Nobody knows exactly where and when the healing art of aromatherapy began. Nevertheless, it has its roots in the rites and rituals of earliest mankind. By analysis of fossilised pollens found in ancient habitation and burial sites of early humans, scientists have discovered traces of plant that have known medicinal properties.
At least some of these properties must have been evident to these early people, who would have made the discovery either by accident or by observation. Early man would soon have recognised which leaves, berries, fruit or roots encouraged wounds to heal or sickness to improve. He would also have observed which plants sick animals sought out and ate. They discovered startling proof of the early use of plants by Neanderthal man in 1975 at a cave site in Iraq.
Scientific excavation showed signs of human habitation for 60 000 years and the discoveries there have been some of the most significant and important finds to date. At this site in 1975, the burial of a Neanderthal adult male was discovered. The subsequent soil analysis showed pollen evidence that the body had been placed on a bed of a type of woody Horsetail plant and that it had been buried with a wreath of flowers. The plants used for the wreath are all well known today and still used for their medicinal properties.
They include Yarrow, groundsel, Cornflower, St. Barnaby’s thistle, grape, hyacinth and hollyhock. As several of these plants are known to have wound healing and Fever reducing properties, it is tempting to think that they were used for those same properties by the Neanderthal man, who, far from being a lumbering cretinous creature, had now been shown to have been a thinking, feeling being as demonstrated by the care of the burial ritual.
Early man would also have observed that the smoke from his fire could produce various effects. Some woods or bushes, when burnt and the smoke inhaled, can produce Drowsiness, some excitement and others hallucinations. Little wonder that smoke and fire were considered magical and formed an integral part of many rituals. They thought that some wood smoke was beneficial and the ‘smoking’ by sick people was an early medical treatment.
Fumigation with aromatic plants and woods has been an accepted medical practice for thousands of years and is still used in some parts of the world today. Until as recent as, early 20th Century hospitals in Europe burnt Rosemary and Thyme as a disinfectant. Deliberate cultivation of plants began with Neolithic man and the plants cultivated included the poppy. It seems highly unlikely that early man was aware of the narcotic effects.
The white spotted red mushroom (Fly Agaric), beloved of all illustrators of children’s fairy tales, was another of the earliest substances used by man for its hallucinatory effects. Perhaps this explains its connection with fairies and magical tales. The hallucinatory effects were evident in some of Alice’s experiences in Wonderland! Lewis Carroll was known to have studied the effects of Fly Agaric.
Evidence of the widespread use of aromatic plant substances was seen in the tomb paintings of the ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago. Plant substances were used not only for medicinal, but also for perfumes and cosmetics, in preservation and preparation of food to enhance flavour and aid digestion.
They were also used for their Anti-Bacterial and anti-viral properties to stave off illness and epidemic. Some were even found to have contraceptive qualities. The ancient Egyptians practised a sophisticated level of medicine and many of the plants that they used are today recognised as beneficial in the treatment of certain diseases. Their surgeons even developed techniques for successful brain Surgery. Evidence of this has been found on many mummified remains, which show clear signs of skull Surgery in which the bones of the skull had healed and knitted together some considerable time before death.
They cultivated fields of fruits and vegetables and gardens of Herbs. Plant substances were used extensively in pills, potions, pastes, ointments, infusions, poultices, powders and suppositories. And when the ancient Egyptian died, plant substances, bitumen’s and resins were used in the most important ritual of all – embalming his body so that his Ba, or spirit, could live for eternity. The embalming of royal bodies and High Court dignitaries involved the removal of the internal organs, which they embalmed separately and stored in canopic jars for later burial in the tomb.
The intestinal cavity was cleaned with palm wine and all hollow parts of the body were filled with aromatics and Spices. The body was dry-salted and left for 70 days. They then wrapped the body with gummed bandages and prepared it for the funeral procession to the tomb.
The famous Egyptologist, Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, was profoundly moved when the sarcophagus of the king, who was 18 years old at the time of his death, was opened revealing the dried well-preserved flower garlands draped around his neck. These would have been placed in the tomb by the hands of his young widowed queen, whose footprints were still clearly visible in the undisturbed dust in the tomb. T
hree thousand years slipped away and, it seemed to Carter, that the young queen had stepped out of the tomb only moments before. He was acutely aware that he was, Breathing the very air that had last been breathed by the ancient mourners. Although Tutankhamen died at a very young age.
Many of the ancient people’s life span must have increased considerably if we consider the medicinal properties of the commonly used plants used by the Egyptians and other ancient civilisations – for example, the Greeks, Romans and Mesopatanians. Noting how very familiar these plants are to us today is interesting.
Consider this list: rhubarb watermelon Garlic Coriander Cedar grapes Cumin Cypress olives onions Thyme Mustard apples roses Caraway Fennel saffron Juniper quince Angelica Marjoram mint Parsley radishes leeks bay Tarragon Ginger Cinnamon Aniseed Frankincense poppy Yarrow
As the Roman Empire expanded, their knowledge spread widely and probably arrived in Britain with the Roman legions. In the 11th Century Arabia, Avicenna, the famous court physician recorded his use of over 800 plants in his treatments. Historically, he is an important figure in the later development of Aromatherapy because he used massage and manipulation as part of his treatment.
He was also largely responsible for the refining of distillation techniques to derive oils from plants. Medieval Europe saw the use of plants in infusions, pills, potions, pomanders and nosegays, which were sniffed as protection against epidemic and pestilence. The Herbs Lavender, Sage and Rosemary were used widely to scent linen and to protect materials against moths.
Herbs were strewn on the floors of dwellings to perfume rooms and repel fleas, flies and ticks. In times of plague, bonfires were lit at intervals along the streets in the belief that the smoke would act as a powerful disinfectant and would give some protection against infection.
Although many uses of plants through the centuries would have been extremely effective, some were not and this type of fumigation during the times of the bubonic plague would provably have been useless.