Recently, scientists uncovered the remains of a Neanderthal tribe that lived in the area now known as Spain, some 50,000 years ago. Analyzing residue on their teeth, the researchers discovered traces of powerful chemicals: triterpenes and lactones from chamomile and yarrow were still detectable, and indicated that these early hominids consumed these plants, which have little or no caloric value. It’s an intriguing finding: have we been harnessing the power of herbs for that long?
In fact, we may have been herbalists well before we were human – from an evolutionary perspective, at least. Primates are the most enthusiastic, but many other species (from bees to elephants) employ plants just as the Neanderthals seem to have done: small quantities of wild botanicals that have little caloric value are used, deliberately and effectively, to maintain health. While lacking an understanding of physiology and biochemistry, animals (and early humans) still realize that renewing a connection to the wilder side of the dinner plate is a daily necessity.
Christina Warriner studies archaeological evidence to piece together a picture of what how our oldest ancestors nourished themselves. She has come to three basic conclusions: first, ancient diets were incredibly diverse. They were different from region to region, from season to season, and featured a vast amount of different plants as well as some meat and animal fat. Second, all those plants came in small, frequent doses, and included herbs that were relatively “calorie-poor” (as we saw in the Neanderthals). Finally, the plants our ancestors consumed still had large amounts of phytochemicals – plant constituents with biochemical action and that have been largely bred out of modern vegetables. The plants we used to eat had strong, often bitter flavors, were hard to find in quantity, and were – to put it simply – powerful.
What happened? Over all these years, we’ve drifted away from these plants. The diversity of our diet is at an all-time low, starring only corn, wheat and soy (along with traces of other, highly hybridized, veggies). We eat lots and lots of these plants, and almost none of the “calorie-poor” herbs that have been animals’ companions for millions of years. The chemical potency of our dietary plants is all but gone, bred out because of its unpalatable flavor. Many have been telling us that the “Western” diet is killing us slowly, and lies at the root of the modern epidemics of mental and spiritual distress, digestive disease, cardiovascular illness and cancer. They warn us to turn our backs on the modern foods we’ve grown accustomed to – and that our lives may depend on it.
If you’re into herbs, you may have a different take. It may be possible, and in fact preferable, to restore diverse, wild, powerful botanical chemistry into our daily lives and, by so doing, circumvent the risks of the “Western” diet. It may not be that wheat, soy and corn are killers: it may just be that, without our old allies, our bodies have forgotten how to work properly. They are out of context. And wouldn’t it be great if, by bringing that context back, we could enjoy a modern, urban life without the risks and diseases associated with it? That is precisely what herbs can offer us: they are easy to grow, simple to prepare, and deeply nourishing, enlivening, and restorative when consumed habitually. They provide the context our physiology needs, while linking us back to the wilder side of nature. This wilder side is calling us: it’s green, open, sexy and powerful. With it, we are at our most vibrant.
So herbs are radically different from drugs: they are more akin to physiologic building blocks, the vectors for cross-kingdom signaling, a way for plants to guide us to our best potential. While some can definitely treat disease and infection in the short term, herbs really shine at slowly rebalancing us in our entirety, so that mental distress, spiritual malaise, toxicity and inflammation melt away like snow in warm sunlight. The safe medicinal herbs are often weedy, or at least ridiculously easy to grow, and their preparation and administration are simple and worry-free. And think about what happens when you start to see a dandelion as more than just a pest: could it be an old friend? Could it have something in it that we lack, that used to be as familiar as electricity is today? Strange things start to happen to our ecological and cultural outlook when we begin to ponder these questions.
This is what I encourage you to do: find a wild plant, maybe one with a historical record of medicinal activity, to be your ally this summer. Identify it with certainty, make sure it’s safe. Watch it grow, slowly at first, then faster as it bursts into flower, sets seed, matures its root. Taste it. Harvest it. Sit with it on sunny mornings and through rainy afternoons. This medicine is very real, but it is also very different. If you want to find the true power of an herb, you will have to approach it as a friend, not as an alternative to a pill. In so doing, you won’t just discover medicine. You will come home, too.