A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine has great antiquity, with therapeutic roots extending back to ancient Egypt in what was then known as Khemet or Tamare.

In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme.

The ancient Egyptians who were themselves actual descendants of the near mythical and pre-historic Sumerian civilizations are credited to have had the worlds earliest holistic medicine systems. These systems were officially endorsed and recognized by even the almighty priest class that wielded such enormous powers over the populace.

Ancient Egyptian medicine traditions of 1000 B.C. and of an even much much earlier period, are known to have used garlic, opium, castor oil, coriander, mint, indigo, and other herbs for medicine and the Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation, including mandrake, vetch, caraway, wheat, barley, and rye. This is an over simplification however as Egyptians had an almost universally revered reputation as practitioners of highly sophisticated forms of medicine. The excellent embalming of mummies is a prime example of an Egyptian practice which could be traced even further back in time to near pre-historical times by Egyptian calendars’ reckoning. Records of the existence of these highly sophisticated healing systems are just beginning to emerge with the discoveries of new methods of understanding the language semantics of antiquity Egypt.

Like almost every other invention or technological advancement in antiquity (the pre-historic Sumerians and their predecessors in early Egyptian kingdoms) these therapeutic systems were then transferred and adopted by the outside world through centuries and millenniums of interactions and contacts.

Chinese herbal medicine like it’s near counterpart in Egypt also has great antiquity, with therapeutic roots extending back to Zhou Dynasty, Late Bronze/Early Iron Age at about 2500 to 3000 years ago. From its shamanistic origins, herbalism in archaic China evolved in response to causation or origination concepts current at the time. These notions of the causes of disease in human society related directly to the troubled socio-economic environment that prevailed in early China in the latter half of the first millennium BC.

The Shennong Bencao Jing, the first Chinese herbal book compiled in the Hang Dynasty era, lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses. Ma-Huang the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine is among the plants listed in the compilation. Included are references to 247 substances that were used by these early people for many different maladies among them back pain relief. Succeeding generations from the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing.

By 1596, the Ben Cao Gang Mu of the Ming medical literatus Li Shizhen (1518-1593) exemplified the apogee of Chinese herbalism. Published three years after his demise, this Grand Materia Medica contained no less than 1892 entries. In the succeeding centuries of the Imperial Era, Chinese herbal medicine continued to develop. Despite the temporary setbacks incurred following the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, it remains on equal footing with biomedicine in China today.

Another system of medicinal herbs, the Indian Ayurveda (Sanskrit for “science of mind body” ) has used herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 1900 B.C. Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurvedic medicine were later described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charaka and Sushruta during the 1st millennium BC. The Sushruta Samhita attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources. Here again, we could find clear evidence of the unquestionable influence of antiquity and pre-historic Egypt which pre-dated all ancient world civilizations by possibly tens of millenniums.

Today, many modern, and Western, medicine practitioners are beginning to look at herbal remedies for some common, and not-so common, disorders like arthritis and psoriasis. The lower cost, and often safer use, has attracted many medical professionals. Some physicians use herbs to off-set the side effects of pharmaceuticals a practice that’s already rapidly picking up in most parts of the Western World.

We have witnessed the rapid rise of the use of herbal plants for medicinal purposes as traditional healing arts aka alternative medicine become more accepted in the western medical practices. The Wellness Industry and Health/Fitness Industry have gained massive popularity with near geometric growth last 20 or so years. We have seen the rise in popularity even among household brand names for Personal Care and Beauty products containing therapeutic herbal extracts, as the modern informed consumers discover the hidden therapeutic secrets and rejuvenating powers of mother natures flora.

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