In the field of medicine, new discoveries usually rest on the shoulders of earlier knowledge. Western Medicine traces its roots back to 400 AD, when Hippocrates first categorized diseases as distinct entities rather than as part of a holistic syndrome. His work paved the way for people who came much later, like Louis Pasteur and later still, Howard Florey, the first to use Penicillin as an antibiotic. In the alternative health arena, the timeline goes back thousands of years. Modern healers such as John Christopher and Richard Schulze have been my mentors in herbal medicine, and they took inspiration from people such as Jethro Kloss and Edward Shook — all the way back to acupuncture and Ayurveda and the dawn of history.
In fact, all healing today has its roots in traditions that go back to prehistoric times. We know this because prehistoric people left cave drawings depicting medicinal plants and healing practices that have been radiocarbon dated back to 25,000 BC. It’s enough to make you gasp when you think about the fact that cavemen knew the healing properties of plants and perhaps practiced healing much as we do today. But even more of a gasp is the fact that medical practice existed on earth even before the cavemen.
No, I’m not pulling an Erich von Daniken and saying that space aliens preceded us here millions of years ago and seeded us with medical wisdom. Rather, I’m talking about Planet of the Apes — seriously…and literally. Up until recently, it was generally accepted that medicine began at the dawn of history when somebody got a booboo. He or she rubbed a plant on the pain and discovered the hurt stopped. According to the theory, by trial and error, cavepeople discovered that certain plants and substances made them sicker or even killed them, while other plants made them feel better. And so herbal medicine was born — again, according to the theory.
But now new evidence tells us that this humancentric view might not be correct because, as it turns out, monkeys and apes heal themselves selectively using plants with medicinal properties. Helen Morrogh-Bernard, a primatologist from the University of Cambridge in Great Britain, reported in the International Journal of Primatology that she observed orangutans preparing an anti-inflammatory balm and self-administering it. The apes picked handfuls of leaves from medicinal Commelina plants and chewed them until they produced a lather. They then spit out the lather and wiped it on their aching limbs, rubbing it up and down in a methodical fashion. And here’s the real kicker: local indigenous people use the same preparation to treat swelling and aches. The orangutans know what they’re doing.
And they aren’t the only primates to practice medicine. Chimps and gorillas rid themselves of intestinal bugs by eating anti-parasitic plants. Lemurs and certain types of monkeys rub substances on themselves that repel insects. Lemurs also eat plants rich in tannins a few weeks before giving birth, probably to stimulate milk production and also to flush out parasites. Thirty-nine species of primates have been observed eating soil to soak up toxins, which allows them to digest poisonous plants without getting sick. In other words, the animals have their own advanced medical system.
Is this a case of monkey see, monkey do? Did the primates observe humans healing themselves with certain plants and then copy the behavior? Or is it a case of human see, human do? Considering how widespread the practice is among the primates, it appears pretty definite that they worked it out on their own — pre-human. In any event, it puts all the new-fangled miracle drug breakthroughs in perspective, when you realize that back in the times before Tarzan, apes were discovering the healing properties of the plants that surrounded them with far less fanfare — and without patents.