When thinking of natural medicine, most of us think of plant medicine. After all, most supplements sold in stores, other than vitamins and minerals, are derived from plants and sold as tinctures, capsules, powders, etc. But if we’re looking at medicine in the context of a wild food diet, it would be unreasonable to think that all remedies stem from the plant kingdom. In fact, indigenous cultures across the world utilize natural medicines from many kingdoms, Animalia included.
Today, this practice is not uncommon among modern, domesticated humans, although it may not be so obvious. For example, gelatin is a popular joint-support supplement, and is derived primarily from pork skins, horses, cattle bones, or split cattle hides. Fish oil is another highly touted supplement indicated for a variety of conditions, and is obviously derived from the tissues of oily fish. Gelatin and fish oil are sourced from animals that are used both as food and medicine, thus fulfilling the famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Many indigenous cultures implement extensive strategies that include animals for the treatment of illnesses. To these individuals, animals are not exclusive sources of concentrated protein, nor just good sources of fatty nourishment. Their utility extends far beyond the provision of macronutrients, supplying important therapeutic agents as well.
This post will focus on three areas of the world, briefly summarizing the ethnozoology of the cultures within these environments. It’s important to understand the value that animals contribute to certain groups of people, as some individuals, here in modern civilization, might associate the use of animals with abuse, greed, and waste. While these terms may accurately describe some conventional methods of animal harvesting, they cannot be generalized to include traditional animal preparation involving responsibility, intention, and care.
Home to over 200 indigenous cultures, Brazil is unique in that it possesses between 15-20% of all the world’s biological diversity. Wild food and medicine are utilized not only by the inhabitants of remote areas, but by those who live in civilization as well. And as you might guess, animals are important to the medicinal strategies implemented throughout Brazil (1). Of the 354 animals used as medicine, 157 of them are also used as food (about 44%).
The animals used as both medicine and food can be divided into 6 categories in descending order of use: fish (77 species; 49.0%), followed by mammals (35; 22.3%), reptiles (20; 12.7%), birds (11; 7.0%), crustaceans (9; 5.7%), and mollusks (5; 3.2%). With many coastal areas, it is no surprise that fish and other aquatic organisms comprise the largest portion of animal medicine in Brazil.
Looking deeper, we find that certain animals are used primarily for medicine, and not so much for food. The Boa constrictor (B. constrictor), for example, is utilized for rheumatism, lung disease, and thrombosis. Other animals, however, are used primarily for dietary nourishment, while their various bodily components provide medicine. The caiman animals, which include small crocodilians, are hunted for their meat, while the teeth, skin, fat, and penis are used for conditions including asthma, stroke, bronchitis, backache, and sexual impotence. Likewise, the meat of armadillos is consumed, while the tail and skin are used to treat earaches and asthma. Amulets made from animal parts are also worn by individuals as protection, further demonstrating the numerous roles animals play in the well-being of Brazilians.
In India, medicinal animal use has been documented not only in Ayurvedic medicine, but in indigenous culture practices throughout the country as well (2). Approximately 109 species of animals are used as medicine in India. In descending order of use, mammals rank highest (44 species; 40%), followed by invertebrates (24; 22%), birds (18; 17%), reptiles (12; 11%), fish (9; 8%), and amphibians (2; 2%).
While animals provide medicine for a variety of ailments in India, the majority are used for respiratory problems (42 species, 38.5%). Rheumatic pains (32, 29.4%) and gastric disorders (22; 20.2%) rank second and third, with other conditions including skin issues, impotency, and eye and ear problems. For example, legs of the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), a large bird in the pheasant family, are used to treat ear infections. Paralysis and sexual impotency are treated with oil from the red velvet mite (Trombidium grandissimum).
Animal flesh, while providing substantial calories and macronutrients, ranks highest in medicinal use among animal parts. Honey, milk, mucus, and eggs are also widely used, as well as urine, fat, blood, and antlers. But even though numerous animals and animal parts are indicated for various ailments, knowledge about animal medicine is fading and falling out of practice, especially when compared to plant medicine. India is becoming more modernized like most areas of the world, and traditional methods of living and healing are slowly becoming replaced by conventional standards.
Korea (Jeju Island)
Compared to the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island retains a more abundant biological diversity, as it experiences climate conditions ranging from the subtropic to subarctic. The island is situated to the south of the Korean Peninsula, and was created through volcanic activity approximately two million years ago.
It is estimated that about 77 species of animals are used by the inhabitants of Jeju Island (3). Fish occupy the greatest number of uses (28 species; 36%), followed by mammals (15; 19%), mollusks (13; 17%), arthropods (8; 10%), birds (4; 5%), and echinoderms (3; 4%). Much like Brazil, Jeju Island relies heavily on aquatic organisms for food and medicine, as evidenced by the proportion of these animals used.
Since the 13th century, Jeju Island has been a major horse-breeding region. It is no surprise, then, that out of all the animals used as medicine, the horse (Equus caballus) is used for approximately 14 different ailments. Horse bones are decocted, simmered, extracted, or powdered to treat a variety of conditions, primarily bone diseases and arthritis.
Another common treatment involves the Korean blackish cicada (Cryptotympana dubia). The larva is juiced and ingested orally for the common cold, cough, and fever. Interestingly, recent research has confirmed antimicrobial action by a peptide extracted from the Korean blackish cicada, which is effective against two antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains: methicilin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (4).
The list of ailments treated is vast, ranging from genitourinary system disorders to poisonings. And although animals still play a major role in traditional Korean medicine, knowledge regarding their value has the potential to be lost on Jeju Island, as most of it is retained by the aging senior population.
By now, it’s quite apparent how important animals are in the traditional medical systems of various cultures. Those who live closest to the land understand the value all organisms provide in maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem, both external to the body and within.
An adulterated form of this practice is still performed today in American medicine, as animal-derived substances comprise a portion of the pharmaceutical drugs on the market. For example, Premarin, a medication consisting of conjugated estrogens, is derived from pregnant mares’ urine. The cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a small insect native to South America and Mexico, is used to produce a red-colored dye as coloring for ointments and pills. The difference today, however, is that many people may not even be aware that they are consuming animals as part of their medical treatments. Such is the unilluminated life of the modern domesticated human.
What do we make from all this? Understand that medicine does not start and end with the botanical world. Animals have always been essential to the livelihoods of various peoples, providing food, shelter, warmth, protection, tools, companionship, and medicine. Certain movements today promote the abstinence of all animal products. While individual choice must be respected for any reason in doing so, realize that by eschewing an entire kingdom of life, all medicines derived from it are withheld as well.
If you are unfamiliar with the traditional use of animals within your ecosystem, I encourage you to research for yourself and discover all the fascinating ways natural Homo sapiens have always interacted with the kingdom Animalia, both for food and medicine.
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