Ancient Medical Knowledge Is Written in the Skin

Ancient Medical Knowledge Is Written in the Skin

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According to legend, twelve thousand years ago in western China the Sons of Reflected light came down from the skies. They were a strange race said to be seven feet tall and wearing clothing like nothing anyone had ever seen before, it reflected light thus giving them their name (Fankuang Tzu). If we were to talk about clothing today that reflects light the first thing most people would think of is space suits so perhaps these beings did literally come from the heavens. Where ever they came from they did so to teach mankind and it is said that they brought civilization to humanity in the form of the arts, textile manufacture, metallurgy, alchemy and many forms of medicine. Legend tells they took the most intelligent people and trained them in the various disciplines and skills, often for generations, children learning from their parents and so on until some centuries after their arrival the Sons sent their knowledge by way of their pupils out into the world and then they are presumed to have departed since they have not been seen since.

Five thousand years after the visitation of the ‘Sons Of Reflected Light’ a man died high in the Italian Alps with a flint tip buried in his back, a severed artery and his hand cut to the bone and while there are many hypotheses about how or why he died there is no doubt that his preservation is one of the most vivid glimpses ever given into our distant past. He carried with him the top technology of his time, fine arrow shafts and tips, fungi for healing and tender, a flint knife and shaft, exceptionally designed waterproof shoes, snow shoes, and a copper axe set on a finely crafted yew handle, a treasure in his time. Otzi the Iceman, as he has come to be known, was not without means as his personal goods reveal but he also carried something else that while not as tactile as a beautiful copper axe the presence of which does suggest a level of medical and anatomical knowledge not believed to be in practice for another two thousand years and a continent away; Otzi the iceman is tattooed with fifty seven lines, dots and crosses that mark acupressure and meridian points.

Detailed physiological examination has revealed that the iceman suffered from physical maladies that correspond to the tattooed areas such as arthritic disease processes in his spine, hips, ankles and knees. He also had tattoos marking meridian points used for addressing stomach and abdominal pain which he undoubtedly suffered from due to a nasty infestation of whip-worms. In short, Otzi’s tattoos were definitely not random and exhibit a sophisticated understanding of the neural and energy pathways in the human body, the marks also display a remarkable resemblance to the trigrams of the I Ching, the ancient book of divination whose symbols are said to be older than recorded history and can be translated as a binary code.

Of course we have no reason to believe that Otzi tattooed himself. In fact, given the location of some of his tattoos it is highly unlikely. So Otzi was most likely tattooed by a shaman or medical practitioner who marked the area associated with his pain in order to treat him. It is possible that the tattooing process was the original treatment and the permanent marks served as a map for Otzi and anyone close to him to treat his pain with acupressure. It is also possible that the shapes of the marks are also not random and their meaning would assist another practitioner in Otzi’s treatment. The tattoo session would have probably given more extended relief and then the tattoos could be used as a guide for repeated long term pain management, it is even likely that the tattoo sessions were repeated over time.

Otzi the Iceman is the oldest mummy found to date and he was tattooed for medical purposes so it stands to reason that the practice must have been fairly common unless the one tattooed man just happened to be preserved in ice for five thousand, not very likely. The real question here is how people barely out of the Stone Age knew the art of acupressure more than two thousand years before it is known to have been practiced in second century China and even more interesting is his treatments connection to the story of the Sons of Reflecting Lights.

When the giants were said to have first appeared in their reflective clothing they had powers unlike any human – they could see the light or aura that surrounds people and they could see the lines of energy or meridians that flowed through the people’s bodies. The acupressure points appeared to them as tiny points of light, whether this power was within the beings or achieved by some advanced technology we do not know but it allowed them to diagnose problems and cure them by restoring the flow of energy within the individual. The Sons of Reflected Light were said to be able to focus their mental energy on these points of light and heal the person. In the beginning they did not have to touch to heal but after many years it is said that they needed to actually touch the patient, almost as if some power source had been depleted.

While the organized practice of acupressure is documented in second century China in the Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine the earliest references to the technique of the practice can be found in much more ancient texts that indicate the technique was practiced in India, Nepal, Tibet and western China dating back at least seven thousand years. Did practitioners of this art, taught by the Sons of Reflected Light spread out across Asia and Europe healing and spreading the knowledge? Is this how Otzi the prehistoric European was marked with the healing points of an advanced system of pain management given to him by someone who understood the flow of the life force on a level that has been lost to modern medicine at least in the western world? The legends of healers from the stars occur in cultures all over the world just as the practice of acupressure is preserved in the tattoos of mummies from Egypt, Europe, Siberia, the Aleuts and South America.

For many years mainstream archaeologists, influenced by their modern prejudices against the practice of tattoo have either ignored, minimized the importance tattoos on both natural and man-made mummies or they made up theories of the lifestyles of the tattooed individuals based on their preconceived notions of tattoos. Perhaps they should pay more attention to the signs etched in the skin and the stories they can tell us about the individuals who wore them and their connections to the mysterious healers from the stars who taught them how to heal with only a touch.

By Margaret Moose



2. The Taoist Ways of Healing

3. Dorfer L, et al. A medical report from the stone age? Lancet Sep 18, 1999;354:1023-5.

4. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(12):3256-3262: 4. 2010


Ancient Egyptian Medicine: Study & Practice

In Europe, in the 19th century CE, an interesting device began appearing in graveyards and cemeteries: the mortsafe. This was an iron cage erected over a grave to keep the body of the deceased safe from 'resurrectionists' - better known as body-snatchers. These men would dig up freshly interred corpses and deliver them, for cash, to doctors wishing to study anatomy. Dissection of a human being was illegal at the time, and until the Anatomy Act of 1832 CE, the only corpses a doctor could work with were those who had been executed for capital crimes.

These did not provide physicians with the number of corpses, nor the assortment of causes of death, they required to better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Doctors recognized that the best way to treat a patient was to understand how the organs of the body worked together and what could affect them, but they were denied access. These physicians paid the resurrectionists large sums of money over the years for dead bodies and would most likely have been surprised or even amused to learn that, in ancient Egypt, the practice of dissection was routine but that no one in the medical field of the time thought to take advantage of it.


The ancient Egyptian embalmers did not discuss their work with the doctors of the time, and the doctors never seem to have given a thought to inquire of the embalmers. Physicians in Egypt healed their patients through spells, practical medical techniques, incantations, and the use of herbs and other naturally occurring substances. Their understanding of anatomy and physiology was weak because although Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) had argued that disease could be naturally occurring in his treatises, the prevailing understanding was that it was due to supernatural elements. A study of internal medicine, therefore, would have been considered a waste of time because sickness came to a person from external sources.


The Nature of Disease

Until the 19th century CE, the world had no understanding of germ theory. The work of Louis Pasteur, later confirmed by British surgeon Joseph Lister, proved that illness is caused by bacteria and steps can be taken to minimize one's risks. The ancient Egyptians, like every other civilization, had no such understanding. Disease was thought to be caused by the will of the gods (to punish sin or teach one a lesson), through the agency of an evil spirit or spirits, or brought on by the presence of a ghost.

Even in cases where a diagnosis suggested some definite physical cause for a problem, such as liver disease for example, this was still thought to have a supernatural origin. Egyptian medical texts recognize liver disease but not the function of the liver. In this same way, doctors understood the function of the uterus but not how it worked nor even its connection to the rest of a woman's body they believed it was an organ with access to every other part of the body. The heart was considered the seat of intellect, emotion, and personality while the brain was believed to be useless, even though there are documented cases of brain surgery. It was understood that the heart was a pump and that veins and arteries moved blood through the body, and heart disease was diagnosed and treated by measures recognizable today (such as changing one's diet), but the root cause of the disease was still thought to come from supernatural agencies.

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Famous Doctors

Even so, ancient Egyptian doctors were highly respected and for good reason: their procedures seem to have been largely effective. The Hittites are known to have called upon Egypt to supply them with physicians as did the Assyrians and Persians. The Greeks had enormous admiration for Egyptian medical practices, even though they did not take the magical aspects of treatment very seriously. The Roman physician Galen (126 - c. 216 CE) studied in Egypt at Alexandria, and before him, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine (c. 460-370 BCE), made the same claims regarding disease that Imhotep had 2,000 years earlier.

Men and women could be doctors and a number are mentioned by name. Some of these are:


Merit-Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), the royal court's chief physician and the first woman known by name in medicine and science.

Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE), the architect for king Djoser who also wrote medical treatises and was later deified as a god of medicine and healing.

Hesyre (also known as Hesy-Ra, c. 2600 BCE), Chief of Dentists and Physician to the King the first dentist in the world known by name.


Pesehet (c. 2500 BCE), Lady Overseer of Female Physicians and possibly a teacher at a medical school in Sais founded c. 3000 BCE.

Qar (c. 2350 BCE), Royal Physician under the reign of king Unas of the 6th Dynasty, buried with his bronze surgical instruments which are thought to be the oldest in the world.

Mereruka (c. 2345 BCE), Vizier under King Teti of the 6th Dynasty whose tomb at Saqqara is inscribed with more titles than any other in the vicinity. He was the overseer of the king's physicians.


Ir-en-akhty (First Intermediate Period of Egypt, 2181-2040), whose wide range of specialties makes him unique in Egyptian medical history. Most doctors specialized in a single area while Ir-en-akhty held many titles.

Other doctors are named from the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) down through the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE) including the physician Cleopatra (not the famous queen) who wrote medical texts which are mentioned by later writers and were studied by Galen.

Magic & Medicine

All these doctors practiced a combination of what one today would consider practical medicine and magic. Since disease came from supernatural sources, it was reasonable to conclude that supernatural treatment was the best recourse. In the present day, one may look back on these beliefs and practices with skepticism, but they were regarded as quite effective and entirely practical in their day.

Scholars and physicians in modern times are unable to substantiate just how effective they were because they are unable to positively identify the elements, diseases, and procedures mentioned in many of the texts. Some Egyptian words do not correspond to any known plant or object used in treatment or any known disease. Although the ancient Egyptian doctors did not have a full understanding of the functions of internal organs, they somehow managed to treat their patients well enough that their prescriptions and practices were copied and applied for millennia. The Greeks, especially, found Egyptian medical practices admirable. Plato mentions Egyptian doctors in his Dialogues and even swears by them as one would a god. The Greeks, in fact, served as the conduit through which Egyptian medical practices would reach a wider audience. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson explains:

The Greeks honored many of the early Egyptian priest-physicians, especially Imhotep, whom they equated with their god Asclepius. When they recorded the Egyptian medical customs and procedures, however, they included the magic and incantations used by the priests which made medicine appear trivial or a superstitious aspect of Egyptian life. Magical spells were indeed a part of Egyptian medicine. nevertheless, scholars have long recognized that the Egyptians carefully observed various ailments, injuries, and physical deformities, and offered many prescriptions for their relief. (158)

The god Heka presided over both medicine and magic and his staff of two entwined serpents would become the caduceus of Asclepius of the Greeks and, today, the symbol of the medical profession. Sekhmet, Serket (also Selket), Nefertum, Bes, Tawawret, and Sobek were all associated with health and healing in one aspect or another but so were powerful goddesses like Isis and Hathor and even those with darker personalities, usually feared, like Set or the demon-god Pazuzu. Any of these deities could be called upon by a medical practitioner to drive away evil demons, placate angry ghosts, rescind their choice to send the disease, or generate healing energies.


The treatments prescribed usually combined some practical application of medicine with a spell to make it more effective. For example, a roasted mouse ground into a container of milk was considered a cure for whooping cough, but a ground mouse in milk taken after reciting a spell would work better. Mothers would bind their children's left hand with a sanctified cloth and hang images and amulets of the god Bes in the room for protection, but they also would recite the Magical Lullaby which drove off evil spirits.

At the same time, there are a number of prescriptions which make no mention of magical spells. In the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) a prescription for contraception reads: "grind together finely a measure of acacia dates with some honey. Moisten seed-wool with the mixture and insert into the vagina" (Lewis, 112). The Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE) focuses on surgical treatment of injuries and, in fact, is the oldest known surgical treatise in the world. Although there are eight magical spells written on the back of the papyrus, these are thought by most scholars to be later additions since papyri were frequently used more than once by different authors.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the best known for practical procedures addressing injuries, but there are others which offer the same kind of advice for disease or skin conditions. Some of these were obviously ineffective - such as treating eye ailments with bat's blood - but others seem to have worked. Invasive surgery was never widely practiced simply because the Egyptian surgeons would not have considered this effective. Egyptologist Helen Strudwick explains:

Because of the limited knowledge of anatomy, surgery did not go beyond an elementary level and no internal surgery was undertaken. Most of the medical instruments found in tombs or depicted on temple reliefs were used to treat injuries or fractures which were possibly the result of accidents incurred by workers on the pharaohs' monumental building sites. Other implements were used for gynaecological problems and in childbirth, both of which were treated extensively in the medical papyri. (454)

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) is the oldest document of its kind dealing with women's health. Although spells are mentioned, many prescriptions have to do with administering drugs or mixtures without supernatural assistance, as in the following:

Examination of a woman bed-bound, not stretching when she shakes it,
You should say of it 'it is clenches of the womb'.
You should treat it by having her drink 2 hin of beverage and have her spew it up at once. (Column II, 5-7)

This particular passage illustrates the problem in translating ancient Egyptian medical texts since it is unclear what "not stretching when she shakes it" or "clenches of the womb" mean precisely, nor is it known what the beverage was. This is often the case with prescriptions where a certain herb or natural element or mixture is written as though it is common knowledge needing no further explanation. Beer and honey (sometimes wine) were the most common drinks prescribed to be taken with medicine. Sometimes the mix is carefully described down to the dose, but other times, it seems it was assumed the doctor would know what to do without being told.


As noted, the physicians of ancient Egypt were considered the best of their time and frequently consulted and cited by doctors of other nations. The medical school at Alexandria was legendary, and the great doctors of later generations owed their success to what they learned there. In the present day, it may seem quaint or even silly for people to believe that a magical incantation recited over a cup of beer could cure anything at all, but this practice seems to have worked well for the Egyptians.

It is entirely possible, as a number of scholars have suggested, that the success of the Egyptian doctor epitomizes the placebo effect: people believed their prescriptions would work, and so they did. Since the gods were so prevalent an aspect of Egyptian life, their presence in curing or preventing disease was no great leap of faith. The gods of the Egyptians did not live in the far-off heavens - although they certainly occupied that space as well - but on the earth, in the river, in the trees, down the road, in the temple in the city's center, at the horizon, noon, sunset, through life and on into death. When one considers the close relationship the ancient Egyptians had with their gods it is hardly surprising to find supernatural elements in their most common medical practices.

A Brief History of Malaria and Its Treatment

Ever since the early days of human civilization, people have sought to combat malaria around the world. From ancient remedies to modern pharmaceutical agents (and their noteworthy discoverers), the history of malaria and its treatment is a rich one.

History of Antimalarial Treatments

Malaria has afflicted humans for thousands of years. The “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates, described the disease in a medical text in the 4th or 5th Century BC. Even great warriors were no match for the tiny parasites as Alexander the Great may have died of a malaria infection at age 30 5 . However, it was not until 1718 that the term malaria (from Italian malaria, or “bad air”) was coined by Italian physician Francisco Torti, a title stemming from the belief perpetuated by Roman physicians that the disease was called by malignancies in the swamp air 6-8 .

The Beginnings of a Mosquito-Transmitted Malaria

For centuries after the Romans initially proposed the idea, it was widely believed that malaria was caused by something in the air rising from swamplands, and that contact with these fumes was a risk factor for the disease 8 . Though the notion of swamp-gas infecting travelers with malaria seems preposterous now, it was not immediately discounted by 18th century Italian physician Giovanni Maria Lancisi who gained great acclaim by observing black pigmentation in the organs of malaria victims 8 .

The swamp-gas theory deteriorated over time, particularly once scientists correctly identified an animal culprit for infection 8 .The concept of a mosquito-born illness was endorsed during an 1882 meeting of the Philosophical Society of Washington. Though the speaker’s suggestion that a giant net be placed over the city to control the mosquito population was met with ridicule, the fact remained that many prominent scientists, including Robert Koch and Alphonse Laveran (see below), suspected that the bloodsucking insects were the root cause of infection 8 .

Alphonse Laveran.

Laveran Discovers the Malaria Parasite

Even into the 19th Century, the means by which malaria was transmitted were still unclear. The tiny world of microorganisms and the role these life forms played in the spread of disease remained mysterious. The transmission of malaria was unraveled in 1880 by the French surgeon Alphonse Laveran, who, while stationed at a hospital in Algiers as a military surgeon, observed a parasite moving within a red blood cell from a malarial patient. For his discovery, Laveran was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1907 8 .

Identification and Naming of the Malarial Parasites

Camillo Golgi.

Italian neurophysiologist Camillo Golgi was the first to describe different species of malarial parasite (based on the frequency of attacks they caused and the number of parasites released once the red blood cells containing them ruptured), work for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1906 8 . Italian researchers Giovanni Grassi and Raimondo Filetti first put a name to these, classifying P. vivax and P. malariae 8 . Americans William Welch and John Stephens later contributed, respectively, the names P. falciparum and P. ovale 8 .

Illustration drawn by Laveran of
various stages of malaria parasites as seen on fresh blood. Dark pigment granules are present in most stages. The bottom row shows an exflagellating male gametocyte, which “… move with great vivacity…” Page from notebook where Sir Ronald Ross records his discovery of the mosquito transmission of malaria, 20 August 1897.

Discovering Malarial Transmission

The description of how malarial parasites move among different organisms was accomplished in two major steps. The first was English physician Sir Ronald Ross’ painstaking efforts to show the complex life cycle of the malarial parasite. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from 1902, Ross describes his search for both the species of mosquito responsible for transmission and the location of the parasites within the insect’s tissue 9 . While initially using many subjects from the native Indian population in his experiments (allowing him to show that mosquitoes feeding on malaria victims contained parasites in their tissues), his later breakthrough came when lack of human participants forced Ross to employ birds 9 . He was ultimately able to observe not only the female and male versions of the malarial parasite in avian hosts but also the transmission of fertilized parasites from birds to the mosquitoes that fed upon them 9 . Interestingly, Ross was not a trained scientist, but received considerable guidance from another prominent malaria researcher 9 .

The second revelation that mosquitoes could also pass the disease between human hosts was shown by Giovanni Grassi and his team of Italian investigators in the late 19th Century 8 . This was done by shuttling willing hospital patients in a room with Anopheles and observing the development and progression of malaria in the subject, a protocol many of Grassi’s contemporaries found exploitative 8 .

The History of Antimalarials

Unrefined natural products served as the first antimalarial agents. In the 2nd century BCE, Chinese physicians identified the wormwood plant as an effective treatment 8 . The knowledge of this remedy was lost for thousands of years, while the Western world, coping with the seemingly insoluble problem of malaria, relied mainly on strategies such as DDT spraying into the 1950s 8 . With a shift in politics in the East came medical innovations. Following the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s distrust of Western medicine led to a search for effective remedies documented in China’s ancient medicinal texts 8 . One of these compounds was artemisinin, which soon gained great popularity worldwide 10 .

Plate from “Quinologie”, Paris, 1854, showing bark of Quinquina calisaya (from Bolivia).

In a similar scenario in early Latin America, native Peruvians recognized the beneficial properties of the cinchona tree long before quinine was identified in its bark. With the discovery of the Americas by Europe, an increasing flood of Spanish missionaries entered Latin America at the end of the 15th Century. In the early 1600s, these newcomers learned of the medicinal properties of the cinchona tree, which was used to cure colonists such as the Viceroy of Peru’s wife (The countess of Chichon, from which the tree takes its name) 8 . The bark of the tree was first introduced to Europe around 1640, where it spread from England to Spain as a popular antimalarial compound. Even when botanists finally classified the plant in the 1700s, it was still known colloquially as the cinchona tree 8 . However, the active chemical components of the cinchona plant were not isolated by chemists until 1920. By the 20th Century, the main supply of cinchona trees had shifted to plantations in the Dutch East Indies, a geographical displacement that would cause problems for America in WWII (see below) 8 . Racing to develop antimalarial compounds at this time, German chemists developed a drug named Resochin that would late be known as the popular pharmacologic agent chloroquine 8 .

World War II: Quinine Shortage and Wartime Research

As previously noted, the major source of cinchona trees had moved to the Dutch East Indies by the early 20th century. With the expansion of the Japanese Empire during WWII, Americans suffered from a lack of antimalarial drugs while fighting in the South Pacific, a region in which the disease was a major threat 12 . To combat this shortage, a campaign to collect quinine supplies scattered around the United States began in 1942. This period was also notable for the emergency-prompted bolstering of research on antimalarial compounds. Spurred by government support and a sense of national crisis during the war, many advances were made in the biological, chemical, and immunological understanding of the disease as well as methods to treat it, Among the discoveries from this period were alkaloid compounds, including the hydrangea extract febrifuge (which unfortunately proved far too toxic in clinical trials to be used as a treatment). Another was the identification of the insecticidal properties of DDT (a compound first synthesized in 1874) in 1939 by Paul Muller, a contribution for which he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Medicine 12 .

The Birth of the CDC and the Worldwide Campaign Against Malaria

During its expansion into Cuba and the construction of the Panama Canal, the US Government took an active interest in controlling malaria outbreaks. The US Public Health Service (USPHS) obtained funding in the early 20th century to combat malaria within the United States itself. Additionally, North Carolina’s Cape Fear was known as a malarial hotspot, which, along with the perilous offshore waters, may explain the region’s ominous name 12,13 . On July 1st, 1946, the Center for Communicable Diseases was formed. This center, which would eventually become the modern CDC, dedicated itself to the eradication of malaria in the US, a goal that was accomplished by 1951 12 . Among the strategies used in this campaign were improved drainage to remove mosquito breeding sites and large-scale insecticide spraying over affected areas 14 .

With this task completed, it turned its attention to the global issues of malaria treatment, the continuing focus of the present-day CDC’s malaria research branch 12 . Following the CDC’s campaign in the United States, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a program in 1955 to eliminate malaria globally, utilizing the advent of new antimalarial compounds and DDT in its mission 12 . While some countries, such as India, benefited remarkably from the WHO’s efforts, others, such as sub-Saharan Africa, remained largely unaffected12. Difficulties such as drug-resistant strains of malarial parasites have ultimately made the WHO’s original mission unfeasible, necessitating its transition to a mission of control rather than eradication 12,15 .

Economics, Ecology, and Etiology: Geographical Pressures on Malarial Parasites

Looking at a map of the globe highlighting malarial “hotspots,” a few primary themes begin to emerge. Malaria prevalence overlaps the habitats of the Anopheles mosquitoes, shown in the boxed diagram 16,1 . However, as you can see, these insects are found around the globe, while incidents of malaria are concentrated in the tropics. Even if more Anopheles are found in the tropics, due to their faster development in temperate water, this still does not fully explain historical accounts in which malaria is reported in some regions earlier in more ancient time than others.

These differences might be explained if the disease arose in one particular place – the current theory is that Africa was the continent of origin 6 . After this beginning, malaria spread, the parasites either flourishing or declining based on the new climate 6 . For example, Native Americans may have been rendered malaria-free by their migration to North America during the ice age, entering a zone unfavorable to the life cycle of the mosquito vector 6,17 . More recent historical events that may have spread the parasites include the African slave trade of the 16th through 18th centuries and foreign travelers in ancient Greece 6 . Thus, the success of the parasite’s adaptation to new climates, in addition to the fitness of their Anopheles carriers, may explain the distribution of malaria as humans spread across the globe 6 .

Global distribution of Anopheles mosquitoes.

While this paradigm of environmental adaptation is plausible, factors outside the world of scientific theory may also help explain the geographical distribution of malaria in fact, economics may play a pivotal role. The link between geography and economic prosperity was noted in the 18th century by economic pioneer Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations 18 . Simply put, coastal regions have better access to shipping routes and thus outperform inland nations. In the case of malaria, these economic and epidemiological factors are reciprocal: on the one hand, the geography of the interior tropics limits economic development, leading to fewer health care resources and ability to combat malaria 18 . Conversely, the disease retards economic growth, inasmuch as high infant mortality results in less investment in education and the market potentials enabled by educated individuals 18 . Thus, the “vicious cycle” of disease and economic underdevelopment makes treatment of malaria in the tropics an appreciably difficult task 18 .

Epidemiological figures underscore the disparity of the malarial burden between the developed and developing worlds. In 2002, there were 8 malarial deaths reported in the US, while some areas of Africa had 2700 deaths a day in 1995 from the disease – that is 2 deaths a minute 19 . The disease’s impact on child mortality is also profound, causing 10.7% of all children’s deaths in developing countries (the fourth highest cause) 19 .

Comprehension Questions:
1. Why might coastal regions be more prosperous than inland ones?
2. Why might it be economically significant that malaria is a major cause of child mortality?

Herbals and the properties of plants

Among the most popular medical texts to survive from this post-Rome period are those containing plant-based remedies, known collectively as herbals. Herbals describe the properties of various plants and their uses, particularly medicinal ones. The most famous herbal author was the Greek physician Dioscorides (b. c. 40, d. 90), who was active in the 1st century. Dioscorides&rsquos work became known in Europe as the Herbarium, the word for &lsquoherbal&rsquo in Latin. Another popular herbal text in the early Middle Ages was an adaptation of the Herbarium attributed to an otherwise unknown late Antique author called Pseudo-Apuleius. Pseudo-Apuleius&rsquos herbal was often combined with other treatises, including remedies that could be drawn from animals, to form what is known today as the Pseudo-Apuleius Complex.

Dioscorides, Liber de virtutibus herbarium

An early translation of the Herbarium of Dioscorides (BnF, Latin 12995, f. 4r)

Ancient Roman medicine

The Roman Empire began around 800 B.C.E. and existed for around 1,200 years. Medical knowledge and practice were advanced for the time, and the ancient Romans made progress in many areas.

The Romans encouraged the provision of public health facilities throughout the Empire. Their medicine developed from the needs of the battlefield and learnings from the Greeks.

Among the practices that the Romans adopted from the Greeks was the theory of the four humors, which remained popular in Europe until the 17th century.

Share on Pinterest The temple of Aesculapius stood on the Tiber Island. The original is now long gone, but this Renaissance-era replica may bear some resemblance to it.

The Romans had their first introduction to Greek medicine when Archagathus of Sparta, a medical practitioner, arrived in Rome in 219 B.C.E.

Other scientists and doctors came from Greece, first as prisoners of war and later because they could earn more money in Rome. They continued researching Greek theories on disease and physical and mental disorders.

The Romans allowed them to carry on their research and adopted many of their ideas. However, unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not like the idea of dissecting corpses, so they did not discover much about human anatomy.

The spiritual beliefs surrounding medicine in Greece were also common in Rome.

By the 3rd century B.C.E., the Romans had adopted a religious healing system called the cult of Aesculapius, which took its name from a Greek god of healing. Initially, they built shrines, but these expanded in time to include spas and thermal baths with doctors in attendance.

When plagues occurred in Italy in 431 B.C.E, the Romans built a temple to the Greek god Apollo, who they believed had healing powers.

The Romans also took a sacred snake from the Greeks. It escaped but reappeared on the Tiber Island, where the Romans built a sanctuary for it. People would come to this place in search of healing.

On conquering Alexandria, the Romans found various libraries and universities that the Greeks had set up. They contained many learning centers and places for research as well as a wealth of documented knowledge of medicine.

It was by observing the health of their soldiers that Roman leaders began to realize the importance of public health.

On the battlefield

Most Roman surgeons got their practical experience on the battlefield. They carried a tool kit containing arrow extractors, catheters, scalpels, and forceps. They used to sterilize their equipment in boiling water before using it.

The Romans performed surgical procedures using opium and scopolamine to relieve pain and acid vinegar to clean up wounds.

They did not have effective anesthetics for complicated surgical procedures, but it is unlikely that they operated deep inside the body.

Maternity care

The Romans also had midwives, whom they treated with great respect. Records of medical instruments include a birthing stool, which was a four-legged stool with arm and back supports and a crescent-shaped opening for the delivery of the baby.

Cesarean sections did sometimes take place. The women would not survive, but the baby might.


In purpose-built hospitals, people could rest and have a better chance of recovery. In the hospital setting, doctors were able to observe people’s condition instead of depending on supernatural forces to perform miracles.

As Roman doctors did not have permission to dissect corpses, they were somewhat limited in their understanding of human anatomy.

However, soldiers and gladiators often had wounds, which could be severe, and doctors had to treat them. In this way, they learned more about the human body.

Claudius Galen, who moved from Greece to Rome in 162 C.E., became an expert on anatomy by dissecting animals and applying his knowledge to humans.

He was a popular lecturer and a well-known doctor, eventually becoming Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ physician. He also wrote several medical books.

Galen also dissected some human corpses. He dissected a hanged criminal and some bodies that a flood had unearthed in a cemetery.

As a result, Galen displayed an excellent knowledge of bone structure. After cutting the spinal cord of a pig and observing it, he also realized that the brain sends signals to control the muscles.

The Romans made progress in their knowledge of what causes diseases and how to prevent them. Medical theories were sometimes very close to what we know today.

What was ancient Egyptian medicine like?

Ancient Egypt was a civilization that lasted from 3300 to 525 B.C.E. This is probably where the concept of health started. Some of the earliest records of medical care come from ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians believed in prayer as a solution to health problems, but they also had natural, or practical, remedies, such as herbs.

It was a structured society with tools such as written language and mathematics, which enabled them to record and develop ideas, and it meant that others could learn from them.

Share on Pinterest The ancient Egyptians had basic medical equipment, and they also believed that the gods controlled life and health. This picture shows Isis on a birthing stool,

The ancient Egyptians thought that gods, demons, and spirits played a key role in causing diseases.

Doctors believed that spirits blocked channels in the body and that this affected the way the body worked. They looked for ways to unblock these channels. They used a combination of prayer and natural — or non-spiritual — remedies.

Most healers were also priests, but, in time, the profession of a “doctor of medicine” emerged.

The fact that ancient Egyptians had systems of letters and numbers meant they were able to record and develop ideas and make calculations. Documented ancient Egyptian medical literature is among the oldest in existence today.

The ancient Egyptians had an organized economy and system of government, a settled population, social conventions, and properly enforced laws. Before this, the local people mainly lived a nomadic life.

This stability allowed medical research to develop.

In addition, there were also relatively wealthy individuals in ancient Egyptian society. They could afford some health care and also had time to ponder and study.

The ancient Egyptians were also traders. They traveled long distances, coming back with herbs and spices from faraway lands.

Research and learning

The ancient Egyptians’ practice of preserving deceased people as mummies meant that they learned something about how the human body works.

In one process, the priest-doctor inserted a long, hooked implement through the nostril and broke the thin bone of the brain case to remove the brain.

Kings and queens from faraway lands sought Egyptian doctors because of their reputation for excellence.

Archaeologists have found a number of written records that describe ancient Egyptian medical practice, including the Ebers papyrus.

Share on Pinterest The ancient Egyptians probably learned something about the human body through mummification.

This document contains over 700 remedies and magical formulas and scores of incantations aimed at repelling demons that cause disease.

The authors probably wrote them around 1500 B.C.E., but the document may contain copies of material dating back to 3400 B.C.E. They are among the oldest preserved medical documents in existence.

The scroll provides evidence of some sound scientific procedures.

Doctors appear to have had fairly good knowledge about bone structure and some awareness of how the brain and liver worked.

The heart: According to the Ebers Papyrus, the center of the body’s blood supply is the heart, and every corner of the body is attached to vessels. The heart was the meeting point for vessels that carried tears, urine, semen, and blood. Researchers writing in 2014 described ancient Egyptian understanding of the cardiovascular system as “surprisingly sophisticated, if not accurate.

Mental illness: The document describes in detail the characteristics, causes, and treatment for mental disorders such as dementia and depression. The ancient Egyptians appear to have seen mental diseases as a combination of blocked channels and the influence of evil spirits and angry Gods.

Family planning: The scroll contains a section on birth control, how to tell if a person is pregnant, and some other gynecological issues.

There is also advice about:

  • skin problems
  • dental problems
  • diseases related to the eyes
  • intestinal disease
  • parasites
  • how to surgically treat an abscess or a tumor

In addition, there is evidence that doctors knew how to set broken bones and treat burns.

Medical advice

Some recommendations that physicians made then seem fairly sound to us now.

They advised people to wash and shave their bodies to prevent infections, to eat carefully, and to avoid unclean animals and raw fish.

Some, however, are less familiar. Putting a plug of crocodile dung into the entrance of the vagina, for example, was a method of birth control. People also used dung to disperse evil spirits.


The Egyptians also practiced dentistry. Caries and tooth decay appear to have been common.

4 Ars Notoria

A Solomonic grimoire compiled in the 13th century, the Ars Notoria does not contain any spells or potions. It focuses instead on the acquisition of learning, the command of memory, and gaining insight into difficult books.

The Ars Notoria promises practitioners the mastery of liberal arts&mdashgeometry, arithmetic, and philosophy among them&mdashthrough a lengthy daily process of visualization, contemplation, and orations. Through these orations, you can beseech God for intellectual gifts, including eloquence, heightened senses, wisdom, and perfect memory.

As a book concerned primarily with enlightenment, the Ars Notoria eschewed some of the more malevolent aspects of magic. However, not everyone was convinced of its benign nature. One notable 14th-century monk, John of Morigny, devoutly followed the teachings of the Ars Notoria and had haunting visions, until he claimed that the visions themselves were demonic in nature. He warned people of the diabolical nature of the Ars Notoria in his own mystical manuscript, the Liber Visonum.

2. The list of Sumerian rulers includes one woman.

Ruins of the city of Kish, which Kubaba supposedly ruled. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

One of the greatest sources of information on ancient Mesopotamia is the so-called “King List,” a clay tablet that documents the names of most of the ancient rulers of Sumer as well as the lengths of their reigns. The list is a strange blend of historical fact and myth—one early king is said to have lived for 43,200 years𠅋ut it also includes Sumer’s lone female monarch in the form of Kubaba, a “woman tavern-keeper” who supposedly took the throne in the city-state of Kish sometime around 2500 B.C. Very little is known about Kubaba’s reign or how she came to power, but the list credits her with making 𠇏irm the foundations of Kish” and forging a dynasty that lasted 100 years.


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