Animals as Medicine Men?

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Early humans relied on trial and error for much of their learning, but looking to nature also provided clues to health aids and allowed our ancestors to mimic natural solutions.

One of the traditional ways that ancient shamans discovered new ways to treat tribe members was by watching the local animals.

Often, what other species ate when they were experiencing symptoms of illness could have an effect on what the local humans were dealing with as well. That led to many traditional medicines, a number of which are still being used today.

In more modern times, it has also led to a field of study that looks at how animals self-medicate and the plants, soils and insect they utilize in doing so. It’s called called Zoopharmacognosy.

Zoopharmacognosy may be an unwieldy word to say or spell, but there’s a definite logic to it. It combines the words indicating animals (zoo), drugs (pharma) and knowing (gnosy), so its roots are literally based on connecting animals to medicine.

By watching what animals use, researchers can find treatments for humans as well. It’s a growing branch of study that has animal behaviorists, ecologists, pharmacologists, anthropologists, geochemists and parasitologists working together to use nature to solve modern health problems.

One of the most common animals studied in this context is the chimpanzee. A chimp in Tanzania, for example, might use the same plant to cure stomach pain as a woman from the local village.

By watching carefully what the animal’s symptoms were and mimicking what thechimpanzee did, both can find the same cure. No less a legend than Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees eating certain bushes in an effort to make themselves sick, perhaps to expel toxins or parasites.

It makes sense that chimpanzees would be a natural model for those looking for local medicines. But they aren’t the only ones that are being watched, or that appear to use natural remedies for what ails them.

For instance,in Kenya, women induce labor using the leaves of a tree from the Boraginaceae family … just like the local elephants do.

Lemurs in Madagascar take the leaves and bark of fig and tamarind trees in the late stages of pregnancy, which serves as a natural prenatal vitamin.

Giraffes eat termite mound soil to detoxify, which may have impacts for human health.

European starlings crush ants to soothe their irritated skin, which releases formic acid and has properties that kill the irritants. Finches appear to self-medicate, too.

Wood rats in California fumigate their nests by combining bay leaves with their tears to release fumigating vapors. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Using animal behavior to find medicine was how cavemen shamans looked for cures the only way they knew how. But today this burgeoning field of study shows there are still applications for the future as well.

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Maite Cavemen

MAITE is the shaman of the tribe. Her knowledge of nature’s secrets is unparalleled and her powers are vast and supernatural. Her main weakness: impatience

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