The Stone Age Pharmacy

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2007

In the course of thousands of generations, ancient humans became so familiar with their environment that they acquired intimate knowledge of the healing powers of plants. Some Stone Age grave sites contain plant materials, several of which were probably considered to have healing properties. A melting glacier in the Italian Alps revealed the mummified remains of a man who died about 5,300 years ago. His leather pouch held mushrooms that were known to have laxative properties, strung on a leather thong.

After a century in which a flood of manmade drugs poured from pharmaceutical companies we tend to overlook the fact that plant-derived medicines far outnumbered synthetic ones for centuries. The ancient Chinese knew that ma huang, an extract of the ephedra plant, relieved bronchitis; physicians still use a derivative called pseudoephedrine to relieve nasal congestion. Peruvian natives learned of the benefits of quinine centuries before the Spanish Conquest. By the time of Hippocrates more than 2500 years ago, primitive practitioners used an extract of willow bark to relieve pain. We know it as aspirin.

Why should these ancient treatments matter to us in an age of awesome medical achievements?

First is the acknowledgement that nature's own pharmacy is enormous and still holds promise of new cures for old diseases. Research teams continue to scour tropical forests in hopes that they will find another treatment for leukemia such as vincristine, which comes from the common periwinkle. Every schoolchild knows that penicillin comes from a mold but scores of other antibiotics have similar sources. Modern scientists unravel the chemistry of natural antibiotics and then tinker with them until they find a variant that works better, has fewer side effects and costs less to manufacture.

Second, patients have rediscovered natural remedies and are more willing to try them knowing that prescription drugs spawn side effects that can be life-threatening. Since Vioxx's withdrawal from the market, arthritis sufferers have become more willing to try natural products such as glucosamine and boswellia, neither of which has significant side effects but which appear to be effective in relieving pain.

Third, we need to recognize that Stone Agers didn't have the kinds of diseases on which we are spending an enormous percentage of our Gross Domestic Product. Their short lifespan would probably have doubled or tripled if they had antibiotics to overcome infection. They wouldn't need drugs to lower blood pressure or cholesterol; modern 70-year-old hunter-gatherers don't develop hypertension and blocked arteries. Native Americans of a century ago didn't need insulin or diabetes medications because they didn't suffer from the disease. Type 2 diabetes is now the second leading cause of death among them and not just in the elderly. The horrid complications of diabetes are commonplace among 30- and 40-year old tribal members.

The Physician's Desk Reference that rests within arm's reach of nearly every medical practitioner describes the chemistry, indications and dosage of more than 4,000 drugs — and 3600 distinct adverse reactions. By comparison, the Stone Age healer's inventory of medicines was minuscule but then, so were his patient's chronic illnesses. Life ended abruptly for most of them, the decline from good health to death being a short one. In making our decline — what some have called the disability zone — last for years or decades, we have not always enhanced the quality of life.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at