The History of Herbalism

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The history of herbalism is closely tied with the history of medicine from prehistoric times up until the development of the germ theory of disease in the 19th century.

Modern medicine from the 19th century to today has been based on evidence gathered using the scientific method.

Evidence-based use of pharmaceutical drugs, often derived from medicinal plants, has largely replaced herbal treatments in modern health care.

However, many people continue to employ various forms of traditional or alternative medicine. These systems often have a significant herbal component.

The history of herbalism also overlaps with food history, as many of the herbs and spices historically used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds, and use of spices with antimicrobial activity in cooking is part of an ancient response to the threat of food-borne pathogens.


The use of plants as medicines predates written human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans were using medicinal plants during the Paleolithic, approximately 60,000 years ago.

Plant samples gathered from prehistoric burial sites have been thought to support the claim that Paleolithic peoples had knowledge of herbal medicine.

For instance, a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site, “Shanidar IV“, in northern Iraq has yielded large amounts of pollen from 8 plant species, 7 of which are used now as herbal remedies.

More recently Paul B. Pettitt has written that:

“A recent examination of the microfauna from the strata into which the grave was cut suggests that the pollen was deposited by the burrowing rodent Meriones tersicus, which is common in the Shanidar microfauna and whose burrowing activity can be observed today”.

Medicinal herbs were found in the personal effects of Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was frozen in the Ötztal Alps for more than 5,000 years. These herbs appear to have been used to treat the parasites found in his intestines.


In Mesopotamia, the written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium).

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian texts are of particular interest due to the language and translation controversies that accompany texts from this era and region.

These differences in conclusions stem from the lack of complete knowledge of the Egyptian language: many translations are composed of mere approximations between Egyptian and modern ideas, and there can never be complete certainty of meaning or context.

While physical documents are scarce, texts such as the Papyrus Ebers serve to illuminate and relieve some of the conjecture surrounding ancient herbal practices.

Herbalism Papyrus Ebers

The Papyrus consists of lists of ailments and their treatments, ranging from “disease of the limbs” to “diseases of the skin” and has information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and Mandrake.

Treatments were mainly aimed at ridding the patient of the most prevalent symptoms because the symptoms were largely regarded as the disease itself.

Knowledge of the collection and preparation of such remedies are mostly unknown, as many of the texts available for translation assume the physician already has some knowledge of how treatments are conducted and therefore such techniques would not need restating.

Though a modern understanding of Egyptian herbals stems from the translation of ancient texts, there is no doubt that trade and politics carried the Egyptian tradition to regions across the world, influencing and evolving many cultures medical practices and allowing for a glimpse into the world of ancient Egyptian medicine.

Herbs used by Egyptian healers were mostly indigenous in origin, although some were imported from other regions like Lebanon.

Other than papyri, evidence of herbal medicine has also been found in tomb illustrations or jars containing traces of herbs.


In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 4,000 BC.

Earliest Sanskrit writings such as the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda are some of the earliest available documents detailing the medical knowledge that formed the basis of the Ayurveda system.

Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were later described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charaka and Sushruta during the 1st millennium BC.

The Sushruta Samhita attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.


In China, seeds likely used for herbalism have been found in the archaeological sites of Bronze Age China dating from the Shang Dynasty.

The mythological Chinese emperor Shennong is said to have written the first Chinese pharmacopeia, the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing“.

The “Shennong Ben Cao Jing” lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses – including Ephedra (the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine), hemp, and chaulmoogra (one of the first effective treatments for leprosy).

Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.

Ancient Greece and Rome


The Hippocratic Corpus serves as a collection of texts that are associated with the ‘Father of Western Medicine‘, Hippocrates of Kos.

Though the actual authorship of some of these texts is disputed, each reflects the general ideas put forth by Hippocrates and his followers. The recipes and remedies included in parts of the Corpus no doubt reveal popular and prevalent treatments of the early ancient Greek period.

Hippocratic Corpus herbalism

Though many of the herbals included in the Corpus are similar to those practiced in the religious sectors of healing, they differ strikingly in the lack of rites, prayers, or chants used in the application of remedies.

This distinction is truly indicative of the Hippocratic preference for logic and reason within the practices of medicine.

The ingredients mentioned in the Corpus consist of a myriad of herbs, both local to Greece and imported from exotic locales such as Arabia.

While many imported goods would have been too expensive for common household use, some of the suggested ingredients include the more common and cheaper elderberries and St. John’s Wort.


Galen of Pergamon, a Greek physician practicing in Rome, was certainly prolific in his attempt to write down his knowledge on all things medical – and in his pursuit, he wrote many texts regarding herbs and their properties, most notably his Works of Therapeutics.

In this text, Galen outlines the merging of each discipline within medicine that combine to restore health and prevent disease.

While the subject of therapeutics encompasses a wide array of topics, Galen’s extensive work helped pharmacists to better calibrate their remedies for the individual person and their unique symptoms.

Diocles of Carystus

The writings of Diocles of Carystus were also extensive and prolific in nature. With enough prestige to be referred to as “the second Hippocrates“, his advice in herbalism and treatment was to be taken seriously.

Though the original texts no longer exist, many medical scholars throughout the ages have quoted Diocles rather extensively, and it is in these fragments that we gain knowledge of his writings.

It is purported that Diocles actually wrote the first comprehensive herbal- this work then cited numerous times by contemporaries such as Galen, Celsus, and Soranus.


In what is one of the first encyclopedic texts, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History serves as a comprehensive guide to nature and also presents an extensive catalog of herbs valuable in medicine.

With over 900 drugs and plants listed, Pliny’s writings provide a very large knowledge base upon which we may learn more about ancient herbalism and medical practices.

Pliny himself referred to ailments as “the greatest of all the operations of nature,” and the act of treatment via drugs as impacting the “state of peace or of war which exists between the various departments of nature“.


Much like Pliny, Pedanius Dioscorides constructed a pharmacopeia, De Materia Medica, consisting of over 1000 medicines produced from herbs, minerals, and animals.

The remedies that comprise this work were widely utilized throughout the ancient period and Dioscorides remained the greatest expert on drugs for over 1,600 years.

Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum, written in the 4th century BC, which was the first systematization of the botanical world.

Early modern era herbalism

The 16th and 17th centuries were the great age of herbals, many of them available for the first time in English and other languages rather than Latin or Greek.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw more incorporation of plants found in the Americas, but also the advance of modern medicine.

16th-century herbalism

The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous Grete Herball of 1526. The two best-known herbals in English were The Herball or General History of Plants (1597) by John Gerard and The English Physician Enlarged (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper.

Gerard’s text was basically a pirated translation of a book by the Belgian herbalist Dodoens and his illustrations came from a German botanical work. The original edition contained many errors due to a faulty matching of the two parts.

Culpepper’s blend of traditional medicine with astrology, magic, and folklore was ridiculed by the physicians of his day, yet his book – like Gerard’s and other herbals – enjoyed phenomenal popularity.

The Age of Exploration and the Columbian Exchange introduced new medicinal plants to Europe. The Badianus Manuscript was an illustrated Mexican herbal written in Nahuatl and Latin in the 16th century.

17th-century herbalism

The second millennium, however, also saw the beginning of a slow erosion of the pre-eminent position held by plants as sources of therapeutic effects.

This began with the Black Death, which the then dominant Four Element medical system proved powerless to stop. A century later, Paracelsus introduced the use of active chemical drugs (like arsenic, copper sulfate, iron, mercury, and sulfur).

18th-century herbalism

In the Americas, herbals were relied upon for most medical knowledge with physicians being few and far between. These books included almanacs, Dodoens’ New Herbal, Edinburgh New Dispensatory, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, and other works.

Aside from European knowledge on American plants, Native Americans shared some of their knowledge with colonists, but most of these records were not written and compiled until the 19th century.

John Bartram was a botanist that studied the remedies that Native Americans would share and often included bits of knowledge of these plants in printed almanacs.

19th-century herbalism

The formalization of pharmacology in the 19th century led to greater understanding of the specific actions drugs have on the body.

At that time, Samuel Thompson was an uneducated but well-respected herbalist who influenced professional opinions so much that Doctors and Herbalists would refer to themselves as Thompsonians.

They distinguished themselves from “regular” doctors of the time who used calomel and bloodletting and led to a brief renewal of the empirical method in herbal medicine.

Modern era

Traditional herbalism has been regarded as a method of alternative medicine in the United States since the Flexner Report of 1910 led to the closing of the eclectic medical schools where botanical medicine was exclusively practiced.

In China, Mao Zedong reintroduced Traditional Chinese Medicine, which relied heavily on herbalism, into the health care system in 1949. Since then, schools have been training thousands of practitioners – including Americans – in the basics of Chinese medicines to be used in hospitals.

While Britain in the 1930s was experiencing turbulence over the practice of herbalism, in the United States, government regulation began to prohibit the practice.

South African doctors use herbs to treat many patients, some patients finding the plants more useful than modern medicine previously prescribed to them.

The practice of prescribing treatments and cures to patients requires a legal medical license in the United States of America, and the licensing of these professions occurs on a state level.

“There is currently no licensing or certification for herbalists in any state that precludes the rights of anyone to use, dispense, or recommend herbs.”

“Traditional medicine is a complex network of interaction of both ideas and practices, the study of which requires a multidisciplinary approach.”

Many alternative physicians in the 21st century incorporate herbalism in traditional medicine due to the diverse abilities plants have and their low number of side effects.


*This article was originally published at

By | 2018-08-16T18:20:53+00:00 August 16th, 2018|Categories: Culture, Herbs & Plants, Substances|0 Comments

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