The history of medicinal plants is intimately connected with the history of botany. Primitive man, in constant terror of diseases, lived at the mercy of nature. From the earliest times, tribal priests and medicine men (witch doctors) used various plants, minerals and animal organs, usually in association with strange rituals and incantation, to drive out the evil spirits which they believed to be the cause of the disease. Astonishingly, these magical rites seemed to help. In some primitive tribes, a victim of disease was half-buried in soil for several days to exorcise the malevolent spirits that had possessed him. Among the extremes of treatments was the chipping of holes in the skull to release the tormenting evil spirits. This theory of demoniacal possession lasted many centuries and exists even today in areas where people still live in primitive societies.
Records of early civilisation in all parts of the world reveal that a considerable number of drugs used in modern medicine were in use even in the ancient times. The use of plants for curing various human ailments figured in ancient manuscripts, such asThe Bible,The Rig-Vedas,The Iliad and The Odyssey and the History of Herodotus. Over 6000 years ago, the ancient Chinese were using drug plants. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Greeks and Romans, all developed their respective characteristic Materia Medica. On the other side of the world, the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas had all developed primitive medicine. Some of the ancient Egyptian textbooks ‘papyri’ (such as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and the Ebers Papyrus), written in early 1600 BC, indicate that the Egyptians had an amazingly complex Materia Medica. Apart from the names of many medicinal plants then known, the papyri also included several hundred recipes or prescriptions for various diseases.The Edwin Smith Papyrus (about 1750 BC) is now one of the prized collections of the New York Academy of Medicine.
In India, the ayurvedic system of medicine has been in use for over 3000 years. Charaka and Susruta, two of the earliest Indian authors had sufficient knowledge of the properties of the Indian medicinal plants. Their medical works the Charaka Samhita and the Susruta Samhita are esteemed even today as treasures of literature on indigenous medicine.
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