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Animals and the Development of Ancient Pharmacopias

Julie Laskaris

University of Richmond

The study of zoopharmacognosy (animal self-medication) offers insight into the development of ancient pharmacopias.  Most studies are based on the observation of wild animals who appear to be intentionally engaging in therapeutic behaviors.  For instance, researchers observed chimpanzees choosing the bitter pith and leaves of non-nutritive plants apparently to control parasites and noted that humans in the region also used the same plants medicinally.

Greeks and Romans, too, observed animal behavior (correctly or not) and applied what they learned to the discovery and use of medicinal plants; some observations are of animal self-medication.  Dioscorides, for example, relates that deer ate elaphoboskon, which made them resistant to snake venom, and recommends the plant against venomous bites (3.80).  The deer's ingesting of this plant may lie behind Dioscorides's calling elsewhere for other parts of the deer to treat venomous bites or drive away venomous creatures (testes 2.43; bone marrow 2.95; blood 2.97).  Dioscorides states, too, that wild goats on Crete, having fed on dittany, expel arrows, and he lists uses for dittany involving expulsion (of a fetus) and wound treatment (3.37).

Other observations of animal use of medicinal plants are found in contexts that make the application to human medicine clear.  For instance, Theophrastus states that the Arcadians, living as they did in a region rich in medicinal plants, drank cow's milk in the spring in lieu of medicines, believing that the plants’ medicinal properties were strong enough then to be imparted to the milk (Inquiry into Plants 9.15.4).  Dioscorides observed goats browsing and notes that the medicinal properties of their milk are affected by what they eat (2.75).  Dioscorides comments, too, that cattle grow fat on apsinthion thalassion, which he prescribes for humans against parasites, though he does not explicitly connect the thriving of the cattle with parasite control (3.27).  Soranus describes the effects on the nursing young of sows and goats when their mothers eat darnel and scammony, respectively, and concludes that human nurses should eat any therapeutic foods required by sick babies (Gynecology 2.56).  Pliny mentions the benefits of milk infused with the qualities of medicinal herbs and he devotes two sections to medicinal grasses (Natural History 24.19, 98-99).  Similar observations may be behind other therapies where there is no overt mention of animals:  for instance, the recommendation for clover in white wine to cause a woman to expel a dead fetus may (Nature of Women 109.20) very well arise from the observation of sweet clover disease in cattle, which can cause internal hemorrhage and abortion.

Awareness that animals can be a source of medicinal knowledge for humans can cause us to think in broader ways about the ancient pharmacopias we investigate.  We can consider that hunters, herders, and farmers played a significant role in their development, and that the transmission of knowledge may have occurred over an extremely long period, as recent work on early humans also indicates. 

1Michael A. Huffman, "Self-Medicative Behavior in the African Great Apes:  An Evolutionary Perspective into the Origins of Human Traditional Medicine," BioScience 51.8 (August 2001), 651-661.

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From Plants to Planets: Human and nonhuman Relations in Ancient Medicine

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