Poppies for insomnia. Cannabis for mental health. Cayenne pepper for headaches. Throughout history, we have treated our health problems in a wide variety of ways. This ranged from sweat baths to surgery to cannibalism. Ancient people thought about medicine, disease, and health in diverse ways and that could look different depending on the place and time. Some of these practices died off, while others made it across oceans and persist to this day. One of my favorite things to learn about is the history of medicine, so, in a series of posts, I'm going to take you on a grand tour across time and space to learn all about how people in the past treated health problems.
Medical Thought in the Ancient World
Plants have long been harnessed to treat a variety of health problems. The opium poppy was widely used across the Mediterranean, including Ancient Greece. This plant was smoked, toasted, ground up, or made into drinks, and was used as an anesthetic, hallucinogenic, and narcotic to treat pain and insomnia. Ancient Greek texts make many mentions of this plant. Medical treatises, such as those written by well-known physician Hippocrates, describe the variety of ways to prepare the poppy. Homer’s epic poem The Iliad mentions the plant:
...as when a poppy in the garden drops its head to one side, weighed down with its fruit or with the spring rain, so his head fell to one side under the helmet’s burden...
In ancient Crete and across the Eastern Mediterranean, poppies were not only an important medicine but a powerful symbol of immortality, fertility, wealth, and healing. Archaeologists working across Greece have recovered artifacts like brooches, hairpins, rings, figurines, and jars depicting a Minoan “goddess of poppies.” Poppy imagery was also closely associated with Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. These ancient depictions reveal how important poppy and its byproducts were to ancient Mediterranean life, and also shows how closely related medicine, ritual, and spirituality were in antiquity.
This is a good time to mention that as we take this journey through history people in the past treated illness in a way that made sense in their own time and place. While ancient people didn’t have microscopes or high-tech laboratories, we know they were knowledgeable and interested in learning about the human body and how to treat its ailments.
In fact, ancient medical practitioners in Egypt had a vast knowledge of anatomy, chemistry, physiology, and botany and were able to accurately diagnose illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders. Luckily for archaeologists, ancient Egyptian physicians recorded their knowledge on papyri, some of which still survive today. These documents reveal how ancient Egyptians, in many cases, treated illness with a combination of medicine, surgery, and magic.
One important document is the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to 1550 BCE. This papyrus describes over 300 medicinal ingredients, many of which are plants, and instructions to make nearly 900 concoctions. The Ebers Papyrus describes the vascular system and outlines treatments for migraines as well as cardiovascular, gynecological, ophthalmological, and dermatological disorders. Other papyri describe diseases like guinea worm disease, schistosomiasis, and malaria, marking some of the earliest descriptions of these infections.
In the Ancient Mediterranean world, a guiding medical concept was the “four humors.” Developed in the writings of the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the “four humours” were based on the even more ancient concept of the “four elements”: air, earth, fire, and water. The four humours refer to four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Hippocrates, and his followers, such as his fellow Ancient Greek physician Galen, believed that all ailments were caused by an imbalance between the humans. Treatments were used to restore balance and order to the body. This concept and its treatments gained popularity centuries after it was first written down, but more on that later :)
Archaeological clues about treatments to ancient health problems extend beyond the Mediterranean. Archaeological evidence of cannabis, otherwise known as the devil's lettuce, from across Asia has been dated to as old as 6,000 years. Some of the oldest known evidence of this plant comes from China. Cannabis was used in a variety of ways–its strong fibers were made into fabrics, rope, and paper. Its oily seeds were eaten as a nutritious grain. And! It was used as a medicine. Historically across East Asia, cannabis was smoked, especially as part of ritual and religious practices. Based on archaeological evidence, people in western China smoked cannabis as long as 2,500 years ago.
In addition to smoking the leaves, people used the fruit, roots, and leaves to treat pain, coughs, insomnia, mental illness, and muscle spasms. Archaeologists working in multiple sites across East and Central Asia have recovered evidence of cannabis use. In Xi’an, China, archaeologists analyzed pollen grains from pottery at a Neolithic site. They found pollen grains that were likely deposited by a cannabis plant. At the Yanghai Tombs near Turpan, China, the burial site of a shaman revealed a cache of well-preserved, 2,700-year-old cannabis.
In ancient North America, one of the most important medicinal plants was tobacco. In fact, tobacco is one of the oldest domesticated plants in the Americas–even older than corn. Tobacco was likely first used by the Maya in Central America, but by the 13th century, the use of tobacco was widespread across the Americas. In the late 1400s, the Taino, the Indigenous people of what is now Puerto Rico, introduced the plant to Columbus.
Tobacco was used for different purposes in different places. In Venezuela, tobacco was used as a toothpaste. In Mexico, tobacco leaves were applied topically to cuts and burns. Perhaps the most well-known way to use tobacco is to smoke it. At a site in ancestral Nez Perce territory in southeastern Washington state, archaeologists have recovered some of the oldest evidence for smoking tobacco. A team of archaeologists conducted biomolecular analysis on residues from the inside of pipes and pipe fragments and found that hunter-gatherer communities smoked tobacco at least 1,200 years ago. Tobacco, along with sweetgrass, sage, and cedar, is still considered a sacred medicine by many Indigenous communities today, and the use of tobacco is experiencing a modern resurgence.
Plants were not the only medicinal treatments in the ancient world. Across Central and South America, people built sweat baths to treat a variety of ailments. Much like a sauna, sweat baths were thought to help maladies like coughs, muscle aches, stiffness, skin conditions, fevers, and broken bones. Based on archaeological and historical data, herbal remedies were likely taken at sweat baths to enhance the healing properties.
At a Classical Maya site in Guatemala, archaeologists excavated an approximately 1,500 year old central marketplace which includes a series of stone sweat baths. They conducted pollen analysis on artifacts and human teeth from the site, and found evidence of pollen grains from the sunflower family alongside traces of pine resin, which were used to treat toothaches. Macrobotanical analysis revealed evening primrose, which was used to treat infection and inflammation, as well as peppers, which were used to treat respiratory conditions. The archaeologists argue that these plants were given in conjunction with steam from the sweat baths as a healing treatment.
Did you know that there is archaeological evidence of ancient neurosurgery from every continent except Antarctica? A practice called trepanning, which is when a physician makes a hole in the skull of a living person, was actually pretty common across the world. Trepanning was generally used as a treatment for headaches, epilepsy, skull fractures, and mental illness. The practice of trepanning can be readily seen in archaeological records–holes in skulls are good evidence. But how effective was it?
Archaeologists working at archaeological burial sites near Cuzco, Peru, conducted a survey of the remains of 66 individuals with trepanning holes and found that 83% of them survived their surgery. They also found that the surgeons sharpened their skills, as survival rates increased over time. Ancient Andean neurosurgeons were extremely knowledgeable about human anatomy–almost 3,000 years ago, they were able to avoid damaging certain areas of the brain that they knew would inflict irreparable damage.
That's all for now, but stay tuned for more!!! I still have so much to tell you!!!