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Healing plants of the ancient world revealed


Zoe Satherley
25 January 2008
How people used plants for healing in the ancient world has been the subject of 35 years of intense study for Dr Alain Touwaide.

As a guest of Southern Cross University’s School of Natural and Complementary Medicine, Dr Touwaide and his research partner, Emanuela Appetiti, delivered a workshop this week sharing their amazing research.

Both are from the Smithsonian Institution, Natural History Museum, Washington DC, and are in Australia for a lecture tour.

Alain is an historian of ancient, medieval and Renaissance medicine, specialising in medicinal plants. Emanuela and Alain, who are married, both have a focus on ethno-anthropology, specifically the history of the use of medicinal plants in the Mediterranean.

Their major focus is on the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, the Arabic world and the Renaissance, from the 5th Century BC to the 16th Century.

Old papyrus scrolls, manuscripts on ancient parchment and paper, images on ceramics, stone carvings, and even ancient bottles of medicine that have been discovered in archaeological digs or recovered from sunken vessels are their chief sources of information.

Alain only works from original documents which he is able to read in their original language as he is a scholar of ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic.

What the couple has discovered, and meticulously catalogued in an extensive database, is that ancient peoples used hundreds of plants to aid in their healing and to keep them healthy – many of them the same plants we use today and many of them just as likely to be growing in our own backyards as they were in times long gone by.

Garlic, parsley, leek, cauliflower, oregano, pomegranate, mint, lentils and fennel are all up there among the most commonly used plants. But of all the healing plants, myrrh is the one found in the most remedies.

Alain said that according to an ancient text by Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the 1st Century AD, pomegranate is ‘a good juice for the stomach without nourishing’. It is said to ‘stop the flux from the stomach and belly’ and be ‘good for wounds in the mouth’.

Poppy was known to be a pain killer, hallucinogen and potentially deadly from at least the 2nd Century BC, as was ‘Soporific Struchnon’ – possibly the modern Belladonna. Taken with one ‘drachm’ of wine (a small teaspoonful), it was said to ‘provoke visions that are not unpleasant’. With two drachms it would ‘make you mad for three days’ while with three drachms of wine it was ‘likely to be deadly’.

Alain talked about the theory that ancient health practitioners had a well-known list of plants that were either ‘warming’ or ‘cooling’. Disease conditions were also known to be either ‘warming’ or ‘cooling’. After making a diagnosis of the illness, a practitioner would have been able to quickly pinpoint the right cooling or heating remedy to counteract the problem from a known list of medicinal plants.

He has found that the Hippocratic physicians used over 3,100 prescriptions made from 380 different plants.

In order of frequency, conditions or body systems and organs that were most commonly treated in the ancient world were fever, lungs, digestive system, gangrene, urinary tract, psychological troubles, tetanus, peritonitis, diseases of the joints, gout, dropsy, skin diseases, eye problems and deafness.

Ailments such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and even sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis were not named or even diagnosed as such. People had external tumours but modern radiographic diagnostic techniques were not available to detect internal cancers which are so commonly found today.

Diabetes, although a modern lifestyle disease for many people today, was uncommon in the ancient world as people ate very little sweet food and certainly no highly refined carbohydrates and sugars. However, there were still texts that referred to ants being attracted to a man’s urine, passed in the garden – possibly an indication of sugar in the urine and therefore a diabetic condition, Alain reasons.

Alain said there were historical references to men having ‘wounds on their genitals’ which had puzzled him until doing research with a medical colleague who had pointed out that the descriptions given were identical to syphilis.

“Historians tell us that syphilis was transferred to the New World from the Old World at the end of the 15th Century but we have identified it as a disease going back to the 4th Century BC in Greece,” Alain said.

“We know that ancient people had quite knowledge of plants and their activity as well as ways of preparing them.

“It is clear that this knowledge came from the dawn of humanity. It didn’t just miraculously spring forth from the Ancient Greeks, as popular history would have you believe. It was a tradition of healing that was already strongly established well before early Greek civilisation.

“The medical knowledge clearly moved back and forth between the Arab world and the western Mediterranean and was carefully transmitted across generations while being gradually expanded on, and improved and adapted over time. It is a complex multi-layered system – the archaeology of knowledge.”

Dr Sue Evans, Course Coordinator for SCU’s Bachelor of Naturopathy and lecturer in Herbal Medicine, said while the contemporary focus on natural and alternative medicine was to prove scientifically why it worked, more needed to be done to look at research into the way in which herbs and other plants were traditionally used in the past.

“There is a strong focus on clinical trials and finding the active constituents in herbs, but it is also important to go back in history and look at when, where and how plants were used and expand on this knowledge. As herbalists we say ‘plants are safe as they are based on traditional use’ and it is crucial we are able to verify this and really understand what it means.”

Photo: Research partners Dr Alain Touwaide and Emanuela Appetiti have devoted their lives to studying ancient healing plants.