Primitive Peoples

There is no life without disease and pain; their ubiquitous nature is demonstrated by history. The skeletons of the first humans (500,000 b.c.e.) display bone disturbances and fractures. It is difficult to offer accurate descriptions of the health and disease of historically primitive peoples, because claims must depend on limited and problematic archaeological, paleopathological, and written sources (clements).

At the dawn of human history, medicine had a magicomystical, demonic-religious character. Exogenous factors such as spirits, spells, and gods were considered responsible for disease. Personified living entities, spirits, took over a healthy body and made off with the soul of the person or allowed foreign elements to invade the body. Spirits, dead or living, could exercise fateful effects, acting out of revenge for breaches of taboos. Disease, directly related to sin and wrongdoing, represented not only an individual but also a social destiny. What befell one person befell the whole family, group, or tribe.

The diagnostic and healing powers of the healer or priest-doctor were supernatural. The healer had to be able to recognize which forces were at work in any given case. He did this by reading the stars or by drawing meaning from minerals, plants, and animals. Amulets and magic spells, oracles, atonement and confession, exorcism, bloodletting, and ceremonies of purification functioned as both preventive measures and cures. The whole community took part in the healing process; even pets were brought into it. Primitive peoples exhibited great cleanliness for the sake of prevention and strictly observed their cultural taboos.

There are remnants of these primitive notions of disease in today's lay language. For example, in English slang menstruation is sometimes called "the curse"; the German word for lumbago, Hexenschuss, means witch's wound. To what extent one can observe these assumptions about sickness and health, and the social structures that correspond to them, among the primitive peoples of today is hard to say. Modern civilization and medicine have left their impact in every part of the world. Primitive peoples, too, change over time.

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