Chinese Medicine And Prehistory

 In Health, Neolithic, Paleo food

The Chinese Government has approved Chinese Medicine. Does that seem incongruous, a Communist government adopting a pagan or perhaps Buddhist practice from the past? Well, not quite. It seems they want to tie the present culture to China’s historic past. Chinese medicine, it appears, is over 2000 years old. The principle of the medicine is to restore body harmony, between yin and yang. You may think that sounds appealing and harmless but you would be wrong. You cannot separate it from the continuing use of rhino horn, tiger bones and pangolin scales. These materials might be officially banned but that will not overcome ignorance and superstition. Chinese medicine and prehistory have much to answer for in the face of science.


Prior to science, a little bit of knowledge took you a long way. In China it appears that each village had a ‘barefoot doctor‘. Although they went back well into the past, these were only officially recognised in the 1960’s. This person blended Western medicine with Chinese medicine. Mao was keen on this but not so keen that when he was really ill he immediately sent for his Austrian doctor. The educated in China know that the medicine is quackery. However, what does all this tell us about our British past?

Herbal remedies

In my last book, my pagan ancestor Zuri is unwell and seeks plants, specifically lichens, that will cure her illness. I avoided any cures that might involve animals or birds. However, it had always been in my mind that so many of our British wildlife have been pushed over the edge. The beaver, aurochs, bears, wolves, eagles, the list can go on and on. Did they die out because our shamans needed their bits for medicine? The beaver tail, the talon, bear paw, aurochs testicles, all might have had a high price. If true, it makes a mockery of those modern people who see shamanism as somehow harmless, a quaint hangover from our pagan past. Like Chinese medicine, it was probably destructive as well as full of superstition.

Chinese medicine and prehistory

What the Chinese government has done is typical. It’s as if we all seem to look at the past with rose tinted spectacles. Yes, there were simple remedies, like watercress, that we now know contained chemicals that might have been effective against TB. However, they did not know that, they worked blind. It is impossible to think that animal parts were not used. Did I cop out by ignoring the use of animals and birds?

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Showing 4 comments
  • Julie Dunk

    I suppose it could have been a bit like the current nose to tail trend of using an entire animal with nothing going to waste; the good meat would have been used for food, skin for clothing and shelters, bones for tools, tendons for bindings etc. The bits that weren’t much use for anything else may have been used for healing rituals/medicine. Some may have had accidental healing properties, or may have had a placebo effect leading to the belief that they could cure illnesses and therefore giving them a status beyond their real value. I don’t recall seeing any auroch’s testicles in the archaeological record, but their bones, horns and teeth are present on many sites.

    • Ken West

      Perhaps the question is whether the creature was killed first for its body parts and then followed your proposed route, of nose to tail for other uses? The rhinos and pangolins just seem to be wasted once the horn or scales are removed.

  • Julie Dunk


    That could be a sign of a more wealthy society – they no longer need to use the whole animal as they have plenty of food, shelter etc so only take the ‘luxury’ items and discard the rest. Such a waste.

    • Ken West

      I wish that were true. A prog on Laos on Wednesday on BBC 2 was about saving sun and moon bears. The baby bears were just adorable. They have bile extracted from their gall bladders and then suffer ill-health and short lives. The procedure is a torture, often puncturing various organs in their body with the needle. Thousands of bears are kept in cages for this purpose although their government is trying to stop the bile trade. It is medicinal and pharmaceutical products that drive it, usually in street markets.

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