Herbs today are experiencing a worldwide renaissance, with around 75% of the world’s population using herbs to meet their basic health needs. But is the effectiveness of herbal medicine confirmed, and is it really as ancient as we think? Join us as we explore a brief history of herbal medicine.
Earliest Evidence of Herbal Medicine
Our study of the history of herbal medicine begins in an ancient burial site in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where a series of Neanderthal bones were discovered that dated back 60,000 years. Laboratory analysis of the soil surrounding the bones of “Shanidar IV” was found to contain pollen from eight different species of flowers that still exist in Iraq today — seven of which are listed by Al-Rawi and Chakravarty in their work Medicinal Plants of Iraq (1964). The presence of these plants suggests that our Neanderthal ancestors recognized their medicinal value tens of thousands of years ago, using them in burial rituals and practices.
Another piece of evidence for the long history of herbal medicine include samples of Chinese herbal medicines that have been documented for 8,000 years. Both of these finds have been milestones in support of the effectiveness of herbal medicine, as they demonstrate that people have been using botanicals to meet their health and cultural needs for thousands of years — and humanity has survived to tell the tale!
The Traditions that Shape Modern Herbal Medicine
While the history of herbal medicine has often been highly localized (such as the use of kratom in Southeast Asia), four major systems of herbal medicine have developed over the millennia, which are now used by herbal practitioners around the globe. According to the 2014 article Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices, these four systems are:
- Chinese Herbal Medicine (35,000 plant species, including 256 endemic genera)
- Indian Herbal Medicine (20,000 medicinal plants, of which 7,500 are used today)
- Arabic Herbal Medicine (2,600 plant species, of which 700 are used as medicine and pesticides)
- Western Herbal Medicine (draws mainly on the European and North American traditions)
Thanks to exploration, trade, and the spread of major world empires, many of these medicinal herbs have become known and used around the world. This has widened the repertoire of herbs available to modern healers. However, it has unfortunately placed an unsustainable strain on these natural resources as they grow in the wild. Careful management and local cultivation will be important to ensure that the history of herbal medicine can continue into the future.
Renewed Public Interest in Herbal Medicine and Future Directions
While modern drugs can save lives when used in an emergency, health-damaging side effects and a lack of effectiveness for improving long-term conditions have turned public interest back to the effectiveness of herbal medicines. As research continues to demonstrate the beneficial pharmacological properties of herbal medicines, we can look forward to some exciting developments as we move into the future.