Physical and Spiritual Health

The practice of health care goes back centuries.

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Dan Penton, traditional chief of the Florida Muscogee White Earth Tribal Town, blows into a beverage called pasv to activate its medicinal properties. Pasv was consumed in ancient times. Credit: Mike Toner

Winter 2018-19: By Mike Toner.

In 1535, an outbreak of scurvy ravaged the crew of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s expedition to the St. Lawrence River. Twenty-five men died before a friendly Iroquois chief summoned tribal healers to prepare the crew a drink from the bark and needles of  “a magical tree.” Thanks to that vitamin C-rich hemlock tea, there were no further deaths. Cartier wrote later that “no amount of drugs from Europe or Africa could have done what the Iroquois drugs did.”

In 1561, Diego de Landa, who would later become the Spanish bishop of the archdiocese of Yucatán in Mexico, began cataloging hundreds of medicinal plants used by Maya healers, and declared “there is no disease to which native Indians do not apply the plants.” For five centuries, doctors, explorers, botanists, ethnographers, and archaeologists have marveled at—and puzzled over—the nature of healing in ancient America. Anthropologist Daniel E. Moerman’s Native American Medicinal Plants describes more than 2,700 plants whose uses ranged from toothache remedies to contraceptives. Most of what is known about the subject today comes from historical accounts and ethnographic studies of living traditional healers. Lately, however, archaeology has been providing its own fresh insights into the world of ancient medicine.

At Piedras Negras, a large Maya site in northwest Guatemala, U.S., Canadian, and Guatemalan archaeologists recently identified the ruins of an open-air market that, according to Brown University archaeologist Andrew Scherer, was a focal point not only of ancient trade and commerce, but also of ancient medical practices. Prior research at the site in the 1930s and 1990s identified and unearthed several nearby sweat baths, which were traditionally used by indigenous people for spiritual and physical healing. The identification of the sweat baths was based largely on their architectural form. In 2016 and 2017, Scherer, Charles Golden of Brandeis University, Guatemalan archaeologist Mόnica Urquizú, and their team returned to Piedras Negras for further investigations. They employed current excavation methods and sophisticated laboratory techniques such as paleoethnobotany to better understand what ancient activities took place at this part of the site. They found traces of a virtual pharmacopeia of medicinal plants, and an astonishing number of decayed and cavity-ridden teeth that, because they are unassociated with any human remains, may be signs of a thousand-year-old dental practice.

Excerpt, Read More in our Winter 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 4. Browse Contents: WINTER 2018.

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