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A Quick History

For thousands of years, herbs have been used as scents, foods, flavorings, medicines, disinfectants, even as currency. Here we give just a few highlights in the history of herbalism.

The Earliest Uses

There's no way of knowing precisely how the earliest cultures used herbs, but they had thousands of years to experiment. Early cultures probably recognized that certain herbs had curative powers, and it's likely these curative powers were attributed to supernatural causes. A 60,000-year-old burial site in Iraq contained evidence of eight different medicinal plants, probably intended to be taken along in the afterlife. Naturally, medicinal herbs remained steeped in magic and superstition for millennia.

Herbs in Ancient Civilizations

By 3500 B.C., the Ancient Egyptians began to associate less magic with the treatment of disease, and by 2700 B.C., the Chinese started to use herbs in a more scientific sense. Borrowing from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Greek physician Hippocrates (460 - 377 B.C.), founder of the Hippocratic oath, developed a system of diagnosis and prognosis using herbs. He considered illness a natural, not supernatural, phenomenon and maintained that medicine should be given without magic. In 77 A.D., Pliny the Elder wrote 37 volumes on natural history, and devoted seven of them to the medicinal uses of plants. Unfortunately, Pliny verified little of what he wrote and much of his work is of questionable value today.

Ancient physician Galen (131 - 201 A.D.) developed the principle of humors, linking body type with health and personality. For the next 1,400 years, physicians would trust in Galen's principles for better or worse, often using them as the basis for purgatives and bloodletting. In the 16th century, however, one physician would break ranks with the Galenic school to propose his own somewhat strange idea known as the Doctrine of Signatures. Paracelsus (1493 - 1541 A.D.) would reject humors and instead argue that botanicals bear an uncanny resemblance to the body parts, or causes of the ailments, they could cure.

Herbs in Medieval Europe

The progress of science and the understanding of plants nearly collapsed with the fall of the Roman Empire. The early Middle Ages saw a return to the ritual and superstition that surrounded herbs, as the learning of the ancients was preserved mostly in monasteries and the Arabic cultures. Some herbs were positively reviled in Medieval Europe. A common Medieval belief held that scorpions bred beneath Basil pots, and inhaling the Basil's scent would drive a scorpion into the brain.

The Renaissance

As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, trade with other civilizations increased, and so did the knowledge of medicinal herbs. In fact, the "discovery" of the New World was fueled by a quest for herbs and spices — Columbus was seeking a quicker, cheaper route to India in 1492. During the Renaissance, nobles of Europe aspired to assemble all human knowledge in their private libraries, and all useful botanicals in their gardens.