For the most part, herbal medicine traditions identify themselves from the time of the oldest extant texts in their cultural tradition, Hippocrates, Shennong etc.
Often enough the first texts of any recognisable form in many cultures were herbal texts, encompassing the broad natural sciences and concepts of human disease from the time.
It seems pretty clear to me that use of plants for medicine is not only a virtually universal human phenomena, as an oral traditional before written language, but also an aspect of life for many animals.
So how far back could we find evidence for herbal medicine in humans or hominids? Assuming we ignore the documented use of plants by our brethren apes for now.
Some more recent research adds to the story started with the discovery of the 60,000 year old Neanderthal ‘flower burial’ in the late 1950’s. The Shanidar IV skeleton was discovered buried deep inside the Shanidar cave of modern-day northern Iraq. In this unique burial a skeleton was found with a plume of pollen and woody material evidently from a ‘bouquet’ of herb flowers strewn over and around the body at burial.
Many of those species identified at the time were still to be found in the area and within historical times seven had been recognised and utilised as medicinal herbs by modern humans. Yarrow, mallows, Ephedra and Centaury amongst them, which would still be recognised and used as herbal medicines by many people today.
The findings of the ‘flower burial’ excavation at Shanidar cave transformed our understanding of neanderthals and their likely culture and its relationship to us.
More recent work, using modern methods, has turned up some other interesting evidence from Neanderthal remains in Spain dated to around 50,000 years ago. In this case they were looking at the dental plaques and who knew so much could be discovered from such a bane of modern and apparently even ancient human life.
Applying electron and optical microscopy and GCMS analysis to the dental calculi of five individuals they came up with further evidence for both plant foods and cooking, as well some distinctive markers from common herbs. Once again yarrow turns up, this time with chamomile as well, on the basis of their characteristic constituents 4-methyl-herniarin and chamazulene respectively. Evidence for exposure to wood smoke and cooked starches was found, also some exposure to pitch or bitumen possibly used for hafting tools and implements.
The paper claims these to be the oldest food samples confirmed by a range of biochemical tests.
What will our dental plaque tell the world of 50,000 years from now?
Interesting that yarrow, Achillea millefolium, should turn up on the west of Europe and the east in northern Iraq from 50-60,000 years ago as part of Neanderthal culture. An ancient herb already for herbalists, whose name derives from its place in the mythical stories of the classic mediterranean cultures and its place as a wound healing herb. With its broad distribution right across Eurasia and northern America, its complex taxonomy with dozens of synonyms and varieties. The vast number of common local names point to interest or selection not just a long way back for us as modern humans but perhaps to the culture of Neanderthal as well. It is often one of the introduced northern hemisphere herbs in gardens that can persist on its own just fine over here.
There is some debate over how or why Neanderthal would be eating yarrow and other herbs like chamomile. With the recently sequenced Neanderthal genome and genetic work showing they had taste receptors for bitterness like us, it seems unlikely they would’ve been consuming and utilising otherwise bitter herbs just as food.
Perhaps unsurprisingly yarrow was also noted as one of the herbs collected by European Blue Tits to line their nests which I’ve blogged on before. So even the birds seem to know about this one.
Solecki, R. S., ‘The Implications of the Shanidar Cave Neanderthal Flower Burial’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Volume 29 (July 1977), p. 114-125. Available online at:
found via – http://arkeotecnia.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/bural-practices-in-neanderthals.html
Hardy et al., Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus, Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature
Nature News – Neanderthals ate their greens http://www.nature.com/news/neanderthals-ate-their-greens-1.11030
Bitter taste perception in Neanderthals through the analysis of the TAS2R38 gene, Biology Letters, 2009, vol. 5 (6): 809-811 http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/5/6/809