5000-year-old ‘Iceman’ may have benefited from a sophisticated health care

" What they don’t know is whether any of these treatments actually worked."

I think the idea that pre-scientific medicine was ineffective mumbo jumbo was another of those myths put about for apologetic purposes, in this by my own profession. “Don’t go to that old wise woman - come to me because I went to Oxford, which is why I charge so much for my rhubarb and soda mixture!”

Before medical reserach becomes industrialised so that entire continents spend billions developing systems of research, the next best thing is tradition carried on over many generations of intelligent people needing to cure ills. That’s how the world’s food culture came about, amd how technologies like boats, bows and arrows, etc spread worldwide, and so I’d expect a great deal of worthwhile knowledge to be developed and preserved by tradition.

In some ways, literary culture might even detract from that by centralising knowledge in a few urban centres regarding themselves as élite.

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Preserved? Or just lost?

I wonder about how long complex cultural information can be transmitted and for how long in the absence of writing.

I suspect “technology” is easily preserved compared to narrative (of which, if I remember rightly, the oldest candidate is 14K year aboriginal accounts of the Great Barrier Reef before it flooded.)

But assuming a culture is not destroyed, I would think that knowledge of things like good medicinal herbs, bows and arrows and so on last a long time. Have you seen those documentaries that show Egyptians (etc) cooking the same kind of bread that are shown in tomb paintings. Nobody (before modern times) wrote treatises on how to make bread.

As I think I said above, paradoxically literacy in a culture probably inhibits memory (like sat navs destoy ones sense of geography!).


In those cases, how much is unbroken transmission versus rediscovery?

Well, we’re both speaking from non-expertise in anthropology here, but surely it must depend on the continuity of the culture. That’s harder to understand in a modern state where not only families but people-groups move more, and we pride ourselves both on cultural diversityy and innovation - and on an international academic expertise. The whole thing’s difficult to assess, because any traditions we’ve inherited are just what we do - as soon as we record them for historical interest, they’re no longer traditions but literature.

But research on village communities in the Near East (done for NT studies) shows how the community controls the transmission of local history pretty strictly. Some of it is learned in rhyme at mother’s knee - my grandchildren sing “Humpty Dumpty”, passed down the generations from the Civil War in 1640 and recording the siege of Colchester.

But in the case of practical skills, you grow up seeing how hoeing is done, what leaves to rub on stings, the best way to kill a pig or whatever. I learned soldering from my Dad, who learned it from his - and given we have 200 years of ironworkers in that paternal line, the skill probably goes right back in the family. Where I live in Devon, it’s said that cream teas have been served with jam on top of cream on top of scones since the 11th century - but across the border in Cornwall, it’s been insisted on for as long that the jam should go before the cream. Woe betide you if you do it wrong when you’re visiting!

But unlike stories or customs, many artifacts last for generations. The banks around my property were built 200 years ago, and if I want to repair them, I’ll copy how they did it, since they obviously knew what they were doing. If houses are always round, you wouldn’t dream of making a square one.

And in a tribal culture you’re going to have a hereditary “guild” for most special skills, passing techniques from father to son as trade secrets that keep your family in the job - even in a sophisticated nation like Israel the hereditary priesthood still shows in the Cohen DNA. And why change a the traditional spade or sword your Dad taught you to make if it works and people expect to buy them?

If you think of British history, what’s mainly happened is that the Romans, Saxons and Normans brought new social élites with their “posh culture” - whilst in the villages, the same people adopted the new fashions, but still grew up hoeing or breadmaking the same way. Of course things changed (or we’d still have Otsi tattoos), but potentially very slowly indeed.

Rediscovery is surely more uncommon, and often prompted by intellectual antiquarian interest or government decree (like the Gothic Revival in England) - which will usually end up inventing something rather different.

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