How People In The Past Treated Health Problems

In the past, people treated health problems in diverse ways. In this post, you will find the YouTube video explaining how people in the past treated health problems and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

Poppies for insomnia, cannabis for mental health, cayenne pepper for headaches. Throughout history, we have treated our health problems in a wide variety of ways. This ranged from sweatbaths to surgery to cannibalism. Ancient people thought about medicine, disease, and health in diverse ways, and that could look different depending on the place and time.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist.

In this video, we’re going to explore how ancient people treated health problems in the past, so let’s get into it.

The Ancient World

Ancient Greece: Poppy

Plants have long been harnessed to treat a variety of health problems. The opium poppy was widely used across the Mediterranean, including ancient Greece. This plant was smoked, toasted, ground up, or made into drinks, and was used as an anesthetic, hallucinogenic and narcotic to treat pain and insomnia.

This is a good time to mention that I am not a medical doctor. My Ph.D. is in Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology, and the treatments mentioned today are for educational purposes and not medical advice. 

Okay, now back to poppies.

Ancient Greek texts make many mentions of this plant. Medical treatises, such as those written by well known [00:01:00] physician Hippocrates, describe the variety of ways to prepare the poppy.

Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, even mentions the plant. As when a poppy in the garden drops its head to one side, weighed down with its fruit or with the spring rain, so his head fell to one side under the helmet’s burden.

In ancient Crete and across the eastern Mediterranean, poppies were not only an important medicine, but a powerful symbol of immortality, fertility, wealth, and healing.

Archaeologists working across Greece have recovered artifacts like brooches, hairpins, rings, figurines, and jars depicting a Minoan goddess of poppies. Poppy imagery was also closely associated with Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. These ancient depictions reveal how important the poppy and its byproducts were to ancient Mediterranean life. also shows how closely related medicine, spirituality, and ritual were in antiquity.

Ancient Egypt: Medical Papyri

Much of what we know about ancient medicine comes from Egypt. 

This is a good time to mention that as we take this journey through history, people in the past treated illnesses in a way that made sense to them in their place and time.

[00:02:00] ancient people didn’t have high tech laboratories or microscopes, we know they were knowledgeable and interested in learning more about the human body and how to treat its various ailments.

In fact, ancient medical practitioners in Egypt had a vast knowledge of anatomy, chemistry, physiology, and botany, and were able to accurately diagnose illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Luckily for archaeologists, ancient Egyptian physicians recorded their knowledge on papyri, some of which still survive to this day. These documents reveal how ancient Egyptian physicians treated many illnesses with a combination of magic, surgery, and medicine.

One important document is the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to 1550 BCE. This papyrus describes over 300 medicinal ingredients, many of which are plants and instructions to make nearly 900 concoctions. The Ebers papyrus describes the vascular system and outlines treatments for migraines as well as cardiovascular, gynecological, ophthalmological, and dermatological disorders.

Other [00:03:00] papyri describe diseases like guinea worm disease, schistosomiasis, and malaria, marking some of the earliest descriptions of these infections.

Humoral Theory

Now the ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones who wrote things down. In the ancient Mediterranean, a guiding medical concept was the four humors.

Developed in the writings of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the four humors were based on an even more ancient concept of the four elements, air, earth, fire, and water.

The four humors refer to four bodily fluids, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

 Hippocrates and his followers, such as his fellow ancient Greek physician Galen, believed that all ailments were caused by an imbalance between the humors. Treatments were used to restore balance and order to the body.

This treatment and its concepts gained popularity centuries after it was first written down, but more on that later. We’ve been talking a lot about the Mediterranean, but there’s a lot of ancient health research that extends beyond this region.

Ancient Asia: Cannabis

Archaeological evidence of cannabis, otherwise known as marijuana, from across Asia has been dated to as old as 6, 000 years. Some of the oldest evidence of this plant comes from China. [00:04:00] ways. Its strong fibers were made rope, and paper. Its oily seeds were eaten as a nutritious grain, and it was used as medicine.

Historically, across east Asia, cannabis was smoked, especially as part of ritual and religious practices. Based on archaeological evidence, people in western China smoked cannabis as long as 2, 500 years In addition to smoking the leaves, people use the fruit, roots, and leaves to treat pains, coughs, insomnia, mental illness, and muscle spasms.

Archaeologists working in multiple sites across East and Central Asia have recovered evidence of cannabis use.

In Xi’an, China, archeologists analyzed pollen grains from pottery at a neolithic site. They found pollen grains that were likely deposited by a cannabis plant.

At the Yanghai tombs near Turpan, China, the burial site of a shaman revealed a cache of well preserved 2, 700 year old cannabis.

Ancient Australia & Papua New Guinea: Plant Resin

In addition to leaves and seeds, resin was an important botanical medicine.

Resin is a super sticky substance secreted by trees like [00:05:00] cedar, pine, and spruce and has been used for a variety of purposes across the world. For example, it was an important ingredient in the ancient Egyptian mummification process.

In Australia and Papua New Guinea, resin may have been used as medicine as long as 40,000 years ago. Ancient people extracted resin, gums, and sap from many different trees, including porcupine grass, eucalyptus, and acacia. These substances were valued as a remedy for treating wounds, infection, toothaches, colds, and the flu.

Scientific analysis of aboriginal artifacts revealed the centuries long practice of using resin not only for medicinal purposes, but for ritual use and use as a glue to repair containers and canoes.

Also, the tea tree’s oil or leaves sometimes were mixed with honey and was used as another traditional treatment for infections, colds, and coughs in ancient Australia and Oceania.

North America: Tobacco

Now, in ancient North America, one of the most important medicinal plants was tobacco.

In fact, tobacco was one of the oldest domesticated plants in the Americas, even older than corn. Tobacco was likely first used by the Maya in Central [00:06:00] America, but by the 13th century, the use of tobacco was widespread across the Americas.

The indigenous people of what is now Puerto Rico, introduced the plant to Columbus. used for different purposes in different places. 

At a site in ancestral Nez Perce territory in southeastern Washington State, archaeologists have recovered some of the oldest evidence for smoking tobacco. team of archaeologists conducted biomolecular analysis on residues from the insides of pipes and pipe fragments, and they found that hunter gatherer communities smoked tobacco at least 1, 200 years ago.

Tobacco, along with sweetgrass, sage and cedar, is still considered a sacred medicine by many indigenous communities today, and the use of tobacco is experiencing a modern resurgence.

Mesoamerica: Sweat baths

Now plants were not the only medicinal treatments in the ancient world. Across Central and South America, people built sweat baths to treat a variety of ailments. Much like a sauna, sweat baths were thought to help maladies like coughs, muscle aches, stiffness, skin condition, fevers, and broken bones.

Based on archaeological and historical data, [00:07:00] herbal remedies were likely also taken at swift baths to enhance healing properties. At a classical Maya site in Guatemala, archaeologists excavated an approximately 1,500 year old central marketplace, which includes a series of stone sweat baths.

They conducted pollen analysis on artifacts and human teeth from the site, and they found evidence of pollen grains from the sunflower family alongside traces of pine resin, which were used to treat toothaches.

Macro botanical analysis revealed evening primrose, which was used to treat infection and inflammation, as well as peppers which were used to treat respiratory conditions.

The archeologists argue that these plants were given in conjunction with steam from the sweat bats as a healing treatment.

Andes: Trepanning

Now, did you know that there’s archeological evidence of neurosurgery on every continent except Antarctica?

A practice called trepanning, which is when a physician makes a hole in the skull of a living person, was actually pretty common across the world.

This is a good time to mention that I’ll be talking about human remains in this part of video and some later parts, but I won’t show any actual images of human remains.

Okay, now back to trepanning.

Trepanning was generally used as a treatment for headaches, [00:08:00] epilepsy, skull fractures, and mental illness. The practice of trepanning can be readily seen in the archaeological record because holes and skulls are pretty easily seen but how effective was it?

Archaeologists working at archaeological burial sites near Cusco, Peru, conducted a survey of the remains of 66 individuals with trepanning holes and found that 83 percent of them had survived their surgery.

They also found that surgeons sharpened their skills as survival rates increased over time.

Andean neurosurgeons were extremely knowledgeable about human anatomy.

Almost 3, 000 years ago, they were able to avoid damaging certain areas of the brain that they knew would inflict irreparable damage.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages and Medieval Period, medical practice was still very much based on ancient beliefs.

The concept of the four elements and the four humors continued to guide physicians as they diagnosed and treated their patients. At this period in time, medicine, magic, and the supernatural were deeply interconnected.

Middle East: Medical texts

Much of what we know about medieval period medicine comes from texts written by Muslim [00:09:00] physicians in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Doctors working in this area had advanced medical knowledge and technology that built upon ancient Greek texts.

A brilliant 11th-century Persian physician named Abu Ali al Sina, also known by his Latinized name Avicenna, spent years translating Greek texts into Arabic, earning him modern comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci.

His translations became foundational texts for physicians across Southwest Asia and Europe. Illustrated texts from the medieval Muslim world still survive today. These documents include comprehensive medical encyclopedias that describe human anatomy and detail inventions that are still used today, like the surgical needle and the syringe.

Mediterranean & Arab World: Spices

In the past and even today, spices have been used not just to flavor food, but as medicine. Some of the most widely used spices originated in tropical regions, especially Asia and Africa, but were spread across the world via major trade networks throughout history.

Archaeologists working at a port site on the Red Sea in Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt, conducted botanical analysis and found the remains of [00:10:00] four important spices. Ginger, which was used as a digestive aid, black pepper used to treat fever, cardamom used to banish colds and bronchitis, and turmeric used as an anti-inflammatory and to treat asthma.

The study is important because it not only shows the importance of spices, but the complex and lively trade between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean world over hundreds of years. The study is important not only because it shows the importance of spices, but it also demonstrates the complex and lively trade between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean world over hundreds of years.

Poland: Animal-based medicines

Now, when it comes to medicinal ingredients, we mainly have focused on plants so far, but animals were also an important source of medicine in the past. For example, we have evidence that ancient physicians used to grind up bones, antlers, and eggshells into powder and used them to treat various ailments.

In Poland, archaeologists working at an early medieval site recovered an unusual kind of artifact. They found the fossilized remains of belemnites, which is an extinct order of squid like [00:11:00] animals.

In the Slavic world at this time, scrapings from belemnites were thought to cure a variety of ailments including burns, headaches, fevers, and warts. These archaeologists noticed wear marks in belemnites and they suggested that this could be evidence of physicians scraping these fossils into therapeutic powders.

16th-18th Centuries

Around the 15th and 16th century, a concept called the Doctrine of Signatures gained popularity in Europe and the American colonies.

this time also drew from the idea that plants had certain characteristics, hot, dry, wet, or cold, that reflected each of the four humors. If you were unbalanced, you represented one of the four temperaments, sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, or choleric. They believe that depending on your illness, certain treatments like bloodletting or herbs could help balance you out and restore your health.

Now, by the 17th century, some major discoveries had been made that laid the groundwork for what we now recognize as modern science, especially the invention of the microscope. In 1677, Dutch merchant and microbiologist [00:12:00] Antony van Leeuwenhoek described tiny wriggling critters that he called animalcules under a microscope.

These animalcules that he observed were protozoa and bacteria. Leeuwenhoek reported his findings to the Royal Society in London and sparked a new era in medicine by demonstrating that there is a microscopic world that we cannot see with the naked eye.

Austria: Alchemy workshop

Now it’s important to note that throughout much of history, magic and medicine were one and the same.

The practice of alchemy encapsulated this worldview through a combination of superstition, anatomy, chemistry, and metallurgy. Alchemy drew from the four humors and the four elements using specialized equipment to transform metals and chemicals into treatments to restore balance to the body.

A 16th century archaeological site in Oberstockstall, Austria, revealed an alchemist’s workshop containing over a thousand fragments of ceramic and glass instruments, many of which would have been familiar to chemists today, like flasks, crucibles, and alambics.

 This exceptional site provides archaeologists and intimate look into the life of an alchemist who lived [00:13:00] over 500 years ago.

Victorian England: Eating Mummies

When you think of Victorian England, maybe you think of the British Empire, fancy dresses, romantic literature, and eating mummies.

That’s right, in the 19th century, Egyptian mummies were stolen, pulverized, and consumed as a panacea for a variety of ailments. The 19th century craze in England of eating mummies was actually not the first time people used mummies as a medicinal treatment. In the 12th century, apothecaries in Europe and Asia used ground up mummies as an ingredient. In fact, medicinal cannibalism, the therapeutic consumption of human blood, bones, or other body parts, was not all that uncommon throughout history.

However, the Victorian fad of eating mummies significantly destroyed important Egyptian cultural heritage and affected the archeological record.

One of the reasons authentic ancient Egyptian mummies are rare today is because so many of them were looted, stolen, or otherwise shadily acquired by Victorian travels and turned into powder in the 19th century.

The 19th Century

Now, by the mid 1800s, science based medicine as we know it was beginning to take [00:14:00] shape. By the close of the 19th century, German microbiologist Robert Koch, French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, and other scientists had laid the groundwork for germ theory, the concept that illness is caused by microscopic agents including bacteria, protozoa, and It’s important to note that this theory was quite revolutionary and also quite unpopular for some time.

Now, by the 19th century, companies started to produce patent medicine, that is, prepackaged medication available over the counter without a prescription. At first patent medicines were loosely regulated and contained substances that could cause adverse reactions depending on the dosage. So things like alcohol, opium, toxic metals, and cocaine.

Boston: Birth Control

Now, in the 19th and early 20th century, birth control as we know it didn’t exist.

In fact, the birth control pill wasn’t invented until 1950. Throughout most of history, people relied on a few different methods of contraception, including herbs, patented medicines, and physical barriers.

At the site of a late 19th century brothel in Boston’s North end neighborhood. A team of archeologists recovered [00:15:00] fragments of glass vaginal syringes that sex workers likely use to clean themselves after a rendezvous with clients. this was a common method for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. 

At the same brothel, archeologists also found glass patent medicine bottles, including some for hair tonic. In the 19th century, the beauty standard was long, glossy hair, and having short hair was a sign of uncleanliness. The sex workers at this brothel likely put in a significant amount of time, money, and effort into maintaining their long hair.

Hawaii: Hansens’ disease settlements

While the 2020 COVID pandemic was the first time that many of us experienced a lockdown, this wasn’t the first time quarantining methods had been used for disease control.

 For centuries, people who had Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy, were ostracized from mainstream society and often forcibly placed into isolated settlements.

One of the most well known of these colonies was located in the island of Molokai in Hawaii. Archaeologists conducted excavations at the Hansen’s Disease Settlement on this island to peek into the daily [00:16:00] lives of the people who in many cases spent the majority of their lives in this isolated location.

Many glass patent medicine bottles were excavated from the settlement containing substances like cod liver oil and opium. These medicines, as well as diet, were the leading method for controlling the symptoms and spread of Hansen’s disease.

American South: Teas

Patent medicines were very popular in the 18th century.

Some people use them as a replacement for traditional remedies, while other people saw them as a supplement that could be used alongside traditional treatments. In the late 19th century in the American South, African American midwives had encyclopedic knowledge about plant medicine and how to treat an array of ailments, including those related to pregnancy and childbirth.

At a plantation site in Louisiana, an archeological study revealed that African American midwives likely used a combination of home brewed medicinal remedies and patent medicines. Modern descendants of African American midwives described the botanical medicines their ancestors concocted. These included teas made from elderberry leaves to treat rheumatism, [00:17:00] boiled sage for headaches, and cayenne pepper for fever.

Archaeological analysis revealed evidence of the use of patent medicine. Artifacts, like Vaseline jars and glass bottles that were once filled with witch hazel are some of the archaeological clues we have of that use of patent medicine in the past. This combination of evidence shows the complexity of 19th-century medicinal practices, which is still relevant to this day.

In many cultures, medicinal knowledge and practices have been handed down from generation to generation and still persist in some form to this day. The World Health Organization estimates that 88 percent of countries continue to use some form of traditional medicine.

Outro

In fact, there are growing public health initiatives that integrate traditional medicine approaches with science based treatments to help people, especially those who have been historically marginalized by modern medical practices.

Now we’ve mentioned a lot of information, and if your curiosity has been piqued and you’re curious to investigate some of the case studies in more detail, we’ll have that all linked below in a blog post.

[00:18:00] Now if you’re interested in learning more about how we learn about specific diseases in the archaeological record, check out this video over here. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you in the next one.

Additional References

How Did Ancient People Treat Health Problems? Part I

The Air of History: Early Medicine to Galen (Part I) – PMC 

The Air of History (Part II) Medicine in the Middle Ages – PMC 

Finding Medieval Medicine Through Archaeobotany: An Ontological Approach

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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