Science is always changing, and the field of medicine is no exception. In fact, within the last century, the medical field has moved forward in veritable leaps and bounds. But you know what they say—we owe it to the ones who came before us.

Even so, some of the things that people used to do in order to heal and cure have since been found to be outright harmful at worst, and humorously useless at best.

Nonetheless, people have always tried to do what they can when it comes to caring for the human body. Let’s take a look at 10 intriguing (sometimes awful) ways that ancient peoples used to (try to) heal themselves.

#1: Bloodletting

Blood letting painting from the 13th century

Blood letting painting from the 13th century

Bloodletting is probably the most well-known of all the strange medical techniques that have since been relegated to the pages of history. Ancient peoples believed that the temperament of the body was ruled by four humors: blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm (and this belief persisted into the Middle Ages). If a person was sick, their malady could most likely be cured by restoring balance to the humors—which most often meant bloodletting. Unfortunately, one of the potential side-effects of bloodletting is death from blood loss.

#2: Pick your Poison

The distillation of quicksilver (refining)

The distillation of quicksilver (Wellcome Images / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Ancient doctors often recommended the consumption of fluids we have since come to recognize as outright poison, like Mercury and Arsenic. The Persians, Greeks, and even Chinese believed that “quicksilver” was a prized ointment and elixir for long life. Unfortunately, these substances are actually toxic, despite the magic appearance of an element named after the Greek messenger god. Some rulers took mercury pills to facilitate their immortality, such as the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Even into the Renaissance, patients suffering from venereal diseases were proscribed mercury; they died from liver and kidney damage.

#3: Animal Poop

Ancient chinese painting of horse shitting

This one is pretty nasty, and most people wouldn’t want it in their home, let alone applied to their body—or put inside of it. But the ancient Egyptians were pretty sold on the power of poop, at least according to some ancient papyrus texts detailing the various curative properties of fecal matter. Donkey, gazelle, dog, and even insect dung were all celebrated topicals that could cure maladies and ward off bad spirits. Perhaps most disturbing of all was the notion that dry crocodile dung could be inserted into the vagina, where it would warm and form a contraceptive barrier—you know, sort of like spermicide made from reptilian byproduct.

#4: Cannibalism

Scary woman eating babies (cannibalism)

Most people regard Cannibalism as a bad thing, but for thousands of years, people believed that consuming human body parts could facilitate good health—especially if you consumed the body part that corresponded to the one that pained you. This belief was actually pretty widespread. For example, the famous explorer Captain Cook met his demise in the Hawaiian islands, where he was eaten by natives who assumed they would inherit his “god-like” properties through inviting him to a good, old Hawaiian Luau—and not as a guest. Some European queens and kings were known to bathe in human blood, believing it would help keep them young.

#5: Childbearing

Paula Moderson Becker's self portrait of her being pregnant

Paula Moderson Becker’s self portrait of her being pregnant

Childbearing is usually not regarded as a cure for anything, but to the ancient Greeks it could be the very action that stood between life and death. They viewed a woman’s womb as an actual distinct creature that was hungry to bear children. If it wasn’t incubating babies, it might pop on out, climb up her body, and strangle her in its attempt to escape and find seed. When doctors learned that the womb was held in place by ligaments, this belief died out, but it has left behind the word hysteria—which derives from the Greek word for uterus.

#6: Trepanation

Neolithic man performing trepanation

Neolithic man performing trepanation

Opening a skull for brain surgery is a delicate procedure which usually necessitates traveling to a hospital where some expert surgeon specializes in cutting open the skull. But trepanation—the practice of drilling holes into a skull—was actually a common practice around the world for the last several thousand years. Though most societies believed it could be used to release demons, recent studies have shown that Inca surgeons in ancient Peru actually had some skill in successfully removing damaged parts of the brain from patients suffering from head injuries.

#7: Mould

Moulded bread

Moulded bread (hard to look at, we know!)

Mold usually indicates that it’s high time to throw whatever food item it’s been struck by into the garbage. But ancient peoples actually held on to moldy bread for its curative properties, believing that it could disinfect open wounds. However, despite the fact that such a treatment sounds silly, history has shown that it has some basis in truth; many immunizations have been discovered by researching fungal, viral, and bacterial growths—for example, Penicillin.

#8: Enemas

Frenchman receiving enema treatment

Enemas are still in use today to cure problems like constipation, but ancient peoples took it a little too far—and they remained popular even on down to more recent times such as Enlightenment-era Europe. They were particularly in vogue with the wealthy elite, and some aristocats would spread their cheeks several times daily—for example, King Louis XIV is said to have received over 2,000 “clysters” as they were called in his lifetime. Nothing like a scented mix of warm water, salt, soap, and possibly coffee, bran, or honey to facilitate your rule as the Sun King! Just close your eyes and keep repeating “I am the state” until it’s over.

#9: Pulverized mice

Cute mouse

This is not the typical ingredient you would expect to see on the label of a tube of Crest, but the ancient Egyptians believed that a paste made from mice had curative properties for healing tooth aches. The practice of grinding up dead animals to create a palliative pill or ointment was actually widespread and lingered on through the practices of alchemy in pre-industrial Europe. Some macabre cures involved using people parts instead of dead animals.

#10: Sheep anatomy

The hero Gilgamesh subduing a bull

The hero Gilgamesh subduing a bull

Sheep anatomy is not something you would expect to consult in medical skull, but ancient Mesopotamian priests would actually examine the internal organs of sacrificed animals to get an insight about a patient’s condition. There is something to be said about the ideas ancient peoples had regarding similarities between animal and human physiologies. For example, modern scientists acknowledge that pig and human anatomies are very similar in some regards—hence the recently recognized usefulness of cardiac valves from a pig to facilitate successful open-heart surgery…for human patients.

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