Sunday, March 31, 2013

10,000 B.C.: The first Materia Medica

The year 30,000 B.C. is often considered as the dawn of medicine.  By then men and women learned to socialize, and to love and care for their fellow human beings.  A pharmacopoeia had developed, and it, along with myths and food recipes, was shared by means of easy to remember lyrics.  Most clans had at least one person, an elderly woman perhaps, who remembered the recipes, and utilized them when needed.

When a young boy becomes short of breath, his body stiff as he struggles to inhale, perhaps due to asthma, his mother recognizes his agony and she emphasizes with him.  She makes every effort to comfort him, and it's useless.  So she sends for the wise old lady, the medicine lady perhaps, who approaches the boy wearing animal skins, replete with charms and rattles and drums with the magic ability to communicate with the spirits and demons abounding.

The old magical lady reaches into her pocket and pulls out some herbs, perhaps with some poppy seeds included, and asks for a bowl that the boy's mother provides.  She then has the boy stand before her, as she whispers and sings incantations as she mixes and stirs the herbs into the solution.  Then she does a little dance, rattles her beads and pounds on her drums.  Then she places her hands upon the boy's forehead, and her lips to his lips, and then pops back as she shouts "The evil has now passed."

The boy continues to be stiff, and to work against the symptoms caused by the evil spirits that are no longer within him.  Then, finally, as though by some miracle or magical means, his tense shoulders relax, his breathing is easy, and he lies back and falls fast asleep.  The medicine woman sets forth on her knees, presses her hands upon the boy's shoulders, and blesses him with another incantation, before walking off into the distant night.

The medicine lady was proud of herself, and she continued to chant incantations as she walked.  She believed the the medicine worked because of magic provided by the spirits or gods, and when it was used for good it was white magic.  When it was used for evil purposes, as poison, it was referred to as black magic. Regardless, it's  probable such original pharmacologists as this were "eyed with suspicion."  (1, page 24)(4, page 23)

Humans had already learned that living in small groups was advantageous, and made hunting for food, creating shelter, and, as seen here, healing the sick easier.  By around 10,000 B.C. they learned how to better manage the land, and many of these smaller groups became united and formed the first civilizations.  They put their heads together and learned how to best irrigate and harvest crops, and they created gods and religions and laws.  These were all necessary in order to keep order among the society, and to provide an incentive for each man and woman to do his or her part for the benefit of the many.

There were many advantages to working together, and one was that "People began to specialize.  Some people farmed.  Others took care of the animals.  And now there were chances to do things people had never done before.  People had time to work on their crafts.  Weavers wove grass into fine baskets. Others made pottery from clay and baked it in ovens.  Using wool from sheep, some people learned to spin thread and to weave cloth," according to Joanne Suter in "World History."  (3, page 19)

She explains that "as different jobs developed, so did trading.  A weaver might trade his cloth for food from the farmer.  A goat might be traded for an ax from the toolmaker.  First, trading was carried on within the village.  Later people traded from one village to the next." This increased trading resulted in ideas and culture being shared, including medical wisdom.  Perhaps this might have been how knowledge of the first inhalers the medicine lady mentioned above invented.  (3, page 19)  This, perhaps, was what occurred in the earliest days of what would become ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and what was the beginning of the agricultural revolution in about 10,000 years before Christ.

The medicine woman had time to work on creating better incantations, and to search the forests and streams for herbs she needed for her potions.  Sometimes she discovered new herbs, and experimented with them to learn their magical abilities.  One day she discovered a plant that would later be called the belladonna plant, and she pulled it from the ground, and she let it sit in the sun for two days, allowing it to become sun dried.  She crushed the roots, leaves and stems into a bowl, and discovered that they, like the poppy seeds, had the ability to cause a soothing effect.

Several years later she was called to another asthmatic boy, and she had no poppy seeds with her.  So she grabbed a handful of the crushed and sun dried belladonna roots, and, in her usual dance routine, some of the herbs spilled onto a heated brick that was on the fire, and the asthmatic boy inhaled the smoke this created and the result was a soothing effect, and also it made his breathing easier.  So the medicine lady had a new remedy to add to her pharmacopoeia.

There was another significant reason for people getting together in this way, and it was the unity required to irrigate the land and harvest the crops  The greatest minds got together and learned how to dig canals and build aqueducts to control the flow of water, and invent new tools and find new material for building.  As numbers increased, so to did the need to incentivize the people to be loyal, productive members of society.  For this reason laws and religions were created to encourage, even force compliance with the wishes of the aristocracy.

Kinds and queens were chosen to create these laws, and priests were selected to manage the religions.  They worked together to provide the people with a reason to get up in the morning, and to do the arduous work needed for the society to stay together.  They created the gods, and they ordered for large temples to be built where the people could go for worship, and see as a daily reminder that the gods are ubiquitous and can see everything you do, even hear your thoughts.

As society advanced in this way, a need arose for communication, and this lead to the invention of the first languages.  There also arose a need to keep track of when the sun rose and when it set, and to determine when the annual floods would occur.  Accurate measurements were needed to construct the monuments and temples.  For generations and generation legends, myths, recipes and formulas were relayed from one generation to the next by word of mouth, usually by easy to remember lyrics of poems and songs.  Yet this was no longer useful, as recipes and formulas became too abounding and complex.  So a written language was invented.

An early example of a written language was discovered on the wall of a cave in Pindal, where archaeologists discovered a crude drawing in red ochre the outlines of a mammoth with a dark dot in the middle, perhaps a representation of the heart.  This may have been the first time a person shared knowledge to future generations by writing.  It was also proof primitive, savage, or prehistoric people knew what parts of the body were essential to life. (2, page 21)(1, page 106)

Yet such primitive methods of communication were no longer valid by 4,000 B.C., and why great minds among the Sumerians created such the first written language.  Lyrics shared by word of mouth could now be written down, and this made it easier to share knowledge between generations.  Each generation no longer had to start from scratch, and this allowed for formulas and recipes to become more complex.  This provided increased time and another incentive to discover and invent, so new wisdom could be compiled above the old.

Laws were carved into stone for all to see.  Perhaps the best and earliest example of this were the Hammurabi Codes carved into stone around 1772 B.C. This was perhaps the best incentive for people to be  loyal, productive members of society, because noncompliance meant you would be punished according to the crime you committed.  Food and medical recipes were written down, and these became the first cook book and the first written pharmacopoeia, or Materia Medica

The brightest members of society were chosen to be kings, queens, priests, and scribes.  These were among the few, perhaps less than ten percent, among the society who were educated.  The rest of society remained ignorant, and perhaps this was done on purpose to assure compliance with the wishes and desires of the aristocracy.

Temples became places of healing, and they became the schools.  Teachers were needed to educate children born to the aristocracy, and as wisdom progressed some of the scribes became teachers and priests became physicians.

  1. Sigerist, Henry E "History of Medicine," volume I: Primitive and Archaic Medicine, 1951, Oxford University Press, New York, pages 
  2. Prioreschi, Plinio, "A History of Medicine," vol. 1
  3. Suter, Joanne, "Fearon's World History," 2nd edition, 1994, U.S., Globe Fearon Educational Publishing
  4. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An Introduction to the history of medicine," 1921
  5. Wilder, Alexander, "History of Medicine, a brief outline of medical history and sects of physicians, from the earliest historic period; with an extended account of the new schools of the healing art in the nineteenth century, adn especially a history of the American eclectic practice of medicine, never before published," 1901, Maine, New England Eclectic Publishing Co.

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