Ow! Aching Teeth in the Lower Pecos Archaic

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus).  We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists.  Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.

Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994).  Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.”   This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).

Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”

You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful.  There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke.  This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out.  You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.

In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words.  We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”.  Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound.   Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.

Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.  Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which tooth-painmeans you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).

Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner.  The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.

People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark  however  ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013)  for the pain-killing

Lechugilla quids found in rock shelters

Lechuguilla quids found in rock shelters

properties of willow bark.)  Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013  for discussion of these plants.)

Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem,or Jaropha dioica, leafed out.

Leatherstem,or Jatropha dioica, leafed out

burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums.  Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.

Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal.  People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.

If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.

Joint Pain: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part II

Handful of native chili petines

Handful of native chiltepines

Human beings have been plagued with joint pain throughout the history of mankind.  Arthritis, the condition caused by the wearing down of beneficial cartilage in the joints, affects over 27 million people in the United States today, according to the Arthritis Foundation

A joint with osteoarthritis

A joint with osteoarthritis

(www.arthritistoday.org). I don’t know enough about the skeletal evidence from the Lower Pecos of Texas to do more than speculate, but at least some people in the region 4000-6000 years ago must have worn out a knee or two climbing up and down steep canyons and running over rough stone outcroppings in the uplands. In other words, they probably had  their share of  “archaic arthritis.”

Ow! Even that phrase hurts!  Osteoarthritis produces stinging pain and can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints affected. Generally, the older you are, the more wear and tear you have on your joints.  A stiff knee could make a thirty-year-old adult from the archaic period feel old before his or her time. But somebody had to hunt, somebody had to gather plants. It’s not like they could just stay at home with their feet up. So what did they do?

Recently I was forced to experiment to find out.  I had to forego my usual arthritis medication from the doctor, and researched various herbal remedies.  I decided to try cayenne capsules, devil’s claw root extract, and yucca root extract to alieve my own symptoms because native varieties of these were likely available during the archaic period in the Lower Pecos.

The “hotness” of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Cayenne is measured at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units, but our native chiltepine pepper comes in at a whopping 50,000-100,000 Scoville units!  The “heat” is caused by capsaicin, which is present in all hot peppers to some extent. capsaicin is a main ingredient of various topical creams available today to treat arthritis. Some sources suggest rubbing the cream on the affected areas four times a day for best results.  Capsaicin seems to work by interfering with the perception of pain (aside from burning tongues!)

While cayenne does not grow wild in west Texas, chiltepines should. I recently asked four people who know the land and plants in that area intimately (ranchers, archeologists, botanist), however, and they could not recall seeing a wild chiltepine plant in recent years. So, even though the plant should be well suited to the area, there must be some reason why they are not currently in evidence.  At any rate, IF they were there during the archaic period, it is likely the people would have utilized the small peppers for flavoring and medicinal purposes. One way they might have used the little chilis would be to apply crushed pods to swollen joints, perhaps mixed in a plaster of some sort. Another way might be to drink the crushed peppers as a tea, although that would burn the mouth.

Devil's Claw

Devil’s Claw  seedpods

Another plant the ancient people likely exploited is Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), which grows in dry places throughout the American Southwest. The dry seed pods which give the name to the plant were used by the Pima Indians in basketry and well as for medicine. They  broke off a piece of the claw and pressed it onto the affected area. Then the claw must be lit on fire and allowed to burn down. Ouch!

Devil's Claw plant

Devil’s Claw plant

Another variety called Harpagophytum procumbens has been studied for effectiveness. The journal Phytomedicine (2002) reported a study of 227 people treated with Devil’s Claw extract for eight weeks.  They each took 60 mg of the extract daily, and at the end of the study, about 60% reported decreased pain and increased mobility and flexibility. People are cautioned not to take this if they are pregnant, have gallstones or ulcers, or are taking antacids or blood thinners (see www.arthritistoday.org).

Yucca Root

Yucca Root

Yucca root is also known to have been used by Native Americans to alieve joint pain, among other things. The root has anti-inflammatory  properties, but little reasearch has been done to support effectiveness (see www.livestrong.com). I can say from the experience of taking four tablets of yucca root a day in addition to Devil’s Claw extract and cayenne capsules, that the combination reduced the stinging pain in my wrists and I had more flexibility in my knees.

The last plant in my Lower Pecos pharmacy for joint pain is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Stinging Nettle--handle only with gloves

Stinging Nettle–handle only with gloves

As the name implies, contact with the leaves, or little tiny hairs on the leaves, can be rudely painful. The leaves and stems are widely used in Germany, however, to make a tea for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. A small study from the University of Maryland was inconclusive regarding the anti-inflammatory compounds in stinging nettle as a topical cream.

As you can see, people living in that beautiful region we call the Lower Pecos, between the Pecos, Devil’s and Rio Grande rivers in south Texas, could have used several natural pain relievers to help keep their joints moving 4000-6000 years ago. I wish I knew their medicinal recipes…

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.