“Witch Doctor” is a white people word for indigenous medicine men, shamans, and healers. Because early European missionaries and anthropologists associated their incantations and ceremonies with “witchcraft,” they didn’t see them as true doctors or healers, but as “witch” doctors. Ironically – as we’ve demonstrated above – the practices of indigenous medicine circa 3000 BC were more effective than the practices of European medicine circa 1500 AD.
But were ALL indigenous practices effective? Of course not. As we explained earlier in this book, “just because it’s Black doesn’t make it right.” Some of our approaches worked on a psychosomatic level, convincing the patient to self-initiate their own healing through the placebo effect (or the psychomotor effect).
At other times, the ritual aspects of the treatment were myth-ified masks for the actual treatment. For example, telling the patient that the Gods require he not eat for 3 days may have been a ritualized way to prescribe a 3 day fast to detox his system. This is a common practice among people who are known as healers, medicine men, and witch doctors. They use the myth and taboo to conceal the treatment plan, because some treatment plans (like drinking a nasty concoction) won’t be followed unless there’s some superstition involved.
Of course, we know that our ancestors’ first approach was scientific, never superstitious. Superstition came after the science was misunderstood. Think about it. Can a mythical, faith-based ritual evolve into a scientific, evidence-based practice that treats real conditions? Nah. It’s gotta be the other way around. So our ancestors who were scientists figured out that Echinacea leaves were good for preventing colds, and they taught this knowledge to everyone, sometimes using a mythical story to make the knowledge memorable.
Science first. We can see a similar transition when we look at the oldest Egyptian medical texts. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, possibly the oldest surviving medical text of any kind, treats women’s complaints, including problems with conception, detailing diagnosis and treatment.[i] It’s straight science. Over 3,000 years ago.
The only text that might be older is the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a 1600 BC copy of texts that may date back to 3000 BC, when Imhotep is said to have composed the first textbook of surgery.[ii] The Edwin Smith Papyrus has almost no magical or superstitious thinking in it, and goes deep into the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of numerous conditions.
Only later, with the Ebers papyrus (c. 1550 BC), will we find a text full of incantations and ritual practices meant to turn away disease-causing demons, along with other superstitions. It does, however, contain some of the earliest descriptions of migraines and tumors, but it’s clear that – by this time – scientific thinking has given way to religious thinking.
[i] Griffith, F. Ll.The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob. Available at http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/kahunpapyrus.htm
[ii] J. H. Breasted, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, University of Chicago Press, 1930.