(The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book Messed Up!  ©2015 Scott Davis, All Rights Reserved to Author )


I’ve already mentioned the plethora of ideas regarding one variety or another of the Afterlife, and there’s no doubt that early man found these notions greatly comforting. Still, as the Theologian/Priest/Shaman was forced to admit, these ideas really only applied to the Next Life – and there were two major objections associated with the whole afterlife idea.

First, and most obviously, you had to DIE. Usually horribly: under the very best circumstances, Neanderthals had a life-span of maybe 40 years – far too young to develop heart-disease, cancer, or any of the other metabolic issues we typically associate with seniors, today.  The depressing fact was that Neanderthals were likely to die of A) Exposure, B) Starvation, C) Infection, or D) Cave Bears. None of them were nice ways to go, and people became convinced that, if there were another alternative, it would likely be preferable.

The second problem with the whole afterlife idea was that no one was certain. Oh, sure, the Shaman seemed pretty convinced of it, but no one had ever come back and reported on conditions after death. Particularly not after they’d been thoroughly buried.

More and more, people began demanding some means of avoiding – or at least delaying – the whole appointment with destiny thing.  You could avoid exposure by living in a nice cave, with lots of other people, at least one of whom knew how to start a fire without matches. You could avoid starvation by hanging out with really good hunters, and availing yourself of the very latest in rocks and fire-sharpened sticks. That left Infections, and Cave Bears – and it was quickly noticed that, even if someone managed to survive an encounter with a Cave Bear, the chances were good that they’d have some pretty impressive wounds, likely enough full of Cave Bear slobber, which were almost certain to develop seriously nasty infections!

What was needed was some way to keep mortality at bay – and, since the Shaman wasn’t going to be doing anything until it was time for the funeral, he seemed the logical choice for handling this issue. The Witch-Doctor was born.

There were two serious drawbacks to entrusting your life to a Priest or Shaman: First, since they were so convinced they had the whole afterlife-thing scoped-out, they had very little incentive to keep you alive; second, being religious, they tended to blame nearly everything on “Evil Spirits” or “The Will of the Gods”.  As a consequence, treatments tended to be spiritual, rather than physical, and there was no such thing as malpractice: if the patient died, it was “The Will of the Gods”, and the Shaman made it clear that this was, in no way, his responsibility.

At first, witch-doctors probably used straight-forward common-sense treatments. If a hunter got mauled by a Cave-Bear, the Witch-Doctor would wash all the Cave-Bear slobber out of the wound with water, then bind it up so that it wouldn’t keep leaking blood all over his nice clean cave floor. He would almost certainly then tell the hunter and his family that it likely wouldn’t make any difference, because almost everyone else he’d treated with similar wounds had croaked.

After this had happened a few times, it’s likely that even the stupidest Neanderthal Clan would start looking for a new Witch-Doctor.

At some point, some Witch-Doctor realized that it wasn’t enough to just treat the wounds: he needed to inspire fear, awe, wonder, and other such popular emotions, or  the Clan would just kick his ass out to freeze (this all took place during the last Ice-Age, and it was freaking cold everywhere outside the cave.) If, on the other hand, he could convince the Clan that the gods were on his side, there was considerably less chance that any of them would have the stones to kick him out.

Spiritual Rituals were invented.

It probably wasn’t as cynical as I’m making it sound; the prevailing medical theory of the day likely involved Evil Spirits (in the case of Cave-Bear-induced gangrene they were smelly, stinking, Evil Spirits.) No one had any idea how to kill Evil Spirits, so they likely concentrated on just scaring them away. Since people could be frightened by a grotesquely painted witch-doctor with a bizarre head-dress of some sort, it seemed reasonable that this might frighten Evil Spirits, as well. As time went on, and the Clan became inured to the sight of their grotesque Witch-Doctor, it seemed a fair bet that the Evil Spirits had gotten used to it as well – the only way to up the ante was to do a scary dance, or maybe toss something on the fire that would make colored or smelly smoke. As even these things came to be accepted, it would have become necessary to come up with more elaborate rituals, involving elaborate incantations, and perhaps noise-makers of some sort (tie a bunch of little bones loosely to a stick and shake it: it makes an effective rattle, and, as anyone who’s ever come across a rattlesnake can tell you, this is a perfectly sinister noise, likely to make any Evil Spirits in the vicinity think their mother-in-law was approaching!)

This may, indeed, have been the pinnacle of the physician’s mystique: elaborate rituals are far more impressive, after all, than “Take these pills and don’t bother me while I’m on the Golf Course.”

Nowadays, of course, we know that no Evil Spirits were involved – unless they were microscopic and closely resembled bacteria. No matter what the Witch-Doctor did, infections tended to take one of two courses:  the patient becomes delirious and dies, or some part of his body rots off, and then he becomes delirious and dies. In neither case is the patient likely to be coherent enough to demand that SOMETHING, ANYTHING, be done (if he does moan something like  “Why the hell aren’t you doing something?!?” it would likely be put down to delirium.)

Migraines are a whole ‘nother matter!

As a sufferer of Migraines, I can assure you that once one is up and running, you’ll be willing to consider ANYTHING AT ALL that might give some relief … We know that there were migraine sufferers way back then, because we’ve found quite a few of their skulls – with enormous holes cut in them, presumably to let out the Evil Spirits. How do I know these were Migraine sufferers? Simple:  only a migraine sufferer is going to be willing to allow someone to cut his skull open with a freaking rock!

Amazingly, at least SOME of these operations were successful (in the sense that the patient remained alive to complain about the bill.)  We know this, because in many cases, the bone began to re-grow – a process taking years. While current medical opinion is divided on whether cutting holes in the skull would lead to any alleviation of Migraine symptoms, in the absence of firm medical consensus, pretty much all  Migraine sufferers will wonder, at some point or another, whether it might help.

Trading in on the immense prestige gained from A) convincing a man to let his skull be opened with a rock, and B) preventing the poor bastard from dying, early Witch-Doctors found themselves immensely respected/feared – and pretty much free to do anything they pleased, in the way of experimenting with cures.  Sadly, given the lack of writing, Professional Journals, or Gossip on the Putting Green, we’ve no way of knowing what sorts of remedies got tried, or how successful they might have been. A Neanderthal burial in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, was originally thought to have been a Medicine Man because of the wide variety of medicinal herb seeds found in the grave – later it was discovered that Gerbils had been burrowing there, and had likely deposited the seeds.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Gerbils knew at least as much about medicine as early Man!

The earliest written records of medical treatments begin with the Egyptians. It’s a virtual certainty that medicine was being practiced at the same time in India, China, and Mesopotamia, but they were apparently a lot more secretive about it all, or simply entrusted the practice of it to illiterates, as Europeans would many centuries later. Imhotep is the earliest physician whose name is known, and, given the fact that formal medicine was almost certainly practiced only by men, it should come as no surprise that the earliest medical textbook is a scroll describing gynecological issues.  (There is no mention made of the miraculous properties of Häagen Daz, as, sadly, it would not be invented for about 4,000 more years.)

By this time there had been advances in Medical Theory. Evil spirits had not been entirely exonerated of making people sick – but additional suspects had been identified: the gods. In an early crisis of faith, people had realized that they were doing all this praying and making all these sacrifices, and Bad Things continued to happen! Early concerns that the Priest/Shaman hadn’t known what he was talking about were dismissed when the priests frightened everyone by producing colored smoke from the fire instead of the normal white stuff. The hand of the priests was further strengthened when they forced carefully selected young virgins to breathe the smoke, and the young ladies commenced to babble deliriously – an event the Priests described as Inspirational Prophesy, which, they modestly explained, only they were able to interpret.

(This was, by the way, how the term “inspiration”, which literally translated to “Breathe In”, made its way into religious terminology.)

Listening carefully to the babbling young virgins, the Priests were later able to translate the commandments of the Gods which were 1) Don’t blame the Priests when bad things happen, 2) Add wine to the list of stuff you’re sacrificing, 3) provide new virgins now and then, and 4) don’t ask any questions about what the priests are doing with them after hours.

The people, after some debate, decided that the Priests must know what they’re talking about, since they’d studied the ways of the Gods since childhood – years sinful people spent learning to hunt, gather, sow, reap, fight, construct, and do other sinful things. It completely sucked that it was going to cost them some virgins, but, if it meant people would be safer, they decided they could live with it. Besides, someone had pointed out, with some significant gestures at the more mature NON-Virgins in the crowd, it was always possible to make more!

In time (and after the consumption of quite a few virgins,) the priests were able to explain that, while some diseases still were, undeniably, the work of evil spirits, others amounted to lessons from the Gods, which could be cured by propitiation.

This led to an entirely new class of disorders, the diagnosis of which often consisted of “You have angered the gods, and are being punished!”  Given the number of gods in play, their known capriciousness, and the fact that nearly every human being can find SOMETHING to feel guilty about, this Theory of Medicine would remain viable for the next several thousand years.  The Medical practice based on this theory amounted to determining which god had been pissed-off, by which offense, and advising the patient to “cough up a sacrifice and you may be forgiven …”  (Note how “cough up”, with it’s medical connotations, and “pay up” have always been considered equivalent.)

If the patient got better, his sacrifice had been accepted and all was forgiven, go and sin no more. The cured patient would likely credit the Witch-Doctor/Medicine-Man with knowing which god had been pissed, what the god had been pissed about, and the best way to appease him/her/it.

Similarly, if the guy DIDN’T get well, NONE of it reflected badly on the Witch-Doctor/Medicine-Man, since it was the patient’s fault for not coming up with a better sacrifice, or offering it more contritely!  It might also be suggested that the god was just too freaking pissed and NO sacrifice would have been sufficient. This simple conjugation of theory and practice completely obviated the need for anything resembling Malpractice Insurance – and, for this reason, the “Divine Wrath” theory of medicine remained viable well into historical times, and is frequently used as a last resort even in our modern age.

Still, it wasn’t perfect. Protestations by various sufferers that they hadn’t done ANYTHING worthy of punishment might be treated as denial, but, when they pointed out that their infants frequently got sick, long before they could have done anything sinful, the Priests had little reply to make except that maybe the parent had pissed off a god who was punishing the kid instead.

This sort of thing was likely to get the Priest punched in the nose.

The next phase of Medical theory was Symptomatic Treatment, or “We don’t know what’s wrong, or why it works, but try this stuff …” Obviously, this can only get you so far, and even the awe brought about by successful Trephinations begins to wear off if the phrase “Wow, I really have no clue!” gets used too often, and the dude can’t prevent a scratch from developing into sepsis. Also, nothing is likely to make family members get up in a Doctor’s face more quickly than a dying relative, and unavailing treatments.  Attempts by some Witch-Doctors to scare the family members away with the same hideous masks used to frighten Evil Spirits were only moderately successful.


~ by dourscot on February 19, 2016.

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