NEW AGE theory holds that practically all cultures had a tradition of using medicines (mostly herbal) and that there is a danger that “Western medicine” will replace these, so losing irreplaceable knowledge.

It is also held that such cultures in some way “own” their (often secret) knowledge and it is in some danger of being “stolen” by Western drug companies. That when drug companies discover (by independent research) new drugs from natural materials, the indigenous people of the area have a prior right to any profits made. There are some hidden implications involved here. It is being assumed that such societies, before contact with the modern world:

  • had a theory of diseases with natural causes
  • were capable of accurate diagnosis
  • believed that diseases could be cured without supernatural intervention
  • were capable of evaluating the effects of medicine (a very difficult task)
  • held that specific products should be used against specific diseases
  • had a pharmacy of efficacious drugs

In fact no society complied with this list until modern times. The Chinese believed in swallowing a large variety of products for the sake of their health. But to quote Richard Gordon from The Alarming History of Medicine:

The ancient Chinese, like the mass of mankind before the 19th century mostly lived and died with only the therapeutic botheration of traditional and futile sorcery.

Europe inherited a tradition of medicine from ancient Egypt and Greece but it was not generally held that specific products should be used against specific diseases. Medicines were usually not single herbal remedies, but a concoction of (often-nauseous) ingredients. The Royal College Pharmacopoeia in the 16th century included herbs but also viper’s oil, crab’s eyes, wolf fat, live frogs, human placenta, hanged man’s skull, powdered mummy, etc. Medicine was a magic spell.

Even in the European tradition, medicine was not always swallowed. It might be rubbed on the skin, packets might be put under pillows or carried on the person, or it may be burned and the smoke inhaled. There were a variety of recipes for “weapon salve” and which one to choose mattered little because the medicine was applied not to the wound but to the blade. With our knowledge of hygiene we can recognise this as a medical advance.

Using a medicine other than by absorbing it, must often have been an advantage. Plants contain a variety of potent chemicals that protect against them being consumed by animals. Our food plants have been selected from varieties that contain a minimum content of toxin, or we consume only those parts that are safe. Many medicinal herbs contain potent toxins and are safest when taken in homeopathic doses.
The Secrets of Fijian Medicine by Dr M. A. Weiner PhD tells how he visited traditional healers in Fiji to collect their lore on (largely herbal) medicines. The author had apparently visited several countries on a similar quest and been remarkably successful in collecting the names of a wide range of useful remedies. Secrets of Fijian Medicine lists a number of herbal remedies for a variety of ailments — all apparently used by present-day Fijians. But just how ancient are these traditions? Independent accounts of traditional Fijian society exist from the Rev. Thomas Williams (1858) and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes USN (1845), the commander of a US expedition. Both accounts deal with disease and its treatment, and Wilkes describes in some detail the observations made by the surgeon of his expedition.
These accounts agree that the ideas of “medicine” or “cure for disease” were largely non-existent in Fiji. The surgeon disparaged the traditional treatment of wounds but this may have been professional jealousy. Fijians paid more attention to hygiene than did Western surgeons of that time. Other observers were impressed with the way battle wounds were treated and considered the treatment methods equal to European practice. These accounts make it clear that Fijians regarded all forms of disease as having supernatural origin. Presumably they would have regarded any attempt at a cure as folly.

The only account that I have been able to find of the consumption of anything approaching a medicine is that a chief’s child might be given a piece of human flesh at a feast (not normally consumed by women or children). It was believed that this was a prophylactic against the “wasting sickness”.

A disease (probably yaws) was endemic in Fiji and all children were said to catch it but no intervention was attempted other than treatment of one of the symptoms, ulcers. These were treated by scraping away the ulcerated flesh and washing the wound; no ointment or medicine was applied.

Supernatural intervention was sometimes implored for highborn people who became ill, but medical treatment for sickness was unknown. The treatment for sickly children, the chronically ill and the elderly infirm was to kill them.

In New Zealand, some extravagant claims have been made about herbal medicine as used by ancient Maori. Many of those rejecting the most extreme ideas still believe that living elders retain ancient traditions of Maori medicine, and that there were a number of efficacious herbal remedies in use before European contact. Some have also claimed that these remedies are a useful (and cheaper) alternative to Western medicine. It is also held that this knowledge constitutes an “intellectual property right”, which has monetary value.

I have been unable to find a first-hand description of Maori attitudes to sickness and health before European settlement (can any reader help?). However the opinion of Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), is quite clear. In The Coming of the Maori he states that although constipation and diarrhoea were treated with herbal remedies, other ailments were not.

The possibility of (other) herbal remedies were not explored by the Maori because of the accepted theory of the causation of disease.

In practice, any departure from normal health was ascribed to attack from malignant spirits.

Therefore treatment involved exorcism and purification by a tohunga.

After European contact they began…to try out native plants.

The pseudopriests began to find curative properties in different plants which they kept secret so as to acquire more followers.

Te Rangi Hiroa’s opinion was that these people were no different from European quacks. This was also the opinion of the government of the time because the Tohunga Suppression Act was passed to prevent them from imposing upon the credulity and superstitions of the people.

A further claim made for “Maori traditional” medicine is that it must have been efficacious because early explorers commented on the excellent health of the people they encountered. But according to Te Rangi Hiroa, these “traditions” only started after contact with European settlers. This was the time when Maori were falling victim to introduced disease in such numbers that it was predicted they would soon become extinct.

It may be that there were cultures that had a theory of disease and cure, and that used non-supernatural methods for treatment, independent of Western science. But it is essential to show that such ideas existed before European contact. As usual the onus of proof is on those propounding the theory. One thing is certain: Fiji and New Zealand do not provide examples.

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