Round Robin: Detective Stories

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WOLFTOWN, Virginia—During our last winter’s cold-hearted knockout punch, I finished Jean Auel’s The Plains of Passage, her fourth novel on prehistoric humans and Neanderthals during the period between ice ages, circa 30,000 b.c. Ayla and Jondalar are Homo sapiens on a long journey from the far reaches of what is now eastern Europe to modern France. They follow “The Great Mother River”, today’s Danube, and must cross a glacier. The similarity to the glacierlike conditions that immobilized us here on the farm last winter gave the story immediacy.

But throughout the series, Ayla’s skills as a medicine woman have fascinated me. In Plains of Passage, for instance, she anesthetizes a woman with a broken arm using datura, a hallucinogen. She applies a healing poultice of pulverized yarrow and spikenard roots, wrapping it around the wound with a chamois skin. Later, she applies a thin, wet layer of birch bark that dries to a firm cast. She makes a soothing tea of linden flowers and collects purple hyssop for a tea to clear a congested chest, flavoring it with fragrant, spicy pink gillyflowers (dianthus). She makes a heart-strengthening brew of hawthorn berries. Throughout their journey, Ayla even conceals from Jondalar a special bag of unnamed contraceptive herbs, from which she makes a daily tea to prevent pregnancy during the arduous trip.

It requires a willing suspension of disbelief to accept that Ayla could be so knowledgeable about healing herbs, but Jean Auel has done her homework, using recent discoveries and advances in dating and research methods.

I’ve read of anthropologist/archaeologist Ralph Solecki’s discovery in 1963 of several sets of 60,000-year-old Neanderthal bones excavated in a cave he called Shanidar in Kurdish Iraq. One of his discoveries lends credence to Auel’s herbal descriptions. Soil samples, taken under one set of remains deep within the cave, contained the pollen of eight different flowering species including relatives of grape hyacinth, bachelor’s-button, hollyhock, ephedra, yarrow, and several varieties of groundsel. The sample contained unusually dense clusters of pollen, indicating a ritual burial and suggesting a Neanderthal belief in a soul and an afterlife. Solecki’s find altered forever anthropologists’ earlier view of the Neanderthal as a brutish, scarcely human species.

Further, the plants found in the Shanidar grave are known diuretics, emetics, astringents, emollients, stimulants, and pain relievers. Because most of the species identified are still used medicinally by the people living in the area—as well as by many Western herbalists—most anthropologists agree that thousands of years before the development of farming, people had a considerable knowledge of plant medicine. Keep in mind, too, that Shanidar’s Neanderthal bones were 60,000 years old. Auel’s Plains of Passage takes place tens of thousands of years later.

As for the reference to contraceptives, John Riddle’s Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance might persuade the most skeptical reader that ancient women had knowledge of effective herbal measures to control reproduction.

What a detective story! Herbal usage reaches far back to the dawn of human history. I find this continuity endlessly interesting.