A Brief History of Hearing Loss

About 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, by a World Health Organization estimate. They also predict that by 2050 the number will grow to over 900 million. Hearing impaired and deaf communities around the world range from those who use hearing aids and rely on lip-reading, to those who use sign language of various forms.

There are two major kinds of hearing loss, conductive and sensorineural. The Deafness Foundation defines them as follows: Conductive hearing loss can occur when there is damage or a blockage in the outer and/or middle ear. This can result in sound not being conducted adequately through the ear canal to the eardrum. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage or malfunction of the hair cells in the cochlear. Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of permanent hearing loss. Both of these can be congenital or acquired as one grows older and neither is new to human history. Here, we take a look at hearing loss through history.

Early Humans

The earliest known case of skeletal evidence related to deafness and hearing loss in humans dates back more than 10,000 years ago. At least two skeletons excavated from the Shanidar Cave archeological site in Iraqi Kurdistan were found to have suffered from profound hearing loss due to exostoses, which are bony growths in the ear canal. Another Neanderthal skeleton—dated between 35,000 to 65,000 years old— in the same cave system, exhibited exostoses that partially blocked his left ear and completely blocked his right ear canal.

Ancient Egypt

One of the oldest and most important written medical documents is Papyrus Ebers, dating to around 1550 BC from Ancient Egypt. It contains treatment for “Ear-That-Hears-Badly”: inject olive oil, red-lead, ant eggs, bat wings, and goat urine into the ears. It may have been a remedy for wax build up, as olive oil could have actually treated it, but nonetheless Ancient Egyptians were benevolent to those with hearing loss.

Ancient Greece

In Greece, Aristotle influential to shaping public thought and dialogue. Around 355 BC the philosopher asserts that deaf people could not be educated without hearing and those born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason. This sentiment became deeply embedded into much of history and people who were unable to speak, including many deaf people, were scarcely afforded independence and full civil liberties.

However, it is Plato to present the first reference to sign language in Cratylus, “If we had no voice or tongue, and wished to make things clear to one another, should we not try, as dumb people actually do, to make signs with our hands and head and person generally?’ Though he recognizes that people communicate using sign, he fails to acknowledge its value.

Europe in the Middle Ages

Early references to specific signs, as opposed to the general act of signing, come from monks in the early 10th century. Monks in Burgundy came up with a series of hand signals to communicate without breaking vows of silence. This became known as Cluniac sign language and heavily influenced European monastic life. Many believe it to be the inspiration for the signed manual alphabet developed by Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon at the first deaf school in the mid-1500s.

There is also early evidence of the creation of a hearing aid by Neapolitan polymath Giambattista della Porta in the Magiae Naturalis, 1588, wherein he describes curved horns of animals known for their excellent hearing. This could have also been an attempt at an invention resembling a telescope for sound. It was a pupil of Galileo’s, Paolo Aproino, to first develop ear trumpets in the 1610s, though their use didn’t become more commonplace until later that century.

Et voila. Written historical evidence for the treatment of hearing loss, early sign language, changing cultural attitudes toward the deaf and hard of hearing and the advent of the hearing aid, all dating back about 3,500 years. But what knowledge exists before then?

The study of skeletal remains for evidence of deafness is unfortunately limited to conductive hearing loss, and only still remains with bony changes that survive long after their death. As sensorineural deafness effects an individual the cellular level, there is no evidence of deafness after death and decomposition.

Treating Hearing Loss Today

Throughout the history of mankind, the deaf and those who have lived with disabling hearing loss have been many in number. It’s likely that a large population remains unaccounted for by historians, when illnesses and injuries associated with hearing loss that are now preventable and treatable are taken into consideration.

If you believe you are experiencing hearing loss, our current era provides some of the most extraordinary technology for treatment! Contact us at Audibel to learn more about treating hearing loss.