Traditional medicines are defined as healing modalities incorporating the knowledge, beliefs, techniques and healing therapies indigenous to different cultures. These are often ancient systems, many thousands of years old that are used to prevent, diagnose, improve and heal physical and mental ailments. They utilize plant medicines, animal and mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques, ceremony, prayer, song and music to assist the reframing and transformation of an illness.
According to the World Health Organization, in some Asian and African countries, 80% of the population depends on traditional medicine for their primary care. In many developed countries, 70%-80% of the population has used some form of alternative medicine such as acupuncture.
Today, without much notice or concern, vast archives of wisdom and knowledge are slipping into oblivion, as the oral traditions of undocumented knowledge passed on by elders, healers, midwives, farmers, fisherman and hunters are dissolving. As the world’s traditional tribes are absorbed into modern civilization, the cultural contexts within which this information was traditionally passes on has met with significant erosion. Mesmerized by images of the wealth and power, the young turn away from their elders, breaking an ancient but fragile chain of the oral tradition and the loss of land and place has created a shadow of what one was. At the heart of this loss, the sacred knowledge of Nature’s authority and how to honor and respect her is also being consumed.
Western scientific arrogance has positioned us in opposition to tribal indigenous knowledge, however the development of our modern day environmental disaster has some scientists beginning to recognize the mistake of ignoring the wisdom that indigenous people’s have to offer and are recognizing what vital information is being lost as these cultures and traditions die off.
The pace of these cultural holocausts is startling.
In Borneo, as many as 10,000 members of the Penan tribe still led the semi nomadic life of hunting and gathering at the beginning of the 1980s. As the logging industry has grown and destroyed more and more of the woodlands, now fewer than 500 Penans live in the forest. And their expertise in the ways of the forest has begun to slip away. Their elders used to watch for the appearance of a certain butterfly, which appeared to herald the arrival of a herd of boar and the promise of good hunting but these days, most of the Penans cannot remember which butterfly to look for.
Since 1900, 90 of Brazil's 270 Indian tribes have completely disappeared, while scores more have lost their lands or abandoned their ways. More than two-thirds of the remaining tribes have populations of fewer than 1,000.
Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to this continent, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken in North America. Today, there are only about 100. Within a century, if nothing is done, only a handful will remain.
A recent study by M.I.T. linguist Ken Hale estimates that 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are doomed because no children speak them. If a language disappears, traditional knowledge tends to vanish with it, since individual language groups have specialized vocabularies reflecting native people's unique solutions to the challenges of food gathering, healing and dealing with the elements in their particular ecological niche. Hale estimates that only 300 languages have a secure future.
When communist China imposed tight control over Tibet in 1959, the aggressors tried to eradicate the captive country's culture. In particular, the communists denounced Tibetan medicine as feudal superstition, and the number of doctors practicing the 2,000-year-old, herb-based discipline shrank from thousands to 500.
The Importance of Protecting our Indigenous Plant Medicines
At least 60,000 years ago, eight unique medicinal plants were placed in a Neanderthal grave in Shanidar Cave in the region now known as Iraq, plants that are still used in that region for healing. And between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago, the first paintings of medicinal plants being used were incorporated into the great cave paintings in Lascaux, France. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and ancient Islamic cultures had highly sophisticated plant materia medica; but richest of all, perhaps, are those of the world’s Indigenous peoples. For a length of time between 10,000 and 30,000 years, members of American Native cultures have been gathering unique knowledge of plant medicines; they are some of the greatest empirical scientists our planet has ever known.
Many of the plant-derived drugs used today in modern medicine were originally discovered through the study of the folk medical knowledge of indigenous peoples. For example, in the sixteenth century the Spanish invading the Inca Empire in Peru discovered that the Indians used the bark of a rain forest tree, Cinchona species, to treat fevers. This bark became the source of quinine used worldwide for the treatment of malaria.
Historically, in the search for new medicines, the average success rate for identifying useful medicines from plants is one in 125. The success rate for new drugs from randomly synthesized chemicals is only one in 10,000.
There is no exhaustive source of Native North American plant knowledge, but Daniel Moerman’s magnificent Native American Ethnobotany notes, “4,029 kinds of plants…used in 44,691 different ways in 291 different societies. Of the 44,691 usages, 24,945 are medicinal.” This rich materia medica, refined by talented healers over generations, includes hundreds of plants which have entered general human use through Native contact with European, African and Asian peoples. They are now, for example, a well-integrated part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western European botanical practices; hundreds are also used in the many vibrant herbal communities in the United States, including those of the Cajun, Creole, African-American and Latino cultures.
Traditional healers practicing medicine based on sound principles of healing, careful observation and empirical experience have been automatically discredited by the modern technological medical system. The obsession of modern medicine to separate the mind, body and spirit in the realm of illness and focus on the individual at the expense of the community has served to distort our understanding of dis-ease. Illness does affect the whole person and quality healing for an individual, family, and community needs to incorporate the social, psychological, spiritual and physical constellations present in rooting out illness. Traditional medical systems incorporate this complex web of information into successful healing modalities and must be used to be preserved, protected and passed on. Plant medicine has played a key role in how traditional healers practice their art and so we honor this ancient skill by developing an herbal apothecary for the community to access.
The indigenous healing systems drawn upon within the Living Medicines healing sessions offered by Tamara and David include Native American Medicine, Chinese and Japanese Medicines, African Medicines and Tibetan Medicine.