How Was Asthma Treated 30,000 Years Ago?

John Bottrell Health Pro
  • Let's jump into our time machine and go back in time.  Let's travel back before the first physicians of Ancient Egypt and before the first medical schools of Ancient Greece.  Let's travel back -- get comfortable, it's a long ride -- to 30,000 B.C. 


    We find ourselves along the Tigres River, amid a primitive tribe.  The sun radiates hard upon us, which may explain the gathering of children under a large shade tree.  As we listen through our translator we can hear the epic tales of Galgamesh. 


    On the opposite edge of camp is a small fire, above which sits a large pot.  Steam billows forth bringing upon the air a smell of both dinner and smoke.  Eight women are loosely gathered around it, talking lightly, laughing occasionally.  An elderly lady peers into the pot, tosses in some herbs.  My stomach growls.

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    We hear a clambor from the distant woods behind the shade tree, and we turn to see ten men stumble from amid the trees with arrows and bows loosely strung to their backs.  Some kind of garment is wrapped around their wastes.


    I hear a "POOF!" from behind me, and turn to see our time machine has vanished.  With it so too vanishes my breath. 


    "Who are you?" I turn and see the elderly woman looking at me.  I gasp, then exhale with an audible wheeze.  I reach into my pocket for my rescue inhaler: it's gone!  My heart skips a beat as I realize I'm trapped in a desolate world with no asthma medicine.  Now what do I do?


    "I can tell you're short of breath," the elderly lady says.


    "You have medicine?" I ask feebly, knowing instantly how dumb the questions was. 


    "Medicine?  What medicine?" she says.


    I decide I better keep my mouth shut. I do this because I know from my studies some primitive societies consider anyone in ill health a burden on the group, and some will even leave you behind to die.  Some will consider you possessed by an evil demon, and they may bury you alive to make sure the demon dies with you.  I decide I'm not ready for that yet, so I force myeslf to relax.


    I pray I'm among the many societies who considers the sick blessed by the spirits.  I remember reading about them in a a book called "A History of Medicine" by Henry E. Sigerist. He wrote*:

    "The patient... is a man who on account of his condition is in more intimate contact with the world of the spirits than other people.  His soul may have been abducted and on its wanderings has intercourse with the spirits, is lured by them or fights with them.  Or the patient is possessed by a demon who now resides in him and talks through his mouth.  All this accentuates his special position that the sick man holds on society, makes him an object of awe, a res sacra."  (1)

    He ads:

    "It is believed that a man who was seriously sick and recovered will never again be the same as he was before his illness.  The fact that he was in close touch with the transcendental world gives him a special position once and for all, and the fact that he was attacked by evil forces but did not succumb to them shows that he has some power over them.  As a result, former patients would enroll in medicine societies." (1)

    I remember a column I wrote a few years back, "The seven benefits of asthma," where I wrote about how being close to death you develop a new perspective of life, and value each breath that comes without strain.  You value every day.


    You develop a sense of vulnerability in that you no longer feel you are invincible.  You take nothing, no breath and no day, for granted.  To many ancient societies this made you special.  It made you Religious.  It gave you Empathy.  It gave you Intelligence because you were forced to learn instead of hunt. 


    As I stand still, hoping for the best, the elderly lady motions to an elderly man sitting next to a tree behind where our time machine was once parked, which would explain why I didn't see him earlier.  He approaches me, and as he does I hear the clicking of the many necklaces around his neck.  Other than the necklaces he is in the nude, a sign he is pure.  As he approaches I smell strong ointments.  He touches my shoulder with a firm grip, and inspects my chest.  He watches my breathing, and then stands back.

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    Speaking slowly, softly, he says: "What taboo did you break? What offense did you commit to offend the spirits?  What dreams have you had?  Has anything suspicious happened to you?  Has anyone looked at you with an evil eye?  Do you have enemies who mean you harm and could have sought witchcraft against you?" (2)


    "I have sinned," I say, knowing that's what he suspects anyway.


    He closes his eyes, and makes many motions with his hands. He speaks something in a dialect your tarnslator cannot detect.  He places a palm on your forehead and speaks many words.  You're puzzled.


    "It's your diagnosis," says the old lady.  "And your cure."


    He removes one of of the necklaces from his neck, and places it in your palm.  While doing so he chants something, and slowly walks away. 


    "It's an amulet, an object of healing," the elderly lady says, obviously seeing my blank stare.  "The incantation will assure the spirits recognize it."


    My breath didn't come back right away, yet at least I knew I was respected by this tribe.


    "If you survive, which you surely will after you suffer a while, your wisdom will be sought," the lady says.


    "No disrespect, but I hope not.  I'd prefer to go home where my inhalers wait," I think this, and decide to say a simple, "Thank you!"


    By her recommendation I spend the next few days eating lighly and praying often.  Yet I also sleep lightly, which adds to my anxiety.  And just when my breath comes back, and I can appreciate spending time with these fine people, the time machine POOFs! back into view.


    These people healed me how they knew how to heal.  While we may think of their medicine as irrational, to them it is perfectly rational.  It's what was needed to live peacefully in a world filled with hundreds of thousands of wandering souls searching for a person to make sick.   


    I thanked the wise lady, the medicine man, and all others I met. I thanked them for teaching me what life was like for asthmatics 30,000 years ago. 


    I slouched back on the cushioned seat of the capsule and saw my rescue inhaler right where I left it.  I grabbed it, caressed it, and gave it a kiss.  Never again will I take it for granted. 


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    1.  Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine," Volume I: "Primitive and Archaic Medicine," 2nd print, 1955, New York, Oxford University Press, page 158

    2.  Sigerist, ibid, page 181

Published On: September 17, 2012