The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method

By Lola Romanucci-Ross; Daniel E. Moerman et al. | Go to book overview

PART II
EMPIRICAL ANALYSES OF NON-WESTERN MEDICAL PRACTICES AND MEDICAL ECOLOGY

Non-Western folk or tribal medical systems use a broad range of botanical and other elements in the treatment of the sick. That these herbal systems may reside within complex and medically significant ideologies in no way mitigates the fact that the herbs themselves are significant as medicines.

Humans have been experimenting with medicinal plants for a long time. Indeed, although one cannot be certain that they were used medicinally then, the fact that most of the pollens found by Solecki with the middle Paleolithic burial of Shanidar IV were from plants still in use medicinally by the local Iraqi population suggests that they were so used. One of the plants identified was Ephedra, source of ephedrine, a substance widely used in modern medicine as an antihistamine. Several of the other plants also have substantial demonstrable active principles ( Solecki 1975).

That cases like these are not simple luck, that people carefully select medicinal plants and do not merely choose them at random, has been demonstrated twice, by independent researchers, in analyses of different continents. But, Hu, and Kong ( 1980), analyzing the use of 4,941 species of Chinese medicinal plants, and Moerman in Chapter 4, analyzing the use of 2,143 species of North American medicinal plants by Native Americans, have both concluded (by somewhat different techniques) that medicinal plants used are nonrandom selections of plants available. In addition, Moerman has shown that the plants selected tend to come from groups that produce biologically active substances to protect themselves against competition from other plants or from browsing by insects or vertebrates. At another analytical level, Michael Heinrich worked closely with Mixe healers in southern Mexico to determine how they selected plants for their medicinal value. His

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