In The News: Practical Evidence of Ancient Herbal Medicine

Reader Contribution by Lauren Holt
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I’ve been enjoying researching ancient herbals and learning about the historical uses for medicinal herbs during my time at The Herb Companion. I’ve always had a fascination for history and old books, and I love adding that extra new depth to my perception of an ancient culture. But this is a question that never occurred to me: Were herbs truly used in the ways classic herbalists recommend? For actual scientists and historians, there’s a difference between medicinal plants listed in an herbal and actual medicinal compounds put to practical use.

According to an article from BBC News, the first concrete scientific proof of herbs and plants’ actual use in fighting various illnesses has been discovered in the form of clay pills from an Italian merchant vessel dated to 120 B.C.E. Tests by the Smithsonian Institute have revealed that these pills (kept sealed in tin boxes and “the size of coins”) contained carrot, parsley, wild onions, alfalfa, yarrow, celery and radish. They were likely used to treat intestinal diseases on board the ship and diluted with vinegar or water to ease ingestion.  

Ancient medical texts may provide scientists with promising research avenues today.
Photo by Martin Macinski/Courtesy

Professor Alain Tourwaide of the (really very cool) Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions is presenting his conclusions about these pills to an international gathering of archeological, historical and medical experts later this month. Professor Tourwaide hopes that research of ancient medicinal texts can help scientists jump ahead with disease treatments today. He cites the Native American use of willow bark as a pain killer and our use of aspirin today as an example, and also mentions that the Greek physician Galen’s use of broccoli to treat intestinal cancer in the 2nd century has led to research on the possibility of using broccoli to treat cancer in the present. Perhaps the discovery of these clay pills will open the door to further scientific support for the healing effectiveness of herbs and other plants. 

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