving health, supporting digestion, stimulating sexual desire, relieving insomnia and scavenging from parasites. Among other plants used by the Egyptians are:

Cumin seeds (Cunimun cyminum):

Its seeds are stimulating (stimulating) and carminative (relieving intestinal gases).

Cumin powder was mixed with a small amount of wheat (as a retainer) and water and used to relieve the pain of aching joints. Powdered cumin was mixed with tallow or lard and used to relieve itching in the form of suppositories from the anus.

A teaspoon of powdered cumin was mixed with a small amount of honey and warm milk and used to stop coughing.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum):

It was widely used by Ancient and Modern Egyptians. It has a refreshing, stimulating, stomachic, carminative and digestive effect supporting. Both the fruit and the plant have been used as a spice and as a tea in urinary diseases, including cystitis.

Apart from these, other medicinal plants mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus are:

Plants such as bitter lettuce, sage, juniper berry, bana, crocus, mustard, castor oil, fig, gentian, flax seeds, elderberry, pomegranate peel, wormwood, saffron, mastic, garlic, onion, cinnamon, terementi, grapes have been used in medicine making.


The most elite stratum of medical practice was the highly educated priests. The first important physician we know about is Imhotep, the vizier of King Coser (Djoser) and the architect of the Step Pyramid. Magic was an important part of the life of the Egyptians. Only by magic can the cause of a disease be found and completely eradicated. A sorcerer could heal with his own powers and unique methods. However, there are not many records of the achievements of sorcerers in the texts. Thanks to archaeological excavations, information about the health and hygiene of the Egyptian people was collected. Tuberculosis, chickenpox, and measles was common. In addition to these, tetanus and parasitic diseases are present. Many people suffer from joint rheumatism and arteriosclerosis. A man found in the cemetery of Nag-el-Deir (220 BC) was diagnosed with cancer. Pneumonia, gout, high blood pressure is known diseases during this period.



Just as the Egyptians were master surgeons, Egyptian dentists were adept at draining abscesses. Gold fillings are used for teeth. Mixtures of resin and malachite were used for filling. Warm drops are made for eyes that are constantly exposed to dust and unhygienic conditions, and they have struggled with trachoma and cataract diseases.


In ancient Egypt, mummification was not carried out by priest-doctors, but by those working in the house of the dead. In one of the medical papyri, a description of a person "with an open and large wound on the head" is given. The details of this definition indicate that the physician carefully observes the membrane surrounding the brain, the folds of the brain and the fluid around it. The brain, intestines and other vital organs are removed and removed, which are washed in wine and then placed in jars made of alabaster, together with herbs. The cavities of the corpse are filled with fragrances, fragrant resins, and the corpse is sewn up.


bottom of page