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J Ethnopharmacol. 2013 Jul 9;148(2):361-78. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2013.03.068. Epub 2013 Apr 6.

Knowledge of Eastern materia medica (Indian and Chinese) in pre-modern Mediterranean medical traditions: a study in comparative historical ethnopharmacology.

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Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, Washington, DC, USA.



Transmission of ethnopharmacological knowledge over a long period of time and across a vast area or between botanically or culturally/scientifically unrelated regions of the world is a fundamental issue in ethnopharmacology, as it traces continuity and transformation(s) of the data to be submitted to analysis for evaluation. In the context of present interest in Eastern medicine (particularly Indian and Chinese), we ask questions about the transmission of knowledge from the East to the Mediterranean. In the first part, we survey available literature on trade between the two areas and, in the second, we present preliminary micro-cases (data, analysis and interpretation) in order to verify the feasibility of a comparative study.


Based on the assumption of native areas of origin and/or domestication of plants and one other natural product (musk), we have screened relevant sources (pharmacological literature) in the original language searching for explicit information about Indian and/or Chinese materia medica. We have concentrated our attention on knowledge of the origin of the materia medica under study, their therapeutic applications, the explanations provided for their activity, and the knowledge of the living plants and animals as demonstrated through their representations.


Relevant data come from the Hippocratic Collection in ancient Greece (5th century B.C.E.) to the Renaissance in the 16th century. The corpus of materia medica and drugs collected in this preliminary study include pepper and myrrh (5th century B.C.E.), ginger (1st century C.E.), a dozen plants and drugs in the period 9th to 13th century (e.g. camphor, clove, galanga, nutmeg), cinnamon (11th century and later), eggplant, banana tree and musk (13th-16th century). Whereas the Eastern origin of such products was known, the exact area was not always. Judging from their representations, the plants and animals producing the drugs studied here were not necessarily known. Compared therapeutic uses of the drugs did not correspond to those in the area of origin, even though some knowledge of such original uses was preserved.


This study warrants the very possibility of a comparative analysis of different historical pharmacological traditions. It highlights both continuities and innovations in the transmission of information from the East (India and China) to the Mediterranean, suggests interpretations on the processes brought to light and opens the door to a further systematic study that will expand the documentary corpus, collect additional material, and also confirm and refine our interpretations. Such an approach is expected to play a fundamental role in the collection of historical ethnopharmacological data and to be applicable to traditions other than the Eastern and Mediterranean ones.

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