Ancient Herbal Remedies

The history of herbs across the globe.

| July/August 1998







  • Peggy K. Duke

We can only speculate about our prehistoric ancestors’ behavior, but clues and common sense tell us they used plants to survive, relying on them for nourishment and, over time and after observation, medical treatment. These plants may have been more than just food and medicine to early humans—through their healing powers, plants may have represented a connection to the supernatural world. At the 60,000-year-old burial site of a Neanderthal man, researchers found eight species of flowering plants—laid there, some surmise, to fortify the man as he journeyed to the next life.

When humans began using formal writing systems, they also began documenting their use of medicinal plants, so we can be more certain about the use of herbal remedies dating back to about 3000 b.c. As civilizations developed and trade routes became established, travelers began observing other cultures’ use of plants and brought both herbal remedies and knowledge of their use back to their home countries.

Such observations lead in a more-or-less straight line to conventional medicine’s adoption and adaptation of some phytomedicines, including Taxus brevifolia, or Pacific yew, which gives us the anticancer drug taxol, and Chondrodendron tomentosum, which gives us tubocurarine chloride, used to calm patients’ muscles during surgery. In terms of more commonly used herbal medicines, we prepare and take some of them in the same way our ancestors did. We know, for instance, that the constipation remedy castor oil, which comes from the castor bean, was used as a laxative thousands of years ago. Such knowledge may be humbling, given our ­contemporary emphasis on expensive health care and medical research.

Crossing the Globe

Tracing the development of medicinal plant knowledge is a mapmaker’s paradise. It follows paths leading from royal physicians, Buddhist monks, and Amazonian hunters to the hands of early traders, world explorers, and North American pioneers. It runs a line parallel to the first writings known, moving from the eyes of a select few and then, thanks to the invention of the printing press, to the eyes of the masses.



A few big events and a few big names are pivotal to this transfer of knowledge. Among them:

Second and First Century B.C.

• The Ebers papyrus of Egypt, which dates to 1500 b.c. and is the earliest surviving record of medicinal plants, includes descriptions of dozens of herbal remedies and their uses, including castor oil.



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