Skip to comments.What Secrets Do Ancient Medical Texts Hold?
Posted on 05/13/2011 9:32:18 PM PDT by Palter
The Smithsonian's Alain Touwaide studies ancient books to identify medicines used thousands of years ago
In 2002, Alain Touwaide came across an article about the discovery, some years before, of a medical kit salvaged from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany. Divers had brought up a copper bleeding cup, a surgical hook, a mortar, vials and tin containers. Miraculously, inside one of the tins, still dry and intact, were several tablets, gray-green in color and about the size of a quarter.
Touwaide, a science historian in the botany department at the National Museum of Natural History, recognized that the tablets were the only known samples of medicine preserved since antiquity. I was going to do everything I could to get them, he says.
Touwaide, 57, has devoted his career to unearthing lost knowledge. He is proficient in 12 languages, including ancient Greek, and he scours the globe searching for millennia-old medical manuscripts. Within their pages are detailed accounts and illustrations of remedies derived from plants and herbs.
After 18 months of negotiations, Touwaide obtained two samples of the 2,000-year-old tablets from Italys Department of Antiquities. He then recruited Robert Fleischer, head geneticist at the Smithsonians Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, to identify plant components in the pills. Fleischer was skeptical at first, figuring that the plants DNA was long degraded. But once I saw plant fibers and little bits of ground-up plant material in close-up images of the tablets, I started to think maybe these really are well preserved, he says.
Over the past seven years, Fleischer has painstakingly extracted DNA from the samples and compared it with DNA in GenBank, a genetic database maintained by the National Institutes of Health. He has found traces of carrot, parsley, alfalfa, celery, wild onion, radish, yarrow, hibiscus and sunflower (though he suspects the sunflower, which botanists consider a New World plant, is a modern contaminant). The ingredients were bound together by clay in the tablets.
Armed with Fleishers DNA results, Touwaide cross-referenced them with mentions of the plants in early Greek texts including the Hippocratic Collectiona series loosely attributed to Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine. Touwaide found that most of the tablets ingredients had been used to treat gastrointestinal disorders, which were common among sailors. Afflicted seafarers, Touwaide speculates, might have diluted the tablets in wine, vinegar or water to ingest them.
This latest research will be added to the holdings of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditionsa nonprofit organization founded by Touwaide and his wife and colleague, Emanuela Appetiti, a cultural anthropologist.
The knowledge to do what Im doing is disappearing, says Touwaide, surrounded by his 15,000 volumes of manuscripts and reference books, collectively named Historia Plantarum (History of Plants). With manuscripts deteriorating and fewer students learning ancient Greek and Latin, he feels a sense of urgency to extract as much information as possible from the ancient texts. He says they tell stories about the lives of ancient physicians and trade routes and contain even such esoterica as an ancient system for describing colors.
This is important work, says Fleischer. He is trying to tie all this together to get a broader picture of how people in ancient cultures healed themselves with plant products."
Hippocrates and other ancient physicians wrote detailed accounts of remedies derived from plants and herbs.
An illustration of plants and herbs likely used by Hippocrates.
Fascinating. I love this stuff.
Some of this old stuff was probably better and with fewer side effects than what is being prescribed today by mainstream medical. Aloe, for example, works better for burns and bee stings than anything else I have tried.
Have you tried keeping the aloe in your fridge? It really helps for sunburns.
Well, my kids and I are doing our best to learn Greek and Latin, with the help of Classical Academic Press and Classical Conversations homeschool group. (Zero thanks to public school ...)
We have recently seen how the ancient cures can truly be more effective than modern medicine, as Jim Rob’s leg was saved by honey made from plant nectar. That Manuka Honey is also good for those gastrointestinal ailments.
Nice article and link. Thanks for posting.
It was not always so.
I took four years of Latin in the early 1960s (at a public high school, no less!) and have never regretted doing so. There were actually two full time Latin teachers at that one high school.
I still live in the same area, and I don't believe Latin is taught anywhere in the district (with about 90,000 students in K through 12) anymore. Pity.
Kudos to you for teaching it (and Greek) to your children.
Keeping it in the fridge won't alleviate the problem... Rather, you should apply it to the burnt skin.
Aloe is good for burns, but Tea Tree Oil is flat out amazing. YMMV.
Aloe is also good for stomach ailments.
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