History of Herbal Medicine


The use of plants as medicines predates written human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans were using medicinal plants during the Paleolithic, approximately 60,000 years ago. (Furthermore, other non-human primates are also known to ingest medicinal plants to treat illness.) Plant samples gathered from prehistoric burial sites support the claim that Paleolithic peoples had knowledge of herbal medicine. For instance, a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site, “Shanidar IV”, in northern Iraq has yielded large amounts of pollen from 8 plant species, 7 of which are used now as herbal remedies. Medicinal herbs were found in the personal effects of Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was frozen in the Ötztal Alps for more than 5,000 years. These herbs appear to have been used to treat the parasites found in his intestines.

In Mesopotamia, the written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium).

Ancient History

In Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus around 1500 BC, which contains information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake. Herbs used by Egyptian healers were mostly indigenous in origin, although some were imported from other regions like Lebanon. Other than papyri, evidence of herbal medicine has also been found in tomb illustrations or jars containing traces of herbs.

In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 4,000 BC. Earliest Sanskrit writings such as the Rig Veda, and Atharva Veda are some of the earliest available documents detailing the medical knowledge that formed the basis of the Ayurveda system. Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were later described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charakaand 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.

Shennong_bencao_jingBy 2,000 BC, Chinese started prescribing to herbal medicines. In China, seeds likely used for herbalism have also been found in the archaeological sites of Bronze Age China dating from the Shang Dynasty. The mythological Chinese emperor Shennong is said to have written the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing”. The “Shennong Ben Cao Jing” lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses – including Ephedra (the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine), hemp, and chaulmoogra (one of the first effective treatments for leprosy). Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.

The earliest known Greek herbals were those of Diocles of Carystus, written during the 3rd century BC, and one by Krateuas from the 1st century BC. Only a few fragments of these works have survived intact, but from what remains scholars have noted that there is a large amount of overlap with the Egyptian herbals. Greek and Roman medicinal practices, as preserved in the writings of Hippocrates 460BC (e.g. De herbis et curis) and – especially – Galen (e.g. Therapeutics), provided the pattern for later western medicine. Sometime between 50 and 68 A.D., a Greek physician known as Pedanius Dioscorides wrote Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (commonly known by its Latin title De Materia Medica), a compendium of more than 600 plants, 35 animal products, and ninety minerals. De Materia Medica remained the authoritative reference of herbalism into the 17th century. Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum, written in the 4th century BC, which was the first systematization of the botanical world.

Middle Ages

Benedictine monasteries were the primary source of medical knowledge in Europe and England during the Early Middle Ages. However, most of these monastic scholars’ efforts were focused on translating and copying ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic works, rather than creating substantial new information and practices. Many Greek and Roman writings on medicine, as on other subjects, were preserved by hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries. The monasteries thus tended to become local centers of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens provided the raw materials for simple treatment of common disorders. At the same time, folk medicine in the home and village continued uninterrupted, supporting numerous wandering and settled herbalists. Among these were the “wise-women” and “wise men”, who prescribed herbal remedies often along with spells, enchantments, divination and advice. It was not until the late Middle Ages that women and men who were knowledgeable in herb lore became the targets of the witch hysteria. One of the most famous women in the herbal tradition was Hildegard von Bingen. A 12th-century Benedictine nun, she wrote a medical text called Causae et Curae.

Early Modern Era

The 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries were the great age of herbals, many of them available for the first time in English and other languages rather than Latin or Greek.

2-R.14.101The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous Grete Herball of 1526. The two best-known herbals in English were The Herball or General History of Plants (1597) by John Gerard and The English Physician Enlarged (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper. Gerard’s text was basically a pirated translation of a book by the Belgian herbalist Dodoens and his illustrations came from a German botanical work. The original edition contained many errors due to faulty matching of the two parts. Culpepper’s blend of traditional medicine with astrology, magic, and folklore was ridiculed by the physicians of his day, yet his book – like Gerard’s and other herbals – enjoyed phenomenal popularity. The Age of Exploration and the Columbian Exchange introduced new medicinal plants to Europe. The Badianus Manuscript was an illustrated Mexican herbal written in Nahuatl and Latin in the 16th century .