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'Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition'
'Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition'
By Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (Rutgers, 1990) - superb!
Aztec herbal medicine, Codex Florentine Book XI

Introduction

Welcome to our Aztec Health section. It launched in November 2007 with a double feature on Aztec herbal medicine prepared by Corrinne Burns, Leicester School of Pharmacy, De Montfort University. We’re honoured too to have a concise introduction to this field written specially for us by Professor Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Wayne State University (USA), who is on our Panel of Experts...

Professor Ortiz de Montellano is on our Panel of Experts
Professor Ortiz de Montellano is on our Panel of Experts (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The discovery of the New World aroused an enormous amount of interest in Europe. Accurate descriptions of expeditions were mixed with wild stories describing monsters and mythical animals in the area. There was a keen interest in reports of the wide variety of new foods, plants and herbal medicines that were to be found. The epidemic of syphilis believed to have originated in the New World increased this concern and led to a massive importation of two New World remedies, holy wood (Guaiacum sanctum) and sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.). At that time, it was believed that each land provided the cures for its own special diseases, and syphilis came supposedly from the New World.

The tail of the opossum (never previously seen in Europe) was used by the Aztecs as an ‘oxytocic’ to induce birth; from Hernández’s ‘Historia de los animales de la Nueva España’, ch. 5 p. 298.
The tail of the opossum (never previously seen in Europe) was used by the Aztecs as an ‘oxytocic’ to induce birth; from Hernández’s ‘Historia de los animales de la Nueva España’, ch. 5 p. 298. (Click on image to enlarge)

‘King Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernández, one of his royal physicians, on a scientific mission to the New World. Hernández was directed to make a comprehensive study of the medicinal plants of New Spain and Perú including their use, how and where they grew, and an estimate of their effectiveness. Hernández arrived in Mexico in 1570 and stayed until 1577. The magnitude of the task was so great that, even though the viceroys were ordered to assist Hernández in his work, he never managed to get to Perú (Somolinos d’Ardois 1960: 144-152). Hernández interrogated native physicians and did his own evaluations according to the Galenical theory current in Europe at the time. The massive original version of his book, describing Aztec medicinal plants, minerals, and animals, with its irreplaceable native illustrations, was destroyed in a fire at the royal palace in 1671. What we now have is an incomplete copy made in 1648 (Somolinos d’Ardois 1960: 282) Hernández was full of praise for the extent of botanical and taxonomical knowledge of the Indians:-

Sadly Hernández’s original great work ‘The Natural History of New Spain’ was never published; some of the studies based on his work are inevitably incomplete
Sadly Hernández’s original great work ‘The Natural History of New Spain’ was never published; some of the studies based on his work are inevitably incomplete (Click on image to enlarge)

"I marveled, in this and in innumerable other herbs, which are nameless among us, how in the Indies, where people are so uncultured and barbaric, there are so many herbs, some with known uses and some without, but there is almost none, which is not known to them and given a particular name" (Hernández 1959-1984: vol. 5, 425).

Plate 69 from the Badianus Manuscript (‘An Aztec Herbal of 1552’), now in the Vatican Library
Plate 69 from the Badianus Manuscript (‘An Aztec Herbal of 1552’), now in the Vatican Library (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Although, as in many other medical systems, including our own, illnesses were treated by imploring the gods and using magical remedies, the Aztecs also had knowledge based on research and experience. The Aztecs had considerable empirical knowledge about plants. The emperor Motecuhzoma I established the first botanical garden in the Fifteenth Century and as the Mexica (the Aztec group that ruled in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City) conquered new lands, specimens were brought to these and other botanical gardens. Natives of newly conquered areas were also brought to tend plants from their areas. Among other things these gardens were used for medical research; plants were given away to patients with the condition that they report on the results. These activities are reflected in the Aztec’s extensive and scientifically accurate botanical and zoological nomenclature (Ortiz de Montellano 1984). The Spanish chroniclers were impressed with Aztec medical knowledge. Torquemada (1975-1983: vol. 3, 325) mentioned that Aztec battle surgeons tended their wounded skillfully and that they healed them faster than the Spanish surgeons. He also described the infinite number of herbs sold in their markets, the skill needed to distinguish between them, and that they cured without using mixtures of herbs (1975-1983: vol. 3, 349). Motolinía wrote:-

Aztec field medicine (Florentine Codex, Book 11)
Aztec field medicine (Florentine Codex, Book 11) (Click on image to enlarge)

“They have their own native skilled doctors who know how to use many herbs and medicines which suffices for them. Some of them have so much experience that they were able to heal Spaniards, who had long suffered from chronic and serious diseases" (Motolinía 1971: 160).

Aztec farmers knew the strengths and properties of each and every local plant
Aztec farmers knew the strengths and properties of each and every local plant (Click on image to enlarge)

‘An area in which the Aztecs were clearly superior to the Spanish conquerors was in the treatment of battle wounds. European wound treatment at that time consisted of cauterization with boiling oil and reciting prayers, while waiting for infection to develop the “laudable pus” that was seen as a good sign (Forrest 1982). The Aztecs were engaged in warfare practically all the time and had developed a regime consisting of washing the wounds with fresh urine (a sterile solution), applying an herb to stop the bleeding, and using Agave sap with or without salt to prevent infection and promote healing. Judy Davidson and I (1984) showed that Agave sap was, in fact, antibiotic. A group of Argentinian surgeons used granulated sugar (which worked by the same mechanism as Agave sap) in successfully treating and preventing infections (Herszage, Montenegro, and Joseph 1980).

An Aztec woman feeds ‘teopochotl’ flower seeds to her husband (Florentine Codex, Book 11)
An Aztec woman feeds ‘teopochotl’ flower seeds to her husband (Florentine Codex, Book 11) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In my own studies (Ortiz de Montellano 1990), I have shown that the Aztecs could produce the physiological effects (vomiting, diaphoresis, etc.) that their ideas about the cause and cure of disease would require in over three fourths of their remedies. Evaluating the effectiveness of these remedies in our own terms, I found that only 22 percent were completely ineffective and that more than half had ingredients that had been shown to be effective, either by widespread use in folk medicines, in animal or laboratory tests, and even in clinical trials. This kind of track record has led the Mexican government to sponsor research on the validity of Mexican folk remedies for many years. The success of qinghaosu, the traditional Chinese antimalarial that has become a front-line remedy for that terrible disease, should encourage us to continue investigating the remedies used by the Aztecs.

The world today enjoys many key foodstuffs thanks to the efforts of farmers in ancient Mesoamerica
The world today enjoys many key foodstuffs thanks to the efforts of farmers in ancient Mesoamerica (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Although my focus so far has been on remedies for disease, we should remember that health involves much more than curing disease after it occurs. Preventing disease and illness is as or more important than curing disease. Maintaining health involves eating a healthy and varied diet- the Aztecs ate a high fiber, low cholesterol, and very varied diet (practically anything that flew, crawled, or swam); exercise — there were no beasts of burden or wheels (humans had to carry everything), and public health measures - the Aztecs had provisions for clean water and floating ”honey wagons.”

’I hope that this new section of Mexicolore will explore and teach us how the Aztecs dealt with all of these aspects of medicine and health.’

Bibliography
Estes, J. Worth. 1995. “The European Reception of the First Drugs from the New World,” Pharmacy in History 37 (#1): 3-23.
Davidson, J. and Ortiz de Montellano, B.R. 1984 "The Antibacterial Properties of an Aztec Wound Remedy," Journal of Ethnopharmacology (Switzerland), 8, 149-161.
del Pozo, E. D. 1967. "Empiricism and magic in Aztec pharmacology" in D. E. Efron, ed. Ethnopharmacological Search for Psychoactive Drugs , 59-76. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
Durán, Friar. D. 1967 [1581]. Historia de la Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme A.M. Garibay, ed., 2 vols. Mexico: Porrua
Forrest, R.D. 1982. “The Development of Wound Therapy from the Dark Ages to the Present,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 75: 268-273.
Hernández, F. 1959-1984. Obras Completas. 6 vols. México: UNAM.
Herszage, L., Montenegro, J.R. and Joseph, A.L. 1980. “Tratamiento de las heridas supuradas con azúcar granulado comercial,” Boletines y Trabajos de la Sociedad Argentina de Cirujanos 61: 315-330.
Motolinía, Friar Toribio de. 1971 [1541] Memoriales o libro de las cosas de la Nueva España y de los naturales de ella, E. O’Gorman, ed. Mexico: UNAM.
Ortiz de Montellano, B. R. 1984. “El conocimiento de la naturaleza entre los mexicas: Taxonomía,” In A. López Austin and C. Viesca Treviño, eds., Historia general de la medicina en México Vol. 1, 115-132. Mexico: UNAM/Academia Nacional de Medicina.
----- 1990. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
Somolinos d’Ardois, G. 1960. “Vida y obra de Francisco Hernández.” In Hernández Obras Completas, vol.1, 97-440. México: UNAM
Torquemada, Friar J de. 1975-1983 [1615]. Monarquía Indiana. M. León Portilla, ed. 7 vols. México: UNAM (1615).

‘What were the surgery practices among the Aztecs?’

‘5 pre-Hispanic rituals that we Mexicans still practice today’ (in Spanish)
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Mexicolore replies: We’ve answered John’s excellent question in the ‘Ask Us’ section of the website...
Mexicolore replies: There’s a very comprehensive list of exactly the information you’re looking for in Professor de Montellano’s highly recommended book (see top of page). ONE day we’ll work with him to add the data to the website...!