A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine represents our earliest attempt at healing ourselves, and indeed even some animals seek out certain types of plant when they have been injured or are sick. Elk were observed by Native Americans to seek out Echinacea plants when they were sick, which led to them calling the plants ‘Elk Root'; other wild animals have been seen to chew willow bark when in distress (we now know that willow bark contains salicylic acid, or Aspirin as it is known when synthesised) and monkeys and primates often seek out certain fruits and roots when they are sick.

Presumably our ancestors would have self-medicated in just this way, no doubt a long time before they evolved the power of speech. Estimates as to the precise time when Homo sapiens arose vary from around 100,000 years ago at the most conservative to up to 600,000 years ago at the most generous (paleoanthropology is a very competitive science, and every researcher would like their earliest dated humanoid bone fragments to be confirmed as human rather than ‘proto-human', but that is another article in itself!) but what is undoubted is that our ancestors were African.

However long ago H. sapiens originally arose, we began to spread out from Africa by around 100,000 years ago, displacing and eventually driving to extinction other hominids (our cousins) such as H. erectus and (later) H. neanderthalensis. By 60,000 years ago we had reached what is now Australia, and the northernmost tip of America was colonised by around 20,000 years ago. Amazingly, it took just 1000 years or so for humans to spread from what is now Alaska to the tip of South America, and when one considers the range of climates and geographical conditions that exist in the Americas, one can but marvel at the resourcefulness and adaptability of our species.

By around 1000 years ago, even the most remote inhabitable Pacific Islands had been colonised.

The reader may be forgiven at this point for wondering what this fly-by tour of human prehistory has to do with herbalism, but the point is a simple one. In every environment that humans have made a home, they have quickly discovered all food crop plants, and all medicinal plants. Every culture, in every climate (we must here exempt cultures such as the Inuit and Tartars of northern Siberia, for whom plants formed little part of their diet) has invented their own form of herbalism.

Herbalism in most cultures takes two forms – medicine and ritualism. Some plants are to be eaten when you are sick, and some are to be used for shamanic rituals and other religious practices.

In the West, herbal remedies began to lose popularity during the enlightenment, and with the beginnings of modern medicine at the end of the 17th century, it might have seemed as though the decline of herbalism was inevitable. Today though, even though we have the most advanced synthetic drugs and medical practices we have ever had, many researchers are looking to herbs and their extracts as possible ways to treat some of our most deadly diseases. Even as I write, labs around the world are testing plants and synthesising analogues of their extracts for trials against cancers and incurable viral infections such as HIV.

We no longer have need for the ritualism and faith healing of shamans, but our ancestors have one piece of advice for us that shines undimmed through the millennia – know your herbs and make use of the plants in your environment, as they may one day save your life. And yet we continue to grub up an area of rainforest the size of Kentucky every year, destroying for ever countless species of plants as yet unknown to Western science.

In conclusion, despite all our advances and all our knowledge, we may yet have reason to rely upon herbs and their extracts, and we destroy them at our peril.

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