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The original sources of traditional medicine
April 8, 2014 11:51 PM   Subscribe

How were the medicinal properties of plants established in antiquity?

For example, I was reading the Wikipedia entry for calendula (aka marigold), and there's a section in there about traditional medicinal use - in this case, internal detoxification and external wound care. And modern science has indeed confirmed that calendula can indeed be used for these purposes (according to the same Wikipedia entry).

All my imagination can come up with is someone looking at a field of marigolds and deciding, "I'm gonna eat a bunch of those petals every day for a month and see how I feel." Or "You've been stabbed? Why don't we try putting some of those petals on the wound?" But these scenarios seem far-fetched to me. But what do I know?

It appears that every plant has an array of different healing properties associated with it. The Wikipedia entry for traditional medicine indicates that even the Sumerians 5000 years ago were in possession of "well-established" knowledge along these lines. Sure, knowledge was gathered by shamans and 'old wives' - but how would such knowledge have been attained in the first place? Who was doing the science?

Can anyone with any education about this stuff provide an authoritative response? Or at least point me to a reputable source?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think the earliest medical 'science' was indistinguishable from spirituality and religion. I don't know much about it but here is a fairly prosaic but interesting page about Australian aboriginal medicine
posted by evil_esto at 1:42 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

IANAD, nor am I historian, but keep in mind that the scientific method has not always been around or as organized and rigidly logical as the one we know today. In other words, few people were going around testing things in the organized fashion that (good) scientists do in modern times. I think you're hung up on that concept, and when you're thinking about ancient times you sometimes have to throw that away—with a few striking exceptions, of course.

Think trial and error. A lot of things would have been accidentally eaten, and people would have drawn conclusions based on subsequent reactions. This sort of pattern seeking would lead to a lot of post-hoc and causation-correlation fallacies, but "doctors" and "scientists" of ye olde times would have figured out some things, most definitely.

In particular, no doubt many of the shamans and the like that you mention would have tried something—anything—to see if it worked for those on their deathbeds. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all. If what they tried ended up working, or if it at least seemed like it did, it would likely get passed around by word of mouth or, eventually, writing. Trade and religion are good at spreading news.

Considering how many plants there are in any given region, and how long humankind has been around, it's not surprising that we've drawn a good many accurate conclusions over time, but we've also assumed a lot of stupid things over the years, too. Look at all we have believed has been related to fertility, for example.

As for further reading, maybe look into some of these books?
posted by iamfantastikate at 3:30 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

For most plants out there they will either:

1) Kill you - (Datura and other nightshades)
2) Make you high (poppy)
2) Make you mildly better (traditional medicine that "works")
3) Do nothing and you'll get better or not on your own (traditional medicine that doesn't "work" but seems like ti does)

One and two are easy to find out if you've got some willing subjects. Three and four are much more difficult to tease out and have only probably been found in modern times, because even now there is still quite a large amount of traditional medicine that is bunk. You read about the traditional medicines that have been found to contain actual substances that have a real effect, but you don't read about the multitude of traditional medicines that would do nothing. Given the confirmation bias of only reading about the ones that were found to work end up ascribing some sort of intelligence to people that wasn't actually there. As much as we would like to believe the scene in medicine man where the shaman tell the researcher that the medicine isn't in the fruit it is in the ants, it simply isn't something that would have happened in reality.
posted by koolkat at 3:43 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

Consider the thousands and thousands of undocumented human years leading up to our times. People were not doing formal scientific method, but they did understand cause and effect. People had time to work out which plants were good for food, which ones had curative effects on various ills, and which were toxic.
posted by zadcat at 3:52 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

One strategy that was employed (which clearly succeeded, where it did, by sheer coincidence, but at least indicates a systematic effort at classification) was the doctrine of signatures, which looked for a correspondence between a plant's appearance and its usefulness to humanity.
posted by bricoleur at 4:42 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]

The case of abortifacient drugs is really interesting, if not representative of most ancient drugs. Basically they were discovered because pregnant women who ate them had miscarriages -- so there is a very clear method of discovery here. Many fall into the category of food or herb plants; others are garden plants or weeds. We only hear about many of these drugs in ancient Greek and Roman medical texts (and there are a lot of them) because the writers mention them specifically as things for pregnant women to avoid. In the case of the Hippocratic oath, we see a group of doctors swearing to never give these drugs to a woman (which was probably smart of them because of the risk of hemorrhage to the woman, for which they would be held responsible). So we don't seem to have doctors (or at least the fancy kinds of doctors who wrote books) giving these drugs to women; instead, you'd have knowledge of which plants worked handed down among women themselves. Modern research done on these plants shows that many of them were very actually effective abortifacients and/or contraceptives.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:56 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

I'd recommend reading Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder where he obsessively catalogs all the medicinal plants he knows along with everything he has to say about them. The medicinal uses of plants were only known by their reputations, which Pliny was not alone in having an understandably obsessive interest in collecting.
All my imagination can come up with is someone looking at a field of marigolds and deciding, "I'm gonna eat a bunch of those petals every day for a month and see how I feel." Or "You've been stabbed? Why don't we try putting some of those petals on the wound?" But these scenarios seem far-fetched to me. But what do I know?
Far more plausible is "I'm fucking starving and while there isn't much else there are bunches of those sweet-ish looking petals that I can hopefully get some sustenance from until better opportunities become available - oh weird that really cleared me out in a way that wasn't so unpleasant, maybe I should try this again next time I need to clear out my system." Or "Oh shit you've been stabbed and fuck if I know what to do about it beyond making a compress out of something, why don't we try using some of those petals in it?" Things that would work more consistently would more often maintain their reputations and things that wouldn't work would more often be abandoned as bullshit.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:00 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

For the discovery of tea (with hot water and a drop of milk) as a soothing brew but also having a psychological boost... Asterix in Britain
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:10 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

My friend, what you are looking for is the delightful, delightful Sawbones.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:33 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

I saw a documentary years ago where a woman from the !Kung tribe (gatherer-hunters in Africa) encountered an unfamiliar plant. She had a very methodical process of investigating it: she smelled it, bent it, scratched it with her fingernail, and finally put a tiny amount between her lower lip and teeth (like a plug of chewing tobacco). She explained that if it was poisonous, it would make her mouth numb or taste bad, but the tiny amount (which she hadn't swallowed) wouldn't kill her. If there were no ill effects, she and other people in her tribe would experiment with consuming small amounts and see if it had food or medicinal uses. She also mentioned watching animals and insects interact with the plant in question. I'm guessing that in ancient times, the process probably went a lot like that. Gatherer-hunters have a lot of free time to conduct experiments, and a strong oral tradition, so this information would get passed to everyone.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:12 AM on April 9 [11 favorites]

The Wikipedia entry for traditional medicine indicates that even the Sumerians 5000 years ago were in possession of "well-established" knowledge along these lines.

Which sounds like a long time ago, but ya also gotta remember that this means the Sumerians were the beneficiaries of at least 50,000, and maybe as much as 150,000, years of informal experimentation with plants before they showed up. By people who were as smart as us, with powerful incentives to learn about stuff like that.

Prehistory was a looooooong time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:18 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

For a look at medicine seen through ancient Greek and Roman eyes, Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy (without Any Gaps) podcasts episodes 75 "The Joy of Sects: Ancient Medicine and Philosophy" and 76 "R.J. Hankinson on Galen" might be a fair place to start. There was a mixture of observation, tradition, and extrapolation from philosophical assumptions (some correct, some incorrect, and some correct but for the wrong reasons).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:26 AM on April 9

All my imagination can come up with is someone looking at a field of marigolds and deciding, "I'm gonna eat a bunch of those petals every day for a month and see how I feel." Or "You've been stabbed? Why don't we try putting some of those petals on the wound?"

Pretty much. But it's not entirely random. People could watch animals and see how they did. If a cow eats something and doesn't die, that's at least some indication that whatever that is isn't going to be actively poisonous.

Also note that a lot of the properties they were looking for had to do with things that we don't consider rational in the slightest. Almost to the point of free association. Plants and other medicinals were likely chosen because the practitioner wanted to either counter or accentuate a symptom, and that symptom was probably associated with some version of the four humors (or other like schema*), which have to do with hot/cold superimposed on wet/dry. In essence, the human body was considered to be regulated by four "humors," i.e., types of fluid, and deficiencies or excesses of a particular humor in a particular area were considered to be responsible for most medical symptoms.

Further, until quite recently even inanimate objects were considered to be motivated by their animus towards their particular teleology. Objects fall, not because gravity attracts them towards the center of the Earth, but because it is in the nature of objects to fall when not supported, and objects always "want" to express their natures as fully as possible. So it was thought that medical symptoms could be affected by applying substances which would "attract" or "repel" whichever "humor" was considered to be either lacking or present in excess.

So when you want to treat a disease, you pick a plant or whatever that somehow seems to belong to the appropriate quadrant. The criteria by which that choice is made could have to do with almost anything: color, anatomical configuration, location, affinity for damp environments, succulence, texture, flammability, whatever. Got a fever? Sweating? Depending on whether the practitioner wants to encourage or counter the fever, he might pick something associated with "blood" or "earth". Not sweating? Now we're looking at "yellow bile" and "phlegm/water". Bleeding profusely? Maybe try something associated with "yellow bile"--hot and dry--to "encourage" the blood to stay away from the wound site. Etc.

*Different cultures had different ways of describing this basic idea. The Chinese concept of qi--isn't all that far off, as it considers the body's health to be regulated by the circulation of a fluidic energy in "meridians" which could be manipulated both by direct physical contact in the form of accupressure/accupuncture but also medicinal/dietary changes. African traditional medicine also goes in a slightly more spiritual direction, where physical ailments are believed to be caused by a a disruption in the relationship between the patient and the environment and/or community and/or spirit world. In both cases, practitioners try to affect medical improvement by, among other things, the application of herbs and rituals intended to manipulate these non-biological factors.
posted by valkyryn at 7:41 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Renowned herbalist Jeanne Rose covers a heck of a lot of this in her book "Herbs and Things" which I found to be extremely helpful as an aspiring young herbalist in the 1970's.
posted by Lynsey at 11:16 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

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