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?

Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.

 

Mescal Beans: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part I

mt. laurel flowers

These lovely flowers of the Mountain Laurels so familiar in many parts of Texas belie their past ritual usage for  archaic people of the Lower Pecos and many other historic Native American groups. These flowers produce the potent “mescal bean,” which causes nausea, convulsions and even death when ingested. Mountain Laurels are one of three powerful plants abundant in the Lower Pecos that were used ceremonially by ancient peoples to gain visions, talk to ancestors, cure sickness, or fill other important needs.  Articles about datura and peyote,  two other potent plant helpers of the Lower Pecos are planned in the coming months.

Sophora secundiflora grows wild in the dry limestone country of south Texas, and it is often used as an ornamental shrub in urban and suburban settings. The fragrant flowers are a favorite of bees. However the pretty red beans they produce are highly toxic.

P1040493

 When eaten, even as little as half a bean can cause  nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; in addition respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis, according to  Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p 1746.

Parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of these tempting beans, which often fall from their pods onto sidewalks and backyards.  If a young child ate even one bean, it could be fatal. Seeds contain the highly toxic narcotic alkaloid sophorine, or cystisine; don’t be fooled–they do not contain mescaline and have no relation whatsoever to the alcoholic drink called mescal.  If you suspect someone has ingested mescal beans or Mountain Laurel, take that person to the hospital emergency room immediately.

Archeologists theorize that ancient people in the Lower Pecos used this drug in ceremonies to cleanse the bodies and souls of the participants (though severe vomiting) before undertaking other trials such as vision quests. Ancient mescal beans  have been found in a number of dry rock shelters that were occupied by people in that area 4000 or more years ago, and the plants are common in the area today. The beans were included in charms and amulets, made into necklaces or other adornments, or used as parts of other shamanistic regalia.P1040501

      In a 1957  issue of American Anthropologist, James Howard described mescal bean cults among the Apache, Comanche, Delaware, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Oto, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes. The bean was regarded as a powerful fetish and used in ceremonies similar to those for peyote. One Apache man said “Go ahead, eat that bean. You can do miracles, jump right up and out the top of the tipi.”  You probably will jump up if you try this–but you will run to the toilet instead of through the smoke hole of the tipi.

Alanson Skinner described the effects of the mescal bean on participants in 1926.  He said that “everything looks red to the drinker for a while, then he vomits, and evacuates the bowels.”   The toxic effect also causes a feeling of stupor, which some have confused with hallucination.  The majority of literature on mescal beans, however, does not indicate much in the way of hallucinations. Many of us have suffered a hangover at some time in our lives.  It is not the same thing as “tripping” back in the 1960s.

Among the Wichita, medicine men used to administer mescal beans to spiritual novices, causing them to throw up and become unconscious.  The sharp jaw of a gar fish was then raked across the novice’s naked body to test his ability to withstand pain. This ceremony also served to ritually remove evil influences and promote good health, long life and general prosperity (Dorsey, 1904).

Native plants were used in many ways by ancient peoples, but this is one plant better admired from afar.