A 1000-Year-Old Skeleton Rises from The Grave Revealing the Secret Ingredients of a Timeworn Herbal Potion
The 1000-year-old skeletal remains of a man aged between 25 and 30 have revealed to scientists the first physical evidence that ferns were prepared into medicinal concoctions for treating a range of conditions, from serious issues, such as kidney stones, to aesthetic issues like dandruff and alopecia.
The man’s skeleton was unearthed at the medieval necropolis of Can Reiners which is situated above the forum of an ancient Roman city, believed to have been founded in the year 123 BC as a castra (military camp), that quickly evolved into the city of Pollentia, on the Spanish Balearic Islands. In 2015, Elena Florin from University of York's Department of Archaeology published a paper titled The Necropolis of Can Reiners (7th c.AD, Mallorca, Spain): Demography, Health, And Lifestyle, in which she analyzed the “1980 to 1988 excavations of more than 200 human burials.”
Roman ruins of Pollentia, Mallorca, Spain (dudlajzov / Fotolia)
Skeleton’s Teeth Reveal Secrets
But this particular skeleton, according to Florin, “is significant” because it was contaminated with “traces of starch grains consistent with cereal plants, such as wheat and rye, and scientists found a microscopic collection of cells in which spores are formed on the underside of the plants leaves,” Florin told reporters at PHYS, “Analysis of the calculus on the skeleton’s teeth tells scientists that the man lived between the ninth and 10th century.”
Calculus on the teeth of this skeleton revealed traces of an ancient cure. Credit: University of York
“The finding from the dental remains of this skeleton show just how much information we can get from dental calculus analysis. It demonstrates that in this region of Spain, communities were aware of the medicinal properties of some plants and how to administer them to get the desired result,” Florin told reporters.”
Fern Leaf Used as Medieval Cure
So far as evidence shows, no part of the fern was ever ‘eaten’ at any point in ‘recorded’ history, but 1st century written descriptions describe it being ‘prepared’ as drinks designed to alleviate “non-life-threatening symptoms.” By the middle ages, folkloric medicine stories blending early scientific observations and notions with old wives’ tales were published in many books across Europe. But the discovery of the microscopic fern fragments on this newly examined skeleton “is the first time the particular species of fern has been identified” and Florin added “We were able to determine that the cells were from fern plant, ‘asplenium trichomanes’, a common species that grows in rocky areas worldwide.”
Medieval European herbal texts describe water being poured on ‘fresh or dried’ fern leaves and sometimes sweetened with orange flowers, sugar or honey and used for curing dandruff, the common cold, kidney stones and alopecia. There is also reference to the plant being used to stimulate menstrual flow in women, said Florin.
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The Asplenium trichomanes fern (Pecold / Fotolia)
An Ancient Remedy with Global Appeal
Right now, a significant portion of readers are tapping their fingers thinking “come on, get on with the story. All this herbal medicine stuff is ‘woo woo’, just nonsense. Right?” Wrong. While the skeptical approach is always a worthy way to approach 99 percent of the claims made by modern, mass produced herbal remedies, one should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
As far as ferns are concerned, the plant’s specific curing properties were discovered independently around the world. In the ancient American Northwest, for example, according to an article on Alaska Native Knowledge Network, “The therapeutic action of the rhizome is anthelmintic, astringent, tonic, and vulnerary” and Alaskan Natives brewed fern tea for gut problems, breathing issues like asthma and especially to relive ‘kidney troubles.’”
Florin concluded in her comments to the press that “These ferns were employed, and are still used in Europe today, to cure a variety of diseases and through the archaeological record we can start to see how human beings have used the natural environment to assist in healthcare throughout our evolution."
The next step of Florin’s research project is to look “at other dental remains for similar properties that might tell us more about the use of medicinal herbs in the past”.
If I were reading this article I would at this stage be shouting “Prove it then? Show me scientifically how a fern can cure a kidney stone?” Back as the writer, I would answer “read this 2016 paper published by the National Library of Medicine titled Identification of medicinal plants for the treatment of kidney and urinary stones.” In summary, the team of Iranian scientists’ objective was “to determine native medicinal plants used by traditional healers of Shiraz for the treatment of kidney stones.” Having studied the effects of “A total of 18 species belonging to 19 botanical families” the paper concluded “In the case of safety and effectiveness, they [ferns] can be refined and processed to produce natural drugs.”
You can’t argue with these scientific findings, and in this instance, the skeptic is required to re-evaluate the general rejection they might extend to the efficacy of herbal medicines. While it can be proven and agreed that snake oil never did and never will never cure blindness, the same confidence can be given to the claim that ferns ‘can’ and ‘did’ cure kidney stones, and other illnesses.
Top image: Archaeological excavation with skeleton, representational image only (esben468635 / Fotolia)
By Ashley Cowie
Bahmani M, Baharvand-Ahmadi B, Tajeddini P, Rafieian-Kopaei M, Naghdi N. Identification of medicinal plants for the treatment of kidney and urinary stones. J Renal Inj Prev. 2016;5(3):129-133. DOI: 10.15171/jrip.2016.27