Mesopotamian texts more than 3,000 years old reveal that post-traumatic stress disorder may be as ancient as combat itself.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—also known as soldier’s heart, shell shock, and battle fatigue—is the collection of symptoms that plague some survivors of traumatic events, including nightmares, flashbacks, depression, and hyper-vigilance.
Researchers studying ancient Assyrian texts from Mesopotamia dating between 1300 BCE and 609 BCE—translated and assembled by JoAnn Scurlock and Burton Andersen in their 2005 book Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine—discovered references to ancient soldiers afflicted with symptoms that sound remarkably similar to our current understanding of PTSD.
Walid Khalid Abdul-Hamid, an honorary senior lecturer in psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London, and Jamie Hacker Hughes, director of the Veterans and Families Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, published their findings just last month in the journal Early Science and Medicine.
Here’s James Gallagher, interviewing Hacker Hughes for BBC News:
“The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms.
“They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”
Until now, the oldest texts thought to reference PTSD were from the Greek historian Herodotus, who described of the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE in which an Athenian fighter suffers a hallucination and blindness.
Diagnosing diseases from ancient texts, however, is not without its difficulties—not only because our understanding and ability to describe disease is so culturally dependent, but also because, as the authors acknowledge in the paper, “it is difficult for us to exclude other explanations such as neuro-psychological signs of head injury,” which itself can be related to but is distinct from PTSD.
Regardless, as Hacker Hughes told BBC News, “As long as there has been civilisation and as long as there has been warfare, there has been post-traumatic symptoms. It’s not a 21st Century thing.”