In the past week, I focused on exploring the origin of medicine from various ancient civilizations. The field of medicine is by no mean a modern product of scientific advancements, but rather a product built upon the accumulated knowledge of human civilizations for more than one million years.
The earliest evidence of the use of medicine is microfossils of herbs found in dental plaques of Neanderthal teeth around 1,490,000 years ago. Animal-hide bandages, clay used to reset broken bones onto injured limbs and herb poultices suggest that prehistoric medicine is far more advanced than previously thought.
Religious beliefs and worships were integral parts of early practices of medicine. Early practitioners included healers, herbalists, shamans and priest-physicians.
Medicine in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, Greece and Rome shared the commonality of believing in divine intervention. The Greek God of Healing– Asclepius, Goddess Sekhmet of healing of ancient Egypt, Goddess Gula of ancient Mesopotamia, Shen Nong of China, Lord Dhanvantari of India were deeply ingrained in early medicine.
Before the establishment of systematic understanding of human anatomy and physiology, diagnoses and treatment relied on theories.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Around 2600 BC in China, the famous Huangdi Neijing (or the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine) was written, serving as the foundation of Chinese medicine even until today. Concepts of Yin-yang, Zang-fu, Wu-xing and four cycles were developed, putting emphasis on the importance of balance and the flow of qi along the channels known as meridians. Remedies include acupuncture to direct the flow of qi.
On the other side of the world, the Channel Theory was developed during the time of ancient Egypt around 2700 BC. Through the process of embalming people and making mummies, the priest-physicians during that time believed that there is a total of 46 channels in the body that function like the irrigation waterways that connect the Nile and the crop fields. They believed that illnesses arise when the channels are disrupted. Thus, treatments focused on unblocking the channels by purges, laxatives, emetics, bleeding and the use of leeches.
Ayurveda Medicine– India
Later around 6000 BCE, Ayurveda medicine started to emerge in India and surrounding countries in Southern Asia. Its foundational belief states that there are 7 chakras or wheels in the human body which are spinning centers of energy that are aligned on the midline of the body. The Ayurvedians believed that when the spinning centers whirl out of balance and order, illnesses arise. They also believed that balanced between mind, body and environment is essential for good health. Treatments involved administering medicine through vapors, waxes, oils and massage.
Ancient Greece Medicine
Built upon the wisdoms of ancient Egypt, medicine in ancient Greece put emphasis on humorism. Blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm are the four humors of the human body, along with the Quartets, which are similar to the concepts in Chinese medicine were foundational beliefs in early Greek medicine. Later on around 400 BCE, the famous Greek physician who was later regarded as the father of modern medicine–Hippocrates– was able to separate divine intervention and supernatural phenomenons from the practice of medicine, transforming medicine into a field based on scientific evidence rather than mythology and religious worships as it previously was. The well-known Hippocratic Oath is still frequently used by medical students who graduate from medical schools pursue a career in medicine and health professions.
While investigating essential beliefs and medical practices of ancient civilizations, I found significant similarities. Each civilization either developed their own theories or adapted from other pre-existing theories of how the various substances in the human body work in synergy to maintain the overall balance and health. Ancient Egyptian medicine developed the Channel Theory; Ancient Chinese medicine proposed the cycles and the inherent duality of bodily energies; Ayurvedic medicine emphasized the Seven Chakras or spinning centers; Ancient Greek medicine believed in the Four Humors.
My primary study of medicine in ancient civilizations temporarily concluded with the emergence of Galen– a physician and philosopher who was regarded as the medical authority of the Roman Empire.
The next phase of my study would be focused on the time period from the fall of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE to the Renaissance in the 15th century.
Beeden, Alexandra, et al., editors. The Definitive Illustrated History. New York, DK, 2016.