Herbal medicine is an ancient folk practice that is as old as civilization. Since the dawn of modern man, hundreds, even thousands, of wild and cultivated medicinal herbs have been used to treat all manner of ailments and disease. The use of herbs for medicinal purposes was universal among pre-historic and non-industrialized societies.
Archeological Findings on Herbal Medicine
Archeological evidence from present-day Iraq suggests that as early as 60,000 years ago, Neanderthal man used herbs for medicinal purposes. Many millennia later, archeologists discovered rock paintings in the Lascaux caves in France, which depicted the use of medicinal herbs as healing agents. These have been radiocarbon dated to between 13,000 – 25,000 BC.
Anthropologists theorize that over time, and with trial and error, a small base of herbal medical knowledge accumulated within prehistoric tribal communities. As this knowledge base expanded over the generations, the specialized role of the herbalist emerged. The process would likely have occurred in varying manners within a wide diversity of cultures.
Herbal Medicine in the Ancient World
The historical use of herbal medicinals was recorded by the great herbalists and physicians of the ancient world. The ancient Egyptians left us the earliest known writings on herbal medicinals. These were recorded on fragments of papyrus and clay tablets that date back 5,000 years. In 1500 BC, an Egyptian text called Papyrus Ebers was written, detailing over 700 herbal remedies.
In Europe, ancient scholars such as Theophrastus, Pliny, Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides also wrote about herbal remedies. In the first century BC, the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote a treatise called ‘De materia medica’. It was translated into Latin and Arabic and became the basis for many later works. It was the most authoritative and influential work on medicinal plants until the late 17th century.
In the 18th century, conventional medicine begun to grow in popularity, as herbal medicine was increasingly sidelined to rural areas. This trend would continue well into the 20th century, when the scientific and public interest in herbal medicine was rekindled.
Herbal Medicine Today
Today, many of the drugs available to us have a long history of use as herbal remedies. In fact, approximately 25% of modern drugs used in the United States have been derived from plants. According to the WHO, more than 70% of modern plant-derived medicines are used in ways that correlate directly with their traditional uses.
However, our modern-day knowledge and understanding of herbal medicine has been a process of rediscovery, since much of it was lost through the centuries. Today, as the use of and search for medicinal plants have accelerated, major pharmaceutical companies as well as pharmacologists, microbiologists and botanists are combing the Earth for herbs that could be developed for the treatment of various diseases. We are re-discovering the healthy, healing powers of the humble herb.