Frankincense: An Ancient Wonder Cure on the Verge of Extinction
Frankincense is famous for being one of the three gifts presented by the Magi to baby Jesus (the other two being gold and myrrh). Several thousand years ago, people knew how to use frankincense to cure several ailments. The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians are also believed to have burned frankincense during their religious ceremonies, and Hatshepsut’s famous reliefs depicting the ‘Expedition to Punt’ show not only frankincense, but also the trees themselves being brought back to Egypt. Ancient civilizations understood how to use frankincense in rituals and for healing. But the trees that produce frankincense are under threat.
Trees that Provide Frankincense are Endangered
Frankincense (also known as olibanum) is the dried resin that comes from the “tears” of cuts in a variety of Boswellia tree species, specifically Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii. Boswellia trees are grown in the dry climates of Oman, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and northwestern India. Unfortunately, many of these trees are now endangered.
Frankincense tree, Yemen. (Rod Waddington/CC BY SA 2.0)
In particular, it is reported that boswellia papyrifera, which grows in Ethiopia and Sudan, could be extinct within the next 50 years. Anjanette DeCarlo, chief sustainability scientist for the US-based Aromatic Plant Research Center and head of the Save Frankincense project, predicts that in the next 20 years, frankincense resin production will be halved. DeCarlo said action needs to be taken to prevent the extinction of frankincense now because many of the trees are “the last of their generation” and are being over-tapped for frankincense resin, which makes it harder for them to regenerate and survive.
Along with DeCarlo, Stephen Johnson, an organismal biologist and frankincense researcher, suggests that frankincense purchasers, including the Catholic Church and the essential oil industry, need to take a closer look at the source providing them with frankincense. Johnson said, “Today, we have the ability to go directly to the source, to talk to the actual harvesters and to employ technologies that allow us to track products all along the supply chain and make sure that that is all being done ethically and in a way that allows the trees and the communities to flourish.”
Frankincense resin on a tree. (Nada /Adobe Stock)
DeCarlo warns that action is necessary now, “ten years from now will be too late” to save the trees that provide frankincense. The industry needs to change since it is “very open to corruption and/or decline” DeCarlo said and “it’s not helping the people on the ground, it’s not helping the companies that want to do the right thing or helping the consumers who don’t want to be killing trees or hurting communities or being complicit in something that isn’t sustainable.”
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Frankincense and the Incense Route
Frankincense has been valued for a long time; it was even one of the commodities that fueled the Incense Route. The status of frankincense as a luxury object, and its high value in the market during ancient times is understandable, considering the various ways in which it was used.
Frankincense fueled the Incense Route and brought great wealth to the lands producing it, as well as the cities along the route. For instance, Southern Arabia grew so rich that it was referred to by the ancient geographers as ‘Arabia Felix’ (meaning ‘Arabia the Blessed’). The Romans, who wanted a share of the lucrative trade, sent an expedition to conquer the region during the 1st century BC. Due to the harsh climate of the region, however, they were forced to turn back.
Frankincense’s Ritual Usage
Frankincense is perhaps best known for its use in religious ceremonies. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, frankincense would be burnt as an offering to various deities. Additionally, due to its association with the divine, frankincense was also burnt for the dead. The aroma of the incense also served to mask the odor of the decaying flesh.
Frankincense has often been used in religious ceremonies. (bilderstoeckchen /Adobe Stock)
Moreover, the ancient Egyptians made use of frankincense for embalming the dead. During the process of mummification, the internal organs of the mummy would be removed. The cavities in the body would then be packed with frankincense, so as to prevent decomposition, in addition to masking the odor.
Healing Properties of Frankincense
Frankincense was used for non-religious purposes as well. For instance, ancient physicians were aware of the medicinal properties of frankincense. They found that frankincense had antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties, and therefore prescribed it as a cure for a variety of ailments, including indigestion, cough, and halitosis (bad breath). The famous Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, even wrote about how to use frankincense as an antidote for hemlock poisoning.
Although frankincense was often burned as incense, it could also be used as an oil. Once more, the healing properties of frankincense have been highlighted. For example, due to its antiseptic properties, frankincense oil could be applied to wounds to prevent them from developing infections. Frankincense has even been ingested to aid the recovery of internal wounds.
Frankincense oil and resin crystals. (Madeleine Steinbach / Adobe Stock) The famous Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, even wrote about how to use frankincense as an antidote for hemlock poisoning.
Modern Science Tunes in and Expands on Ancient Knowledge
In more recent times, the healing properties of frankincense have been studied by scientists. Thanks to chemical analyses of this product, we now have a better understanding of the components found in frankincense and the healing effects they may have on the human body. For example, monoterpenes such as alpha- and beta-pinene are an important component of frankincense. It has been found that this compound helps to eliminate toxins from the liver and the kidneys.
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Be that as it may, the medicinal properties of frankincense have yet to be fully understood. According to a 2010 report by the BBC, scientists have observed that frankincense stopped cancer from spreading and cause cancerous cells to close themselves down. The report also stated that the compound in frankincense responsible for this had not been identified, but scientists were trying to isolate it.
Frankincense has come a long way since it was first used by ancient societies. While the healing properties of frankincense were recognized in the past, analysis of this precious substance using modern chemistry could lead to the discovery of new ways in which frankincense may be used for medicinal purposes. This will only be possible if the trees which provide frankincense are protected.
Top Image: Frankincense is often used for medical and ritual purposes, but the trees which produce the resin are endangered. Source: Patrick Daxenbichler /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
Updated on December 16, 2020.
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