Historical Cache of Medicinal Plants

By Mlot, Christine | Science News, April 5, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Historical Cache of Medicinal Plants


Mlot, Christine, Science News


To piece together a picture of the way people lived in the past, archaeologists and anthropologists have to do just that-pull together remains and artifacts that have been scattered by animals and the elements. That's why researchers at a meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology in Athens, Ga., last week were impressed to hear a report about a 17th-century medicine kit from the U.S. Southwest: The kit had survived in a dry rock crevice with most of its botanical contents intact.

Mollie S. Toll, an ethnobotanist at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and her colleagues scrutinized the unusual collection of bundled stems, roots, and other plant parts contained in a pair of woven baskets. They identified at least 26 different types of nonedible plants, some of which grow far from the baskets' resting place in the Galisteo Basin southeast of Santa Fe.

"It's unusual to have so many plant materials together," says Toll. "Somebody had a list of plants and made sure they got them from a wide range of places." Whoever it was also seemed to have specialized knowledge of the plants' properties. The baskets included roots from two plants with strong, potentially toxic ingredients: wild iris and what appears to be jimson weed.

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