Once upon a time, people used plants for healing and it wasn’t referred to as “alternative”. Back then, “traditional” medicine referred to that which had been around the longest, which was healing based on the use of plants and nature. Now, things have changed and we occasionally need a reminder that nature has been providing medicine for millennia and can still be trusted to provide it today. One of those reminders came just a couple years ago when archaeologists discovered a wooden box full of medicine in a 2,000 year-old sunken ship off the coast of Tuscany.
The ship was believed to have sank around 130 B.C., well over 2,000 years ago. It was transporting wine, glassware, lams, and ceramics. It isn’t clear where the ship originated or what its final destination was, but we do know there was likely a healer on board.
Inside a wooden box, preserved deep under the sea, was a collection of pills. Using DNA sequencing, scientists were able to determine what was inside these pills, and it wasn’t some lab-created, branded pharmaceuticals.
The pills contained all natural plants and materials including crushed celery, onions, carrots, cabbage, alfalfa, chestnuts, radish, yarrow, parsley, nasturtium, hibiscus, and clay. Also within the box was a mortar and pestle, likely used to crush the plants and herbs for the medicinal preparations.
“It’s a spectacular find. They were very well sealed. The plants and vegetables were probably crushed with a mortar and pestle – we could still see the fibres in the tablets. They also contained clay, which even today is used to treat gastrointestinal problems,” said Dr Alain Touwaide, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC.
The finding marks the oldest known remains of ancient medicines. Dr. Alain Touwaide from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington D.C. says that the remedies are those documented in Ancient Greek texts, which were later modeled by Ancient Romans—both of whom can trace their medical practices to Africa, the ‘true birthplace of medicine’.
More than likely, the researchers say, the medicine was used to treat general malaise and those digestive complaints common with sailors on the high seas. To this day, many of the components found within these ancient pills are still used to treat modern ailments—including clay for upset stomachs, celery for rheumatism, and onion for infections.
There are people who would argue that the life expectancy of a person in these ancient times was dramatically less than a person today, and that their herbal medicines weren’t doing anyone any favors. But, this is a narrow-view, failing to look at the shortcomings of sanitation and the spread of disease back then. Now, for instance, we don’t live with open sewage and we all know to cook our foods to a proper temperature.
There are commendable advances that have taken place over the past few thousand years, to be sure. Better housing, more sound infrastructure, and cleaner living in general are just a few. But, there’s a chance we could learn something from our predecessors—namely, that some things should not be forsaken or left behind in the name of advancement; that some things, including natural healing, truly are timeless.