Earliest Known Use of Herbs
The earliest indication of herb use by human beings was discovered in the 1960s in a burial site at Shanidar Cave in Iraq. 8 herbs were found there, buried with 60,000 year-old Neanderthal remains. It’s believed these were medicinal plants intended for use in the afterlife. Healing herbs were also portrayed in the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France, which are between 11,000-23,000 years old.
Chinese herbalism is widely regarded because it has the longest unbroken recorded history. The oldest medical book that mentions herbs is the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, dated somewhere between 800 and 200 BC. It explains the medical theory and practice of the Yellow Emperor who is thought to have lived around 4700 BC.
By 3500 BC, the Egyptians were associating herbs with healing. The practice of Ayurvedic herbal medicine, which originated in India, is lost in antiquity, but had been recorded at least by 1000 BC. In the West, the earliest writing about herbs comes from the Greek physician, Hippocrates, who lived between 460-377 BC, and from Pliny the The Lost Book of Herbal Elder, a Roman who wrote about medicinal plants in 77 AD.
Medieval Europe had a dicey relationship with herbs–lots of superstitions. For example, it was commonly believed scorpions bred beneath Basil pots, and if you so much as inhaled the scent of basil, it could drive a scorpion into your brain. At the same time, monks and midwives often had a very sophisticated knowledge of medicinal herbs, and the peasant class grew and used herbs in cooking. The rich planted their gardens with native herbs and purchased exotic spices like cinnamon from the East.
The New World
It’s easy to forget that Columbus was looking for a quick, cheap route to the spices of India when he “discovered” the New World. Also forgotten is the fact that long before his discovery, indigenous peoples were using herbs extensively–some of the best documented are Goldenseal, Black Cohosh, Echinacea, and Cat’s Claw. In fact, native peoples across both American continents had uses for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant growing in their region.
American settlers used herbal remedies for illnesses, flavoring, as dyes, and for their pleasant fragrances. Herb gardens were an essential part of pioneer homes. European immigrants were familiar with many of the wild-growing herbs of North America, including parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender. Unknown herbs, such as Echinacea, they learned to use from Native Americans.
Age of Enlightenment
By the 17th century, European universities were teaching botany and planting “physic” gardens, and in 1652, Nicholas Culpeper published the first comprehensive herbal, cataloging all the known herbal remedies of England. Ultimately the West turned away from herbs in favor of chemical cures, many of which were based on the active ingredients found in herbs in the first place. To protect their nascent drug industry, however, herbal cures were openly disdained, and in some places even outlawed.
A Few Common Cures
Marjoram was a general tonic for the Greeks, and was eaten in the Middle Ages as a tranquilizer and cure for headaches. Parsley was a medieval cure for stomach ailments. Mint was used by Greek athletes as an after bath muscle relaxant, and was an important cleansing agent in the middle ages. It was used to purify drinking water by sailors. Chives were used by early Dutch. They planted chives in the meadows so cows would give chive-flavored milk, which they believed was good for the digestion.