Wounds and Bleeding: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Archaic peoples had many ways to stop bleeding and heal wounds

Archaic peoples had to stop bleeding and heal wounds, just as we do today

Stopping unwanted bleeding and healing wounds without infection were serious issues for Archaic peoples of the Lower Pecos and others around the world. Fortunately, an efficacious ointment was often at hand, not only along the Rio Grande but almost world-wide. That precious ointment was honey.

Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

Honey was an important ingredient in the Three Gestures of Healing used in ancient Egypt. The protocol went like this: First, wash the wound. Second, apply a plaster of honey, animal fat, and plant fiber. And last, bandage the wound.  Sounds reasonable even today. In fact using honey to treat wounds was also used by the Greeks and , and even up to World War II.

When penicillin and other antibiotics came in after WWII, honey was often forgotten.

But new research has recently shown the antibacterial properties of honey itself.  Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato lin New Zealand says “in honeys, there is–to

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

different levels–hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.”

The particular type of New Zealand honey he studies has been found to work in a very broad spectrum. “It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa.  We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms,” concludes Professor Molan.

So it seems likely that at least some kinds of honey, particularly those from wild organic flowers, could be quite effective for preventing infection in open wounds.

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Fortunately the Lower Pecos has both wild organic flowers and bees, in abundance.  Flowers bloom across the Lower Pecos region after every rain, even a tiny amount. They grow hanging from stone canyon walls or sprouting from stone pavements on the floor. They attract many wild bees that build nests in rock crannies, even ceilings of rock shelters with painted walls.

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Ancient people had intimate knowledge of their landscapes and would have undoubtedly made use of all their resources, including robbing bees for their honey. Honey was likely kept at hand by the ancient people who lived in the region to apply to cuts and wounds to promote healing and prevent infection. Poultices of various kinds were likely made and bound to the wound with strips of hide or cordage.

I am unclear about the existence of bees 4000 years ago in North America, however. The beautiful booklet “Bee Basics” by Drs. Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann of the USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf) seems to make a distinction between honey bees and other types of bees considered native to this continent. In fact they state that honey bees did not appear here until some escaped from European imports. Hmm. Bee people, can you help me out?

The plot thickens with the discovery of honey bee fossils in Nevada from  millions of years ago in 2009 (see          http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=1544). Just makes me wonder about how much we don’t know about even the simplest things.

For the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos, however, other issues concerning blood were likely treated with wild plants. Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is native to Texas and grows near streams or marshes. Yes, there are such places even in the desert of the Lower Pecos. An infusion of the plant can be used to promote menstruation, and large doses can induce miscarriage. Overdoses can cause giddiness, confusion and twitching.  In cases like this, the patient should seek immediate medical attention.

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

Letha Hadaday, adjunct faculty for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, is an expert in the use of Chinese medicinal herbs (www.asianheathsecrets.com). According to her, skullcap may also help prevent strokes by increasing bloodflow to the brain, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While little Western research validates these statements, they are well accepted in Chinese medicine.

Another plant that can induce labor or alter menstrual cycles is stinging nettle

Stinging Nettle Rash

Stinging Nettle Rash

(Urtica dioica). Yes, the one I remember so well from childhood for the painful red welts on my arm.  If you get into them, the rash can itch horribly for at least a week, so watch which weeds you are pulling, especially in flood plains or shady spots near creeks. Stinging nettle affects blood flow, and can contribute to miscarriage as well as stop hemorrhaging during childbirth.

10 Deadliest Plants: How Many Are in Your Garden?

This video focuses primarily on plants of European origin, but here in Texas we also have to watch out for the red seeds of common Mountain Laurel, which can also cause violent illness. See my blog from January 2013 on Mescal Beans (Mountain Laurel) for more. Also see my post on moon flower, also called Angel’s Trumpet, from February 2013 for more information.

I love white baneberry, don’t you? It looks like little white eyeballs on red stems. What could be creepier than that?

Aches and Pains: Lower Pecos Medicine Chest, Part I

Common white willow

Common white willow

Headaches, fevers, and those general, ever-changing, daily aches and pains we all experience are not new to the modern world.  They are, in fact, one of the things we have in common with the people who lived thousands of years ago. Today we generally reach for the nearest pill to dull painful sensations. But how did archaic people of the Lower Pecos deal with them 4,000-6,000 years ago?    For the next few posts, I will write about medicinal herbs that were likely available in the ancient Lower Pecos and how they were possibly used. Think of it as the archaic Lower Pecos Medicine Chest.asprin

One of the most frequently used natural remedies for general pain found in the Lower Pecos was likely the common white willow.  The bark, and to some extent leaves, contains salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in aspirin, truly one of the wonder drugs of the world.  The bark from a twig (not the main trunk, which is rough and hard) could be scraped and boiled to produce a tea for pain relief.

I remember seeing a large willow tree years ago, I believe in Rattlesnake Canyon. It was huge, and spread its branches like a giant umbrella over the canyon floor. Light was coming through the leaves, pale and beautiful.  The twigs from that very tree could have been used by people long ago to make their headaches go away.

Mariola

Mariola

Another plant that could have been used was Mariola. A dry, carefully folded  specimen of this plant was recovered from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park during past archeological excavations. Ancient people could have made a tea for general pain relief.  Many people are allergic to the latex and sap of this genus, so please, do not try using this plant at home.

A little plant called dogweed, or fetid marigold, could also possibly have been used in ritual healing for fevers and general pain. The Navajo considered dogweed to be “red ant medicine,” and used it to treat illnesses attributed to swallowing red ants. Again, I’m warning you right here, please do not ingest red ants as part  of any perceived “natural” diet or practice.  No. Don’t do it.

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

For more severe injuries and illnesses in archaic times, the ministration of a shaman was most likely involved. This person was trained to sing the appropriate songs and perform the appropriate rituals necessary to comfort the patient and the family. Ethnographic accounts of shaman healing practices describe elaborate rituals that can last many hours or days. Anthropologists suspect that shamanistic practices were part of the ancient culture in the Lower Pecos, but we shall never know exactly what the ceremonies were or how they were performed.

The final plant I will mention today is the Buttonbush. T.N. Campbell (1951) recorded that the Choctaw used the bark and stems in an unspecified manner to treat fevers.  Buttonbush contains very active, bitter glycosides that can cure or harm. Therefore, people should not use this plant except with the assistance of an experienced herbalist.

Buttonbush

Buttonbush

The ancient people  had  extensive knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. This knowledge must have been gained over a long period of time and handed down from one generation to another, a remarkable feat. Without writing, without “science”, without Google, they determined the ways in which various plants could be useful to human kind. Such knowledge was likely  passed on to younger generations through explicit teaching.

Both the “discovery” and the “teaching” imply various things about cognition among ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Someday when I can wrap my head around it, perhaps I will write about that. To me it seems pretty clear that the extent of their knowledge, distributed and maintained through an oral tradition and remembered in the head, was impressive by any standards.  But I digress.

Many of the plants I will discuss in future posts had more than one use, and some could be lethal if mishandled. So the knowledge had to be precise, and all aspects had to be transmitted and understood in order to preserve the health of the people. Botany was a serious thing, and accuracy–or “getting it right”– could be a life or death matter.

Thanks to Dr. Phil Dering for his articles on the website Texas Beyond History, where I cribbed most of this information.  If you want to learn the real truth about these plants, go to Phil.

Aches and Pains: Lower Pecos Medicine Chest, Part I

Common white willow

Common white willow

Headaches, fevers, and those general, ever-changing, daily aches and pains we all experience are not new to the modern world.  They are, in fact, one of the things we have in common with the people who lived thousands of years ago. Today we generally reach for the nearest pill to dull painful sensations. But how did archaic people of the Lower Pecos deal with them 4,000-6,000 years ago?    For the next few posts, I will write about medicinal herbs that were likely available in the ancient Lower Pecos and how they were possibly used. Think of it as the archaic Lower Pecos Medicine Chest.asprin

One of the most frequently used natural remedies for general pain found in the Lower Pecos was likely the common white willow.  The bark, and to some extent leaves, contains salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in aspirin, truly one of the wonder drugs of the world.  The bark from a twig (not the main trunk, which is rough and hard) could be scraped and boiled to produce a tea for pain relief.

I remember seeing a large willow tree years ago, I believe in Rattlesnake Canyon. It was huge, and spread its branches like a giant umbrella over the canyon floor. Light was coming through the leaves, pale and beautiful.  The twigs from that very tree could have been used by people long ago to make their headaches go away.

Mariola

Mariola

Another plant that could have been used was Mariola. A dry, carefully folded  specimen of this plant was recovered from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park during past archeological excavations. Ancient people could have made a tea for general pain relief.  Many people are allergic to the latex and sap of this genus, so please, do not try using this plant at home.

A little plant called dogweed, or fetid marigold, could also possibly have been used in ritual healing for fevers and general pain. The Navajo considered dogweed to be “red ant medicine,” and used it to treat illnesses attributed to swallowing red ants. Again, I’m warning you right here, please do not ingest red ants as part  of any perceived “natural” diet or practice.  No. Don’t do it.

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

For more severe injuries and illnesses in archaic times, the ministration of a shaman was most likely involved. This person was trained to sing the appropriate songs and perform the appropriate rituals necessary to comfort the patient and the family. Ethnographic accounts of shaman healing practices describe elaborate rituals that can last many hours or days. Anthropologists suspect that shamanistic practices were part of the ancient culture in the Lower Pecos, but we shall never know exactly what the ceremonies were or how they were performed.

The final plant I will mention today is the Buttonbush. T.N. Campbell (1951) recorded that the Choctaw used the bark and stems in an unspecified manner to treat fevers.  Buttonbush contains very active, bitter glycosides that can cure or harm. Therefore, people should not use this plant except with the assistance of an experienced herbalist.

Buttonbush

Buttonbush

The ancient people  had  extensive knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. This knowledge must have been gained over a long period of time and handed down from one generation to another, a remarkable feat. Without writing, without “science”, without Google, they determined the ways in which various plants could be useful to human kind. Such knowledge was likely  passed on to younger generations through explicit teaching.

Both the “discovery” and the “teaching” imply various things about cognition among ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Someday when I can wrap my head around it, perhaps I will write about that. To me it seems pretty clear that the extent of their knowledge, distributed and maintained through an oral tradition and remembered in the head, was impressive by any standards.  But I digress.

Many of the plants I will discuss in future posts had more than one use, and some could be lethal if mishandled. So the knowledge had to be precise, and all aspects had to be transmitted and understood in order to preserve the health of the people. Botany was a serious thing, and accuracy–or “getting it right”– could be a life or death matter.

Thanks to Dr. Phil Dering for his articles on the website Texas Beyond History, where I cribbed most of this information.  If you want to learn the real truth about these plants, go to Phil.