Did you know that the famous 5.300-year-old ‘iceman’ Ötzi found in the Italian Alps in the 1990s carried around a fungus that worked as an antibiotic? And that it would have helped him alleviate the symptoms of the parasites scientists have found in his colon?
Throughout human history, we have used elements from our surroundings in an attempt to cure illnesses and injury. Some, like Ötzi’s fungus, might have actually had a beneficial effect, others not so much. In Roman times, for example, the blood of a fallen gladiator was thought to cure epilepsy. In Ancient Egypt, dead mice mashed into a paste and applied on the gums was thought to cure toothache. From the 1700s to the 1900s, mercury was believed to cure syphilis in Europe (how wrong they were).
The boundaries between medicine and magic have always been fluent. Is a doctor or nurse, telling a patient to ‘think positively’ and let the medicine, they have prescribed, do its job so much different from a medicine man or woman telling their patient to sacrifice to the spirits while the poultice they have made takes effect? And while the knowledge of the doctors and nurses is evidence based and developed through clinical trials, the knowledge of the medicine woman or man might be honed through generations of trial and error.
I might still prefer to place my well-being in the hands of modern medicine, but I will also not lose sight of the fact that many new cures come out of the rainforests of the Amazon or Asia. That, like Ötzi’s fungus, there might be some truth to folk medicine and cures passed down through the generations. And we might need them, once TB has become entirely resistant to antibiotics.
In our collections at Moesgaard Museum, we have many different kinds of medicine from all over the world. The ones I have chosen here were collected among the Sukuma people of Tanzania in 2011, and perfectly strides the border between magic and medicine. Here are a few examples of their supposed effects: A., a root called ndago, used by pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. H. is a medicine called kungwambezo, which is used to treat a condition where the patient’s heart beats wildly and they have trouble sleeping. S., O., and C. are pieces of iron from old smithies. It is ground up and mixed with lotion to form a paste, which is smeared on swollen legs, arms, and abdomens—but which can also be used to protect people against witches and thieves.
I do not know whether ndago really prevents miscarriages or kungwambezo really slows a wildly beating heart. I am not a big believer in witches, so I’ll take a pass on the iron paste. But we do have great amounts of powders, remedies, dried herbs, and undefinable objects, all used for healing around the world. Sadly, we do not know what much of it was intended to cure, but who is to say our collection does not contain the next penicillin?