Mankind has used herbs since long before the dawn of recorded history. How do we know? Well, like us, Neanderthals living some 50,000 years ago used to get food stuck in their teeth. In 2012, Spanish scientists preparing skulls for museum exhibition decided to run DNA analysis on the dental calculus that they were cleaning from the molars for display. They found two herbs, yarrow and chamomile, that are both too bitter and too lacking in nutritive value to have been eaten as foods. Both are still widely and regularly used as medicinal herbs today. This is compelling evidence that Neanderthals already used medicinal herbs. Since Neanderthals were not farmers, we can assume that the earliest medicinal herbs were all wild-crafted.
However, before we could say there was a “history” or “tradition” of herbal medicine, agricultural societies had to be established (about 13,000 years ago) and then writing (about 5,000 years ago), and early writings have not often survived. Monuments inscribed in stone are usually the oldest surviving original writings, while most other ancient texts, such as religious or medical texts, come to us through many years of handwritten copies of older documents, making their age and original authors difficult to determine. Yet every major civilization has passed down written texts and oral histories that have preserved their knowledge and philosophies of herbal medicine for future generations.
In ancient China, the written history of herbal medicine began perhaps with the Divine Farmer’s Herb/root Classic (Shen-nong Ben Cao Jing), a treatise on herbal medicine attributed to Shen-nong, the Divine Farmer, a larger-than-life figure who was traditionally said to have lived before 2500 BCE, and who was said to have invented the plow, initiated the use of tea, and tested the use of medicinal herbs on his own body. Shen-nong was said to be an ancestor of the Yellow Emperor, the father of the Chinese people. The Ben Cao Jing listed 365 medicines (animal, vegetable, and mineral), and laid out the beginnings of acupuncture and other principles of TCM.
This foundation of TCM was further expanded in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Huangdi Neijing) which is a dialog between the Yellow Emperor and six of his ministers. The Yellow Emperor is also a legendary figure, who is credited with inventing the calendar, establishing the Chinese culture, and fathering the Chinese people. Both texts are some of the oldest in Chinese literature and are thought to date at least to the beginning of the Han Dynasty that was established at the end of the Warring States period, about 220 BCE, making them roughly contemporaneous with the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
At least as old as TCM, Ayurveda is another ancient herbal tradition, founded and developed in India. Like the Chinese system, the origins of Ayurveda are lost in the mists of time, and the oldest manuscripts we have date to the Gupta period of 300-600 A.D. Like the foundational TCM texts, the earliest Ayurvedic texts relate an account of the Gods transmitting the knowledge of medicine to early sages, who passed that knowledge on and expanded on it.
Classical and European:
In Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East, the history of herbal medicine traces its roots through Babylon, Egypt, Phoenicia, and eventually to Greece. Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived from about 460-370 BCE, is often called the “Father of Modern Medicine” because of his role as the founder of a school of medicine that still has influence today. Notable in the teachings of Hippocrates is the use of food (including herbs) as medicine, a focus on the natural healing powers of the body, and the ethics embodied in the Hippocratic Oath, which is still used today.
The European discovery of the New World in 1492 began a wave of immigration that would last hundreds of years. Settlers from all over Europe brought their own herbal and folk medicines. They also adopted local remedies used by native Americans in both hemispheres. West African slaves brought their native remedies, and immigrants (forced or voluntary) from India and China were often used as cheap labor, bringing their herbal traditions with them. American physicians, exposed to all of these various influences, selected the remedies that seemed to work best, regardless of their provenance, and became known as the “Eclectic School” of herbal medicine.
Today in our global economy of shared information, this Eclectic tradition carries on with herbalists who review the literature on herbal medicine from around the world, tailoring traditional remedies to fit the needs and types of patients they serve. The influence of these global herbal traditions extends far past herbal practitioners. Even the most conventional Western physician is indebted to herbal medicine for the foundations of the vast majority of the drugs that he or she prescribes. And many physicians, dissatisfied with the modern assembly-line model of pharmaceutical medicines, are literally returning to their roots to study medicines in their natural form. It may be that someday, except in life-threatening situations, our society will entirely shift back to herbal traditions as the most effective form of care, tested for thousands of years.