Chickens and Millet: Early Agriculture in China

May 9th, 2015

Paper delivered at Society of Ethnobiology annual conference, Santa Barbara, CA, May 2015


Chickens and Millet:  The Significance of New Findings in Chinese Food Archaeology

Recent findings in archaeology have considerably pushed back the dates for domestication of chickens, millets, rice, pigs, and other domestic life forms of eastern Asia.  North China has taken a lead over south China, though this may change with further investigation.  Early evidence of milking and stockraising in central Asia is relevant. To a cultural anthropologist working with modern uses of plants and animals, the new findings confirm my models and suppositions about the origins and development of agriculture: it happened when environmental conditions improved and food got more abundant, not during periods of scarcity; it probably involved trade and certainly contact with other groups; it took place in favorable locations at probable trade crossroads.  Early items grown were those either storable or highly valued or both.  Uses of many items tended to shift over time as more efficient systems were discovered.  The development of food systems has to be understood in a context of induced biological development: changes were most likely when they removed bottlenecks that inhibited trade, contact, and efficiency.


A number of recent excavation projects in China have shown that agriculture there is much older than we once thought.  When I was a student, agriculture was known back to about 4000-5000 BCE.  It now appears to go back at least to 8000 BCE (for excellent recent reviews of Chinese archaeology, see Li 2013; Liu 2005; Liu and Chen 2012; see also Anderson 2014).

Pottery is even earlier, and those who still believes in the “Neolithic Revolution” will be delighted to learn that pottery goes back to 20,000 years ago or more in China (Wu Xiaohong et al. 2012).  It was soon quite widely spread, from the Pearl River at 15,000 BCE (Pearson 2006) to the Amur River on China before 11,000 BCE (Zhushchikovskaya 1997).  It is in Japan by 13,000 or earlier.  This pottery is probably ancestral to that of Europe, since one sees a slow spread of similar wares across Siberia.  Ground stone appears early in the form of milling stones (metates).

The first agriculture known in China involves two species of millet, foxtail (Setaria italica) and broomcorn or panic millet (Panicum miliaceum). Several sites report them around that date, but the most interesting currently at Nanzhuangtou, somewhat south of Beijing.  Here not only early millets but the earliest domestic chickens in the world are found, at 8000 BCE (Xiang et al. 2014, 2015).  The earliest dog in China is also there, and is even earlier, at 10,000 BCE (Liu and Chen 2012:64).  Very early pigs and dogs are found at nearby sites.

The Nanzhuangtou site got its domesticates during the rise of warm wet weather around 8000 BCE.  There and elsewhere, rise and spread of domestication tracks warming and wetting trends, with dramatic improvement of growing conditions.  Around Dadiwan, for instance, there were forests of oak, birch, maple, hazelnut, cherry, chestnut, hophornbeam, sorbus, persimmon, hornbeam, elm, Toxicodendron (I didn’t know China had that), locally even liquidambar, eucommia, and other warm-weather trees.  Spruce occurred locally, with sharp decline after 2600 BCE (Li et al. 2013).  Most of these must have been on the mountains above the site, not in the dry, desolate plains where the site is, but trees evidently moved down the valleys.  It is worth noting that the mountains support a forest today, though not such a subtropical one.  The high Qinling Mountains to the south also had a warm-temperate forest (Zhao et al. 2014).

Several sites in the Yellow River drainage report millets back to 7000 BCE.  Millet agriculture had reached Dadiwan, far out into west China and almost in the Central Asian desert, by 6000 BCE (Bettinger et al. 2010).  It had also reached Inner Mongolia by this time (Shelach et al. 2011).  Millets are C4 plants, almost everything else in China is C3 (including rice), so where C4 shows up in bone signatures one can be sure that millet is being devoured.  This allows us to find transitions to agriculture in the record, with C4 dominating by 6000 BCE.  Rice occurs at Jiahu, one of the millet-agricultural sites from around 5000 BCE (Zhang and Hung 2013).  Also at Jiahu were residues of millet beer brewed with honey, hawthorn fruit, and grapes (Liu and Chen 2012:120; McGovern 2009).  Patrick McGovern, who analyzed this residue, worked with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to reconstruct it, and you can now buy “Chateau Jiahu” beer if you can find it.  It is possibly a bit less than the finest brew, and thus is rarely stocked by liquor stores.

Millet agriculture, complete with chickens, pigs, and dogs, spread from north-central China throughout what is now China by 4000 BCE.  Its expansion could very well have coincided with, and been responsible for, the spread of the Tibeto-Burman (a.k.a. Sino-Tibetan) language phylum.  The timing, location, and motivation all seem right.  This phylum may have started in high west China, judging from surviving origin myths, or from central north China.  Its more recent radiation, giving us the Tibetan, Burman, Qiang, and other branches and probably the Chinese too, is generally thought to have been in Sichuan; there are many good grounds for this (van Driem 1999, 2002).  If so, that was probably after the spread of millet agriculture into that mountainous region, which is perfect for differentiation and migration of groups.

Meanwhile, rice (Oryza sativa) was domesticated by 7000 BCE in the Yangzi area (Liu and Chen 2012:76)  The Peiligang culture, flourishing 7000-5000 BCE, had a lot of it, as well as millet (Liu 2012).  At Hemudu by 5000 BCE rice was common, with large containers of it having been found.  (Rice then probably yielded 500 kg/ha; it now yields over ten tons per ha, thanks to the masterful breeding programs of Yuan Longping [2002] and others.)

A great deal of controversy surrounds rice.  All evidence points to the Yangzi drainage, except for some recent genetics work that pinpoints the Pearl River drainage, far to the south (Huang et al. 2012).  But they sampled wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) largely from that area, and the plant is mostly gone in the Yangzi area, so this is probably an artifact.  Jeanmarie Molina et al. (2011) found that their genetic data pointed to a single origin in the Yangzi area for rice, but more recent work

There are two major divisions of rice, japonica (short grain) and indica (long grain).  These are very separate and hard to cross (Yang et al. 2012), indicating a very long period of divergence; they were very likely different in the wild long before humans came on the scene, and thus must have been domesticated separately.  They may both be native to the Yangzi area. Reports of indica in early Chinese sites are common but controversial.  However, recent work suggests that indica may have arisen in India from hybridization of introduced japonica with local Indian strains (Callaway 2014).  Rice is not found in south China till about 4000 BCE (Lu 2011).

It was in Taiwan, along with millets, in the Daben’geng culture, which represents Austronesians migrating from southern China to that island around 3000 BCE (Hung and Carson 2014).  The Austronesians, specifically the Malayo-Polynesian branch thereof, apparently radiated later from Taiwan throughout Oceania (Bellwood 2009; Bellwood and Renfrew 2002).  Many agricultural words reconstruct to proto-Austronesian or at least proto-Malayo-Polynesian, including words for grains, root crops, chickens, and pigs.

Rice may have been spread by the ancestors of the Thai-Kadai language phylum.  It in turn may be related to Austronesian and even other relevant groups (Sagart et al. 2005).  The Austroasiatic phylum is generally believed to have arisen in India, but now some think that it arose in China and spread rice there; there are many words associated with rice cultivation in its reconstructed original vocabulary (Sagart et al 2005).  In any case, it is hard to deny that the various phyla in south China—Thai-Kadai, Yao-Mian, Miao-Hmong, Austronesian, Austroasiatic—may all have been involved from a quite early time.  The Austronesian word for unhusked rice may even have invaded Tibeto-Burman: Bahasa Malaysia beras, Tibetan mbras (Sagart et al 2005), but the similarity of the words—if it is not purely accidental, which I think it is—would imply a very recent borrowing.

Returning to the chicken, a very interesting point is that the word for “chicken” all over east Asia and widely in the rest of the world derives from the Thai-Kadai root kai (Cantonese kai, surely the Thai word; Mandarin ji from *kai; and so on; Blench 2007).  This indicates to me that the ancestors of the Thai-Kadai, who were almost certainly in the Yangzi valley, domesticated the bird, in which case it spread north after domestication to Nanzhuangtou.

Along with rice came peaches.  Possibly domesticated peaches occur by 6000-5000 BCE in the lower Yangzi and are certainly domesticated by 3000 (Zheng et al. 2014).  It can be safely assumed that if people were domesticating peaches they must have domesticated a range of other fruits, as well as vegetables and other plants.  I also strongly suspect that China had long been managing wild trees, as Native Americans did (and locally still do), to maximize nut tree production; oaks and various nut trees abounded.   Elsewhere in China, buckwheat was being domesticated about this time (Ohnishi 1998).

By 4000 BCE, then, millets, rice, and the commoner domestic animals, as well as fruits and other foods, were all over what is now China, except for the remote mountain and desert areas.  (Tibet in particular remained long unsettled.)  Large villages developed, and beautiful, exquisitely made pottery was common.  Dairying was evidently beginning in central Asia; not long after, residues of kefir and other milk products appear on pots (Yang et al. 2014).

Before 3000 BCE, settlements grew large, implying rich chiefdoms (Drennan and Dai 2010).  Some settlements grew to near urban size, such as the mysterious towns of the Hongshan culture in far north China.  This culture goes back as far as 4500 BCE (Shelach et al. 2011; Zhang et al 2013).  By 3000 it was producing sizable towns that seem like capitals and have associated ceremonial and ritual items (Allan 2002).  It remained at a chiefdom level, with only about 1000 people in these large towns (Peterson et al 2010).  But then it declined and fell,  It had depended on C4 food entirely, but now regressed to getting 15% of its food from C3 plants (Liu and Chen 2012:177), indicating a return to foraging on wild foods or eating coarse grains and vegetables.


What lies behind this certainly includes climate.  China’s last and harshest ice age gave way, as elsewhere, betweem about 15,000 and11,000 years ago.  Then a warm and quite wet period came, between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, with a maximum warmth around 8,000 to 5,000 years ago.  This is exactly the period when agriculture developed and flourished most, and when large settlements arose.  The period from 3000 to 2000 BCE was one of decline.  Cultures like Hongshan sank back to small village levels.  Significantly, the area at the great bend of the Yellow River, at the focus of the great logical trade routes of northern China, was countercyclic: it grew and flourished in population in the late 2000s BCE.

Around 2000 it broke over into full civilization, with bronze work, intensive agriculture, and massive architecture.  Soon after that, the city at what is now the village of Erlitou reached a population between 18,000 and 30,000 (Liu 2009; Liu and Chen 2003).  Nothing remotely close to that size existed elsewhere in China.  It has been awfully hard for people to resist equating this statelet with the legendary Xia Dynasty, China’s first dynasty, known only from reports in much later history works.  The only problem is that the Erlitou culture had no writing (though some marks on pots point toward it).  We can only guess.  Many, I think most, Chinese archaeologists, however, now simply assume that Erlitou was Xia.

There may have been some climatic improvement, but it seems more likely that Erlitou flourished because times were hard.  It was strategically placed to dominate trade, communication, and military adventuring in the Yellow River drainage.  Competition over scarce resources might well have driven a race to build bigger, more defensible settlements.  Ceramics and other stylistic markers show that Erlitou exerted at least cultural and possibly political dominance over a local area about the size of a typical early state or large chiefdom.  (See Liu and Chen 2003, 2012, esp. 2012:258-259.)


Significantly, through all of this, China lost almost no wild species.  Some megafauna went extinct at the end of the ice age, but China kept most of its megafauna.  Elephants, rhinoceri, and other large animals still existed well into historic times, and of course China still has pandas, tigers, bears, gibbons, and even a few elephants in the far south.  Hunting was a major source of food in the Neolithic, as was fishing.  China’s fantastic botanical diversity flourished.  During cold dry periods, animals and plants retreated southward.  In warm wet ones, they moved north again.


So the record is one of agriculture expanding rapidly along with the improvement of the climate for plant growth, and the continuing flourishing of megafauna.  This goes totally against the received wisdom in studies of agricultural origins, which usually assume that agriculture was invented because people needed food.  Either they killed off the megafauna, or they grew rapidly in population or they just plain starved.  (For a summary of theories of agricultural origin, with full references, see Graeme Barker 2006.)  Yet, in China, it was not only the richest and most food-abundant areas that developed agriculture, but specifically the areas that were most rapidly getting richer still.

But it does dramatically confirm one theory:  Carl Sauer’s, from his book Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (1952).  Sauer understood that developing agriculture is a very long, slow process that does not pay off immediately.  It requires people who are playing around with plants, using them, letting them seed themselves.  He guessed that agriculture was invented by settled people who lived by fishing and gathering in southeast Asia.

The earliest agriculture in the world is in the Near East, and the earliest agriculture elsewhere is in northern China, but Sauer is close to right.  The communities in north China were relatively settled, plant-dependent, and above all on a climatic roll. Moreover, agriculture began in exactly the area that was turned from a cold, harsh steppe into a lush, warm-temperate paradise.  It spread first to other areas with that history, then south and out into other areas that were also improving, but less rapidly.

This being determined, what was the motive?  If wild food was rapidly increasing, why farm?  Sauer thought people might start with fibre crops instead of food, but this was not the case.  Brian Hayden and his associates (2001) hypothesized that the motive might be producing food for feasts.  Indeed, there is evidence of some feasting, but largely later in time.

For over 40 years, I have been arguing that agriculture developed because of trade.  People wanted trade goods to be around the settlement—both to have them on hand to trade and to be able to protect them from raid.  It so happens that the early Chinese sites are in good areas for trading.  However, there is not much evidence for trade on any scale until agriculture was well developed.  I suspect it was there, but it certainly was not overwhelmingly obvious.

Storage is another concern.  Grain can be stored easily.  Domestic animals are a form of storage: one controls them and their reproduction, in contrast to the situation with wild animals.  They are always around the house.  The larger and more settled a group is, the more useful storage is to them.  However, what we often find is a replacement of wild nut crops—acorns, chestnuts, walnuts—by grain (Liu 2012).  This happens quite dramatically in much of the north around 7000-5000 BCE.  Grain is much more controllable.  It grows fast, yields reliably, and can be spatially manipulated—you can plant it anywhere.  Tree crops, in contrast, bear erratically, cannot be moved around easily, and cannot regrow fast after a fire, flood or disease episode.  It would make a great deal of sense for people to take control of their destinies by growing their animals and quick-maturing plant foods, instead of depending on uncertain nature.

However, I do not believe that storage and control are adequate motives.  I still think the trade and protection theory is the only one that can explain existing patterns of early agriculture.  Only it, for instance, explains the persistent correlation of development and progress with areas that are central to trade.  The early sites are near trade routes, and the strategic location of Erlitou and other larger, later sites is unquestionable.  There is also the issue of those early chickens: they probably came from farther south—chickens are not native anywhere near Nanzhuangtou.  If they were traded up from a domestication farther south, as I think they were, we have good evidence of important trade in domesticated food items.  I await further research, in hopes it will provide more evidence. Meanwhile, at the very least, the theories that assume agriculture developed because people needed food do not fit the Chinese case, or any other case known to me.





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Bird Song, Primate Calls, and the Evolution of Language

March 30th, 2015

Society for Anthropological Sciences, annual conference, Pittsburgh, PA, 2015



Language Evolution and Animal Communication

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside





Speculations on the origins of language were so rife already in 1865 that the Société Linguistique de Paris banned discussion of them.  The Philological Society of London followed suit in 1873 (Luef and Pika 2015).  It did no good.  The tradition continues, and I will now add to it.

  1. Tecumseh Fitch’s masterful review The Evolution of Language (2010; Fitch et al. 2005) leaves very little to say on that topic. He covers an amazing range of topics, from physiology to formal language and from evolutionary theory to the sign-language of the deaf, with brilliant insight, impeccable logic, and total control of the material.  Also, the book is clearly written, and spares us the dreadful musings on “consciousness” and “mind” that ruin so much of the cognitive-evolutionary literature.  All in all, this is one of the great books of social science, and deserves to become a classic.

However, he does leave something.  He knows so much more than I do about most fields—anatomy, neurology, formal linguistics, and linguistic theory, for instance—that I would not dream of saying anything, but in a few areas I may have a tiny bit to add, primarily in the field of animal communication.  Like Fitch, I started out in that area of study, but I drifted into ecological anthropology while he (later) drifted into linguistics.

All communication systems in the animal world are used primarily for social ends.  Usually the most complex systems are involved in mating and in raising young.  Often they are also involved in maintaining the social group and relationships within it, or in cooperative hunting, or nesting.  Lifelong association with dogs and coyotes teaches me that animal communication is not all about territory and mate-getting (as most older books allege).  Most, in these species, is about social bonding, and negotiating social systems.

Bird song is one area I know from research and observation.  The songs of birds are multifunctional:  they declare territory, attract mates, hold mates, keep up contact with young, warn rivals, signal to friendly neighbors that their old friend is still singing, warn predators that the singer is alert and ready to chase them off, and probably several other functions.  Signaling to the friendly neighbor community is a newly discovered function that turns out to be extremely important, but was totally missed until recently because biologists assumed birds were too dumb, individualist, combative, etc. to do that.  (See Kroodsma 2005 for both a good introduction to bird song and a sadly, and inaccurately, limited take on their meanings; see also Marler and Slabbekorn, a major source for Fitch.)


Clearing Away Underbrush: What We Can and Can’t Learn from Animal Communication


One of the biggest problems with studies of the evolution of language is that rather few of the people who deal in that field know the details of recent findings on animal communication.  Admittedly, it is a rather arcane field.  The increasing tendency of scholarship to take place in “silos” keeps linguists from finding out about the bird song or wolf literature.

Another problem is the sort of arid speculation in a vacuum that the learned societies attempted to ban.  A recent article in Current Anthropology (Scott-Phillips 2015), with full CA* commentary, manages to spend 24 pages without one single item of data, either in the main text or the commentaries.  It is all on a high philosophic level.  Unsurprisingly, the authors show no detectable understanding of animal communication.  I found little of remark in this work.

Most of the classic barriers that were supposed to separate human language from animal communication have broken down long ago. The classic Cartesian view that since animals cannot talk they are mere machines, without souls or “reason” (Descartes 1999 [1637]), is of course mere Catholic religious dogma.  It has absolutely no scientific excuse.  Modern pseudo-scientific repetitions of it, e.g. “Lloyd Morgan’s canon,” are long disproved.  (For a superb review of animal sociality, showing how it can all be explained by standard Darwinian selection without recourse to group selection, see Bourke 2011.)

Animal sounds are structured and often show duality of patterning.  The smarter animals—the more highly social, highly encephalized birds and mammals—clearly intend to communicate, as opposed to producing mere “instinctive sounds” or “conditioned reflexes.”

When a bird learns a song to communicate its territorial boundary or its desire for a mate, it is clearly engaging in symbolic communication: there is no relationship per se between a song and a territory or a mate.  The song is not iconic or indexical; it is a symbol.  There is obviously some instinctive/inborn tendency to sing, but humans have an inborn tendency to talk.  Singing and talking are used deliberately to communicate various meanings that have nothing to do with the vocal sounds as such.


Bird Song as Model?


Birds learn their songs, and have a similar FOXp2 gene to the human one associated with language learning capability, as Fitch notes (and see Haesler 2007).  He also knows that birds need to  hear their own songs to perfect them (Keller et al. 2009).  Since Fitch wrote, even more human-like details of hemisphere specialization, song development, and other bird expression have surfaced (Moorman et al. 2012).  And birds, like primates, have mirror neurons (Prather et al. 2008).

Learning of songs and calls is widespread.  (What follows is summarized from a lifetime of reading and field work; for good up-to-date summaries of the science, see Kroodsma 2005; Marler and Slabbekorn 2004.)   Most bird singers, and all good singers, are members of one group, the suborder Oscines within the order Passeriformes.  It is clear how song evolved: the suboscines in that order give purely, or almost purely, instinctual calls that are like songs in that they loudly announce territory and attract mates; these in turn evolved from similar, even simpler, calls common to essentially all bird groups.  Song—partially learned—independently evolved in hummingbirds and some other groups.  There is little doubt how it evolved: in small birds with tightly-packed territories, something of this sort is needed to stake out territory and attract mates to same and to allow, simultaneously, neighbor recognition—a very important function that is critical to song learning.

The most dramatic cases are of those birds that not only imitate other sounds, but weave these sounds into their songs, changing the sounds progressively to fit the song.  Mockingbirds are the familiar example here in southern California.  They imitate neighboring birds such as kingbirds, woodpeckers, killdeer, and orioles, and once they have learned a harsh note they will work at transforming it to make it more songlike.  (This spares perceptive birdwatchers a lot of errors—one learns to tell imitations from the actual kingbirds, etc.)  Many other imitators do the same, as I can testify from experience with nightingales, goldfinches, and some others.

Mockingbirds and thrashers (mockingbirds are actually a kind of thrasher) can learn far more than 1000 song phrases.  Some obsessive birdwatcher counted, and found the champion in his count was the brown thrasher, with over 2000 known song phrases (Botero et al. 2009; Kroodsma 2005).  Mockingbirds are close.  It turned out that the farther north a species in the mockingbird and thrasher family bred, the more phrases it knew (Botero et al. 2009).  The investigators thought that migration required health and strength, and the females would assess a male’s strength by his song knowledge.  Another possibility is that the migrants have to regain and retake territory every year (instead of holding it year-round) and thus have to work harder.  These are not mutually exclusive; I dare say both are right.  Mockingbird song is elaborated from the more simple phrases of the wren group of birds.  Most wrens sing songs of one to four or five notes, with many variants of each song.  Combining the variants into one long song, and fantastically increasing the number of them, gives us mimid song.  Some wrens have paralleled mimids in this, or have developed complexity in another direction: elaborate duets (see below).

Much less dramatic, but much more widespread, is the tendency of songbirds to have a single, simple template for their songs, but to learn the refinements and modifications of that from their parents and other adults in their neighborhoods.  Apparently all songbirds sing many different songs (per bird), and all make their own personal songs unique.  However, they follow the style of the neighborhood.  Song dialects were first studied in chaffinches, but made really famous by studies of white-crowned sparrows, because they were famous for such dialects and because they were easily available on the UC Berkeley campus when Peter Marler (who started out with the chaffinches) set out to study song dialects.  Often, they go on to invent their own songs, patterned closely after the adults’ and thus producing a regional dialect with countless variations.

Bird song structure is phrasal.  Typically, a bird song is made up of phrases ranging from two to 12 notes, usually around four to six.  A song may be one phrase; the magnificent song of the canyon wren is one grand, swooping descent of the scale.  Most birds sing two or three phrases.  The mockingbird and its kin sing an open-ended number—in a day a mockingbird can work through dozens of phrases.

Margaret Morse Nice (1937-1943), in her classic work on the song sparrow that was the first and perhaps still the best monograph on a single bird species’ behavior, noted that a given song sparrow will have many songs, which are similar to neighbors’ songs but which are original to the individual.  (Nice apparently never held an academic job, in spite of being one of the greatest ornithologists of her or any other time—such was the fate of women in those days.)  He (males do the singing) will sing one song several times, switch to another, sing it several times, and so on all day—working through a monumental number of songs. Each song is made up of three or four phrases, and these are clearly patterned and organized in an overall way—not just Markov chaining but a very rudimentary sort of “grammar,” a type of Chomsky’s “phrase structure grammar.”  I have noted that each song is somewhat related to the past one; the birds evidently pattern their song sequences.

Most birds learn the songs of their natal neighborhood, but at least one, the South Island Saddleback of New Zealand, disperses and then learns the songs of the neighborhood in which it finally settles down.  (See Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004.  Alas, there is now little chance to study this fascinating bird, because its vulnerability to introduced rats, cats and weasels—especially as nest robbers—has led to its extinction except on a couple of tiny predator-free islets.)  Probably other birds do this also.

Another complex behavior carried out by birds is song duetting.  Pairs of plain-tailed wrens of South America, for instance, coordinate very closely their long, intricate songs.  This takes appreciable thinking.  It involves timing and song type coordination that go far beyond anything explicable by simple instinct or conditioning (Fortune et al. 2011).  Many other birds duet, including several closely related wren species.  They all probably have the same conscious planning behind it, but this has not been studied.

Songs may vary systematically with ecology.  Blackcaps—small European warblers with notable songs—have some migratory populations and some permanent-resident ones.  The former have more elaborate courting songs, but less elaborate male-rivalry songs, than stationary ones; this flags the quite different mating strategies of the two ecotypes (Collins 2009).

The complexity of bird song was greatly underestimated until better field studies, with modern recording equipment, appeared.  We now know much more about alternation of song types, song learning, and phrase construction.  Every new study reveals new complexity.

Song, however, does not exhaust bird communication.  Birds display visually, build bowers and nests, manipulate objects, engage in courtship feeding, and otherwise communicate by visual channels.  They also use touch, as in the well-known “billing and cooing” of mating pigeons and doves.  Some birds may even communicate by scent, though most birds have little sense of smell.

The most complex communication known in a nonhuman species is not found in primates but in the Satin Bowerbird of Australia (Johnsgard 1994:215-216).  Males build huge, complex bowers, which they decorate with all kinds of objects, especially bright blue ones that highlight the blue sheen of the black males.  In the wild, they use flowers and berries, but today they have taken to seeking out bits of blue glass, plastic, and painted materials.  One famous photograph, much reproduced, shows a bower beautifully decorated with a whole clotheslinefull of blue plastic clothespins.  The human family must have wondered why their laundry was all on the ground.  This, however, is only the beginning: the bird not only artfully arranges all these objects into patterns pointing to its own display place, it even paints the bower.  Using a small wad of vegetable matter for a brush, it applies colored clay or similar material to the grass and twigs of the bower.  The whole construction can imvolve many cubic metres of material.  Within this bower, at its focal point, the male displays, singing a complex song that is highly imitative.  As with the mockingbird, the male satin bowerbird weaves any available sound into a full repertoire of phrases.  He also engages in acrobatics on his perch.

The reason for all this is that the bird that builds the best bower, and does the best display, gets the most attention from the females.  Bowerbirds are lek species: the males display competitively to many females, and the most attractive male gets by far the most sex.  So runaway selection happens.  In bowerbirds, the learning component is so large that only a long-lived male can compete.  A good bower builder is thought to need ten to twelve years or so of experience to be competitive.  Thus, the females, in choosing the best builder and singer, are choosing a bird that has succeeded in dodging cats, owls, hawks, and other enemies for years—even while showing off in a most conspicuous way.  The females presumably do not think about this; they think only of who has the most impressive show.  But, underneath, natural selection has led to the oldest and smartest leaving the most descendants.

This is truly astonishing in that it is the only animal communication known to me that goes beyond simple phrase structure grammar, or that goes beyond one or at most two levels of recursion.  The bowerbird is combining learned sounds (unnatural to him) into songs, combining found objects into a bower, and and then combining gestures into a display—and combining all these into one bravura performance.  Other species of bowerbird are only somewhat less complex.  No other group of birds comes close, but many do build extra nests, modify twigs, clear areas of ground, or otherwise construct managed spaces.

Mimicry can be deployed in positively Machiavellian ways.  The forked-tailed drongo (Dicrurus assimilis), an African bird, can mimic almost anything, and has learned that if it mimics various alarm calls it can scare birds away from their food and steal the food (Flower et al. 2014).  If it mimicked only one alarm call, the other birds would soon learn, and not fall for the trick (birds learn such things easily).  This is, I think, the first time anyone has shown that any nonhuman animal can deliberately learn, choose, and invoke other species’ alarm calls for a particular functional reason.  It is awfully hard to believe that this is not conscious, wilful deception.  It is deployed situationally and appropriately.

Song learning can get amazingly complex: nest-parasitizing African indigobirds learn to sing the song of their foster parents, then attract members of the opposite sex with that song, making sure that specific lines of parasitizing go on and on (Payne and Sorenson 2006).

All this is clearly important for understanding the development of structural complexity and use of symbol in communication.  Unfortunately, it does not get us far in understanding the functional side of human language, and thus the whole Darwinian explanation of language evolution.

The reason is that bird song, complex though it may be, carries the simplest and most unchanging of messages.  The old idea that it is about nothing more than territory and mating is long disproved, but it does not really do much more.  The only demonstrated uses are:

(1) things they apparently do with some awareness:

–creating, marking and holding territory

–attracting and holding a mate (many birds have special pair-bonding songs; others sing to lure females for extra-pair copulations)

–sheer enjoyment and good spirits (birds clearly love to sing, or else they wouldn’t do it)

–recognizing the neighbors and being friendly with them, and, in consequence,

–knowing when a stranger comes into the neighborhood, to be attacked or at least evaluated for attack

–express high energy levels and personal excitement

–greet the new day (for whatever reason, birds usually do their main singing at dawn; sometimes also at dusk or in the dawn-like situation of clearing rainstorm clouds)

(2) things that were presumably evolutionary factors in the development of song:

–serving notice that the bird in question is on territory, healthy, and willing to fight or love

–signaling to the females (assuming male bird singing, which is the usual case) that the male in question is healthy, strong, intelligent, a survivor, and thus a good Darwinian match

–possibly, signaling good conditions: good climate, safe environment, food available, and the like.  This is by no means certain.

The first seven of those functions are clearly conscious and deliberate.  The male sings when those contingencies arise and does not choose to sing otherwise.  The last three, however, are probably “instinctive” in that they are not consciously communicated.

This is a fairly impressive list of messages for a brain weighing a few grams, but the problem is that it never changes.  The mockingbird and the brown thrasher, with their thousands of phrases, say only this—over and over.  Even the satin bowerbird says nothing more than this.  All these birds love to learn and try out new sounds, and work to get them to fit their singing style.  They obviously become quite creative and involved in the process.  But they use them for the same tired old purposes.  This is expectable from brain size: the song center makes up a fourth or more of the brain of a mockingbird or other good singer, leaving very little space for any other type of thinking.  This is the biggest difference between bird and human communication.  We can write novels like War and Peace and books like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Birds can manage “Judy, will you marry me?” and “Hi gang!” but not a lot more.


Bird Song Not as Model


The real problem with bird song as a model for human language, however, is a very different one, not heretofore noted (you are hearing it for the first time!):  the most social songbirds do not sing.  Several species of songbirds have evolved away from singing.  One can be sure their ancestors were singing because these nonsinging species are standouts within their family or even within their genus, and they are clearly the more recently evolved and specialized members of said family or genus.  Also, some intelligent birds that can learn human words are not songbirds at all (e.g. parrots; Pepperberg 1999).

The extreme case is that of the crows and ravens.  Jays, the more ancestral forms in the family Corvidae, sing (at least the ones I know do).  Crows and ravens are by far the most complexly social of birds, and probably the most intelligent (see Heinrich and Bugnar 2007; Marzluff and Angel 2005, 2012; Taylor et al. 2012).  They occur in flocks that may number hundreds in some species (rooks, Sinaloan crows) or even thousands (American crows, Mexican crows).  These flocks have a structure: they consist of nuclear families associated into extended families that extend outward into the whole population.  They are vast kingroups.  Mates in-marry and lone birds can join, but, basically, flocks are stable over very long time frames, and exist as stable descent groups.  Communication involves very complex displays and vocal sounds, but no songs.  (This paragraph is largely from my own observation and the work of Russell Balda and John Marzluff on pinyon jays—which are small crows, not jays—and crows; Marzluff and Balda 1992 and pers. comm.)

Other notable nonsingers include the western bluebird, whose congeners the eastern bluebird and mountain bluebird do sing; the obvious difference is that western bluebirds nest in loose colonies and flock in winter, while the other two are more solitary.  Cedar waxwings do not sing and are always in flocks, while their close relatives the phainopeplas are less flock-oriented and have complex songs.  Among marsh blackbirds, there is a continuum from the fairly colonial but still territorial redwing—a good singer—to the more colonial tricolored and yellow-headed blackbirds, which have much less impressive and complex songs, but which have smaller territories if they have territories at all.  Other social species with reduced songs include chickadees, the smaller nuthatches, and the more colonial swallows.  There are many songbirds that nest fairly colonially and still sing, but the converse is not true: I can think of no non-singing songbirds that are not colonial or flock-oriented.

Conversely, the truly great singers are all fiercely territorial.  They live at fairly high population densities—this seems critical; they need to be in earshot of several rivalds—but defend sizable territories against all comers.  This does not guarantee a good song (the California towhee is famously territorial and famously rudimentary as a singer) but it does seem that only strong territory-defenders have good songs. The conclusion is inescapable that songs are first and foremost about holding territory, and competing to see who can sing the best and thus hold territory the best.  We can therefore learn very little here about an insanely social species like Homo sapiens.  Humans are like crows: they are never happier, and never noisier and more vocal, than when they are in flocks of thousands.  (See any shopping mall, football game….)  Humans are not territorial in the way birds are; they have absolutely no tendency to defend standardized small areas against all comers (except family).  Like crows, they always occur in large, complex groups.  Territorial defense by groups has essentially nothing in common with bird territoriality; it is a highly flexible behavior engaged in by relatively large social units.


Many songbirds not only sing; they display.  This reaches an incredible pinnacle among the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea.  The males build elaborate stages on which to perform their songs and dances.  They are polygynous, and the most spectacular bower and display lures more females than the others, so the male who creates them leaves a disproportionate number of descendents.  This has led to runaway evolution.  The Satin Bowerbird of eastern Australia not only makes an elaborate bower, but he paints it with colorful clays, and decorates it with bright blue objects that set off his iridescent blue plumage.  Satin Bowerbirds are famous for stealing blue clothespins and other bright blue plastic and metal objects.  On top of that, the male sings a brilliant song full of imitations of other birds (see Johnsgard 1994:204-223).  It is really impossible to imagine all this being done without a great deal of intelligence and self-awareness.


Mammals as Model


Turning to mammals, there are few studies of song.  Mammals as diverse as grasshopper mice, whales, and bats  have long, patterned, musical sound sequences that appear to be true songs.  Many species of bats have partially-learned songs that display a “grammar” comparable to that of birds: they structure their phrases and songs quite deliberately.  They communicate species and individual identity, and also place.  They apparently are unusual in that they do not defend territory by song; they live in dense colonies, and use the songs to define colonies and hold them together (Morell 2014).

Howler monkeys (which I have studied in the field) use their howling choruses exactly the way birds do:  To hold territory, communicate with neighbors and tell neighbors from strangers, attract and hold mates, express excitement, and generally express high spirits (personal observation; details on request—I have lived among them and spent countless hours with them).  The African rock hyrax, a small mammal similar to a marmot but related to elephants, has a complex song (Morelle 2012).  Rock hyrax males sing long songs, which they learn, and they have local song dialects.  Apparently the songs are sung to impress females.  These songs have some sort of grammar, comparable to whales, etc.; presumably phrase structure grammar.  Their song consists of “wail, chuck, snort, squeak and tweet” (Morelle 2012).

Better studied are the howling choruses of dogs (Horowitz 2010), wolves (Mech 1988) and coyotes.  These appear to be true songs in that they are sharply marked off from ordinary, largely instinctive noises (barking, whining, growling, etc.).  Howling is more consciously managed, more patterned, more unique to individuals (thus presumably more learned), and more consciously given in special, marked situations.  It serves the same functions as bird song, but it also holds the packs together, communicates the place and situation of members who cannot see each other, and communicates various kinds of emotional arousal.  Sirens and other howl-like noises always set off a chorus.

Some personal observations on howling and canine music reveal that it is more complex than usually understood.  Many humans howl to or with their dogs, and the dogs often respond. The Hollywood movie Never Cry Wolf (based on Farley Mowat’s book of that title, 1963) has a scene in which the actor plays his bassoon to the wolves and they answer.  This was Hollywood romance, but it turns out not to be totally so.  I was once camped in a remote part of British Columbia.  At the next campsite was a professional saxophonist who had obviously seen the movie.  He played his saxophone to the wolf pack howling nearby, and they answered.  He would play a riff (as close to the wolves’ pitch and cadence as he could) and they would answer perfectly, throwing in some improvisation of their own.  They kept it up half the night.  The wolves answered him on key.   Sometimes they seemed to be copying his tune, but this was impossible to determine.  He was most certainly imitating them.  I would bet that he played the riffs in his next concert and said he learned them from the wolves.


Mammals and Society


Closer to home, the three packs (pairs with young) of coyotes that range into Two Trees Canyon, though they are all related, have quite different howling behaviors, which have persisted over at least the last several years.  The southfork pack’s vocalization is typical of local coyote behavior, howling at dawn and when sirens sound.  The summit pack is notably more quiet.  The northfork pack is amazing: not only do they vocalize far more than the others do, almost always starting any group chorus, but they produce not only howls but an incredible range of squeals, moans, barks, yodels, and sounds beyond description or name.  I have heard other coyote packs do this too, especially in remote desert areas, but it seems definitely a behavior limited to certain highly musical and improvisational packs.  In Two Trees Canyon the northfork pack almost always does it if they howl at all.  The other two packs almost never do.

Some dogs go on to produce music in other means.  I have no idea how much conditioning goes into the circus and TV acts in which dogs play horns (by squeezing bulbs with their mouths).  One—only one—of the dogs in my life learned spontaneously to play tunes on his squeaky toys, and spends many minutes at a time doing so.  He will create a three- or four-note phrase and repeat it several times, then switch to another, just like a mockingbird.  He clearly does it for pleasure; he will leave playing with the other dogs to do it, and it has never been rewarded (except for some verbal praise, after days of doing it).  He sometimes plays along with a music record, matching the timing.  The interesting thing here is that he is expressing himself in a totally unnatural and purely learned way.

As to ordinary communication, dogs, wolves, and coyotes do not limit their communication to vocal channels.  A full interaction between two canids, especially if they have not seen each other for a while, is quite striking.  They make a range of appropriate sounds: bark, whine, growl, etc.  Meanwhile, they bow, wag their tails (even coyotes do this when packs reunite), run about, present their throats to each other, flag their ears, crouch, sometimes roll over, and do a whole range of other behaviors (Horowitz 2010).  There is a whole language of ear elevation/depression, tail elevation/depression, fur erection/flattening, mouth corner drawback, etc.  (Drawing back the mouth corners to show deference is a pan-mammalian behavior that is the origin of the human smile.)

This, however, is far from all.  A human with a sensitive nose learns that the dogs are also releasing a strikingly wide range of pheromones from their anal, foot, shoulder, head, and other scent glands.  Each of these glands has a different mix of chemicals, particular to that gland but also varying by individual, allowing individual recognition.  Dogs communicate not only identity but emotional level and situation by scent.  Song—howling—is only one small, very public part of their repertoire.  Fine-tuning intimate social interaction in canids is not done by howling but by soft sounds, postures, scent, and other low-key means, all of which can be varied and adapted.  The basic behaviors are innate, but the fine-tuning and the combination are not.  They are learned, or innovated, and deployed according to sitiuation, with every appearance of being under some (though not necessarily much) conscious control.

Although this has been known for decades, it is surprisingly little studied, and the standard books on canine behavior barely mention it—quite amazingly, since everyone knows, or should know, that dogs live in a world of scent just as much as humans live in a world of sight.  The degree to which pheromone release is under voluntary control remains mysterious.  A striking example of how clueless behavioral scientists are about this is their use of the “spot on the forehead, in the mirror” test to see if dogs have “a concept of self.”  I have made it a point to watch dogs confronting mirrors for the first time.  They invariably look startled at the strange dog, sniff at it, and instantly lose all interest.  They never bother with mirrors again.  Of course dogs recognize self and other, but they do it by scent, as every dog owner knows from watching dogs identify their own toys, blankets, and so forth, and from watching dogs “read the local newspaper” at the neighborhood fire hydrant or lamppost.

A dog communicates mate-getting and territorial messages, but also fear, pain, excitement, pleasure, annoyance, anger (defensive or aggressive), desire to play, desire to take a walk, and much more.  Dogs have specific barks for specific situations; the play-bark in particular is quite different from the aggressive bark. A dog can combine vocalizations, ear flagging, tail wagging or drooping, stance, and facial expression to transmit exceedingly precise and subtle messages about level of arousal, intended behavior, and so on.  Dogs communicate not only a desire to play, but exactly what level of play they want, and how active and violent it is to be.  When one dog gets carried away in play and hurts the other, the hurt animal gives out a characteristic yelp, whereupon play immediately ends and an apology is forthcoming—often by the dogs stretching their necks out and touching noses.  Then play resumes.

Consider an interaction that happens almost every evening in my house:

Pup:  “Hey, let’s play!”             Older dogs:  “Lay off, we’re resting.”

Pup:  “You can always rest.  It’s evening! Active time for dogs!  C’mon!”

Older dogs:  “Well, maybe.  What you wanna play?”

Pup:  “We might play with this squeaky-toy.  Kit, you especially—here it is, just to tempt you—right in your face.”

Older dogs:  “Oh, OK, I guess we can play a bit, if Mom lets us get away with it.”

All this is communicated by gestures and barks, but the messages are clear.  “We might play with this squeaky-toy” actually is: play-bow with frantic tail-wagging; presentation of toy to older dogs, especially Kit, the more playful one; dancing around a bit; more play-bow and wagging and shoving toy in Kit’s face till he relents.  Note that it involves a clear subjunctive mood (the pup is just suggesting it); it involves a purely learned category (squeaky-toys are not part of canine evolution, but the dogs know everything about them); and a rudimentary theory of mind: the pup knows the older dogs have to be coaxed, with Kit being easier to coax.  Furtive glances at my wife express that final “if” clause better than words.

Even a human can generally tell when an angry dog is about to attack directly, or too scared to attack, or not interested in attacking.  Above all, however, dogs and coyotes communicate very complex and subtle messages to pups:  family bonding, support, reassurance, nurturance, alarm, and so on.  I have very often watched coyotes tell their pups exactly how afraid of me they should be, and exactly what to do about it—how far to run, when to hide, and so on.  I have also watched adults teaching young what to eat and how to eat it.  I have watched enthusiastic reunions with young who had been out wandering.


Important here is that all this communicative work, unlike bird song, is eminently social, directed at the pack and at any other canids in the neighborhood.  Coyotes and dogs howl to each other, and at closer range go through a wide range of typical social behaviors if they know each other.  Unlike bird song, these various canine modes are highly productive functionally as well as structurally.  They convey a wide range of social messages and nuances, from playful friendship to savage attack, from warm interest to cold disdain.

On the other hand, though wolves have over ten times the brain mass of songbirds, they are not up to the human level.  There is no indication that canids are saying much that is new and different.  They can fine-tune their very complex and interesting social lives in a way that birds do not approach, but (contrary to what my wife says about our border collie) they do not write philosophy books, speculate on astrophysics, or do calculus.  To be sure, most humans do not do those things either, and my wife may be right that “Bandit is smarter than a lot of people” (as she regularly says), but still we do not expect much new or exciting from the Canidae.  I fear that Gary Larson was right in the Far Side cartoon that showed a scientist who had invented a machine to translate barking into English and found that it meant just “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”

This leaves us somewhat lost, for, frankly, I have never seen believable accounts of primates being any better at communicating than wolves are.  The one exception would be the few chimps and bonobos that have been taught to do limited signing.  However, dogs can clearly beat this when it comes to following and executing commands expressed in symbols.  Sheepdogs routinely learn 150 to 200 whistled and/or gestured commands, and we are not talking “sit” and “stay” but “pick out the black sheep, cut him out of the flock, and bring him here.”  One dog, Chaser, has learned over 1000 English words (Pilley 2013).  Dogs can easily figure out that if you tell them to “bring the X,” where X is a new word and the set that is indicated has one strange object in it, they are to bring the strange object; and thereafter they will remember it is the X.  Dogs learn to follow pointing fingers to find objects (wolves do not), and dogs learn to point in that way with their muzzles.  They may do that naturally, but pointers learn to do it with a combination of muzzle and foreleg, and that is not natural.

Dogs do plan ahead, and chimps apparently do, and canids most certainly recognize other individuals and act on the basis of what they know about those others.  Every owner of more than one dog knows how one dog will figure out ways to take advantage of personal differences from other dogs to get some food.  I once had two dogs, one a smart leader, one a born follower.  The leader was smaller and less competitive at the food dish.  So she quickly learned to lead the other one into the house, then quickly whirl, leave the other inside, and rush outside to the food.  It worked every time.  All my other dogs have learned similar games, with humans as well as with dogs.  They immediately learn which of their human pets is an easier mark for food, which for walks, and so on.


Mammals Not as Model


We have, however, run into a blind alley here.  Chimps do not sign in nature.  Dogs do not learn 1000 words or 200 commands in nature, nor do wolves or coyotes.  Dogs do not plan ahead more than to the next snack or walk.  Neither, apparently, do chimps.  They can plan a little, and they can “read minds” a little, but they are apparently quite far behind humans (Suddendorf 2013) .  They have, in captivity, learned to call for apples by different notes, and chimps kept in the Netherlands learned new apple calls when moved to a British zoo (Nature 2015), but this is a one-“word” case in a totally unnatural situation.

Thomas Suddendorf, in an excellent recent review of the human-animal divide, sees a “gap” between animal basics—ability to communicate and remember, social reason, physical reasoning, empathy, tradition—and strictly human things, which he lists as “language, mental time travel, mindreading, theories, morality, culture.” (Suddendorf 2013:216).  He hints rather broadly that all the human skills seem to boil down to one thing: an ability to see the world more deeply and widely than animals can do.  This is close to Marc Hauser’s five (or more) levels of recursion.  More to the point, it was anticipated by David Kronenfeld in 1979, in his article that pointed out that language skills are an expectable corollary of the ability of humans to plan ahead in complex ways, as shown by Karl Lashley long ago (Lashley 1960).  The human tendency to think in tactics, strategies, objectives, goals, and the overall mission reprises the five levels of recursion.

No nonhuman animal has been shown to create genuinely new messages in the sense that a folktale or a myth is a new message.  (The isolated “water bird” story in the chimp literature—actually bonobo literature; it was Kanzi the bonobo, studied by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh [Suddendorf 2013:85]—is wildly suspect.  I think the bonobo was signing “water” and “bird” separately.  Kanzi did produce simple commands, like a two-year-old human.)

Canids can communicate endlessly about the latest changes in their social situations, and can indicate there is food and lead pack-mates to it, but this seems about the extent of their productivity.  To my knowledge (and I have a lot of field hours with several species of monkeys, as well as a fair knowledge of the literature), this is about the situation with primates too.  (For a recent review of primate intelligence, see De Waal and Ferrari 2012.  For a particularly fine account of one species, see Cheney and Seyfarth 2007; I know the actual baboons they studied, from personal experience in the Okavango Delta—and can testify that they are fiendishly intelligent; they routinely stole our stuff and shook us down for food.  They also combine vocal and other behavioral signals in context-appropriate and innovative ways, as canids do; I have watched this at some length.)

Chimps can communicate incredibly complex and detailed messages about immediate social states and situations (see e.g. De Waal 1982, 1995), and quite a bit about immediate food prospects, but they cannot—for example—tell a friend what happened last week, or describe in detail how to find a food item that is out of sight.  (They can indicate hidden items by signs, however.)  This sort of displacement in time and space is a purely human ability, and must have had considerable effect on driving language evolution.


Humans as Distinctive


We now turn to another biological matter:  human physical evolution for talking.  This is largely beyond my competence, but a few things need to be stressed.  One is the wide distribution of language and/or speech over the brain: not only Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but involvement of the frontal cortex more or less in its entirety, as well as specialization in the motor sectors for fine-tuning motion of mouth, tongue, lips, throat, and hands.

This accompanies major evolution of the vocal apparatus.  The glottal cords do not exist in any other mammal (but songbirds do have perfect analogues).  They not only allow sound production of many types; they also are part of a mechanism to allow us to talk while eating, which many of us do far beyond what our mothers permitted at the table.  In mammals, the breathing tract crosses the swallowing tract, one of the many proofs that if we are the product of “intelligent design” the designer got drunk pretty frequently.  So a specific mechanism had to evolve.  The human mouthparts, including the lips and especially the tongue, are highly evolved to allow extremely precise articulation of a wide variety of sounds.  Apes cannot do this.

The sheer amount of gross physical modification in the mouth and throat, and the concomitant neurological remodeling of the brain, did not happen in a week.  This is not at all comparable to the cases of rapid evolution in which one gene flips, conveys a dramatic Darwinian advantage, and becomes fixed in the population in relatively few generations (as in the case of lactose tolerance in Europe and East Africa).

Of course, this refers to the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB; Fitch et al. 2005).  Language in the narrow sense (FLN) is the mental representation side of language: language as an “instrument of thought” (Fitch et al. 2005; Chomsky 2013).  Language in that strict sense is the ability to arrange concepts in complex structures that can be subjected to transformations; it is not necessarily spoken, since it can be expressed perfectly well by gestures or various forms of writing, or not expressed at all—we talk inwardly to ourselves all the time (at least I do).  And there is, of course, a strong case to be made for language having evolved in gesture mode and only later become spoken (as Kronenfeld suggests, and he has a lot of company; Suddendorf 2013:81.)  I doubt this, but the point is that language, as it appears now in Homo sapiens, is totally unlike bird song or wolf howling in that it is decoupled from the vocal and is an internal capacity.

We simply cannot escape the conclusion that language (FLB) evolved slowly, over a long time. And even FLN was not—cannot have been—an “invention,” or the result of a rapid mutational process.  It simply involves too many genes, structures, and systems, variously coopted to linguistic use (for some of the complexities, see Christiansen and Kirby 2003).  Brain scans show that a huge percentage of the brain is involved, to say nothing of whatever means—tongue and mouth, hands, or writing arm—is used to get it out in public.  The extremely oversold, and now largely disproved, idea of evolution by rapid jumps could work—if it ever worked—only if one or a very few genes controlled the trait in question.  This is not the case with language (even FLN).

It was not a matter of evolving a “mind,” whatever that is, and then suddenly putting it to use to talk.  It was not a matter of switching from gesture to vocal, unless that switch was done very early (which is, of course, possible).  (“Mind” is even more poorly defined than “consciousness,” which at least has a recognized operational meaning: “awake and aware as opposed to being knocked out.”  “Mind” has no operationally meaningful definition at all, so far as I can determine from the literature.  The currently popular line “mind is what the brain does” is a capitulation, not a definition.  What the brain does is use glucose to fuel transmission of neural electric impulses via a whole series of complex neurotransmitter chemicals, facilitating or inhibiting specific synaptic connections in the process.  If that is mind, so be it.)

Given the well-known link of brain size, social group size (Bourne 2011), and communication, and in birds of brain song center size and song complexity, it is impossible for me to escape the conclusion that language evolution tracked closely the evolution of brain size from around 350-400 cc (chimps and Australopithecines) to the modern 1400 cc.   Sayers et al (2012) caution anthropologists against the “chimpanzee referential doctrine,” the idea that the chimp is a perfect copy of the last common ancestor of chimps and humans.  They point out that the two lineages have been diverging for millions of years—they argue for eight million—and there are many striking differences that have clearly evolved in the chimp line.  One is huge canines; early hominids and all hominins have small canines.  This probably indicates that the violent male-male conflicts over territory and harems are a recently evolved trait in apes, not an ancestral condition.  All this makes me wonder if chimps have dumbed down.  Their brains are large, but their social and communicative behavior, based on what I have read, seems less impressive than that of wolves.  Possibly Australopithecines had a more complex communication system, involving more conscious shaping, deployment, and combination of instinctive sounds.

I think Homo erectus must have had an intermediate ability, developing from very limited productive communication ca. 1.5-1.8 mya up to something very simple but possibly definable as “language” by 350,000 ya.  I think language and linguistic capacity then continued to evolve, up to the Neanderthals and very possibly even more in modern Homo sapiens sapiens.  The relative simplicity of Neanderthal material culture and its lack of anything clearly artistic or ornamental leads one to suspect that they had a simple, practical sort of language, possibly somewhat lacking in the poetic and speculative flights we associate with the medium.


Humans Not as Distinctive


Why did language evolve?  If we consider the development of complex communication systems among animals, we find that all of them without exception developed to talk about complex social situations.  Birds have to negotiate territory, neighborhood (familiar fellow members of the species), mating, and family life.  Wolves have to deal with packs and neighboring packs, and wolf packs are socially very complicated.  Coordinating pack hunting is especially complex.

Primates are almost all quite social.  Baboon troops sometimes number in the hundreds; such large troops have an internal structure, with family and kindred groups.  (One might think that there is much more going on in these troops than the descriptions attest, but my observations—which are limited—do not go beyond published documentation.  Cheney and Seyfarth—who studied the same baboons I observed in Botswana—have the full story pretty well down [2007].)

In all cases, the more complex the social life, the more complex the communication, other things being equal.  Recall that brain size varies this way too; more social animals have larger brains than their socially simple relatives—among the primates, among canids, and in many other groups.  I would assume, in fact I cannot believe otherwise, that language, brain size, and social group size all evolved together.

The expansion in human brain size (from around 400 cc in Australopithecus to 1400 cc today) took place largely in the last 2,000,000 years, mostly in the Homo erectus stage.  On the whole, throughout the animal kingdom, brain size tracks body size and sociability—including the complexity of social messages.  Since humans have had about the same body size since Homo erectus came in, this brain expansion is clearly related largely to social factors.  (Neanderthals had brains the size of ours or larger, but also had larger bodies, so their bigger brains probably have to do with bigger bodies rather than with more sophisticated communication.  There is still rather little evidence that they had sophisticated symbolic communication.)

Robin Dunbar and many, many others have made the obvious assumption that human language must have evolved primarily as a social tool.  Dunbar’s findings that most human talk is “gossip” certainly fits this.  Dunbar’s number of 50-150 is a very robust finding across all human societies for the number of people in the ordinary face-to-face group.  (Several people, including some of my students working on this issue, have independently corroborated it.  See e.g. Binford 2001.)   I think the expansion of the brain from 400 to 1400 cubic centimetres tracks perfectly the expansion of the group from 20 to 500.

Language as it exists today is vastly overengineered for the needs of a nuclear family; it is hard to imagine it being useful enough to evolve unless it was required to fine-tune society and sociability in groups of a hundred or more.  Dunbar is surely correct in seeing modern humans as having evolved in groups of 50-150 (Dunbar 1993, 2004).  Dunbar found that about 2/3 of human talk is about immediate social relationships, this figure being broadly consistent from Cambridge dons to working-class and rural people (Dunbar 1993, 2004, 2010; Fitch uses Dunbar’s findings).

A further number of 500 is equally robust across societies as the total number of fairly regular contacts a person has.  The corroborree group in Australia, the tribe among Native Americans, the village in medieval Europe, and the widest friend circle in modern America all approximate this.  (A quick survey of my Facebook friends shows a modal number around 300, with variation from around 10 to several thousand—but those last are a very few cases of people using Facebook as a professional tool.  The vast majority of my friends report 100-700 friends.)

Increasingly complex communication would have to emerge for such groups.  This must have entailed more and more communication over wide distances and at night.  That soon made gestures and instinctive cries inadequate.  I think Dunbar has the strongest case.  I suspect that, indeed, the first words included “father” and other kinterms, as in the development of infants’ speech: ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny again.

Such compulsive sociability influences language; Fitch emphasizes the importance in modern humans of mitteilungsbedürfnis, the human need to talk all the time about feelings and thoughts.  (Some, especially of the female gender, seem to have more mitteilungsbedürfnis than others.)

Humans, over the millennia, became more and more specialized on finding rich patches of food, as they became more intelligent and social.  The bigger the brain and the bigger the social group, the more the group depends on rich patches of food.  They need these because there were more and more people to feed and lots of brain to fuel; the human nervous system uses 400 calories/day.  This would have been another positive feedback loop.  Language must have evolved partly for the purpose of telling all one’s kin where the rich food patches were.

Naming plants, animals, and landscape features, and describing how to find them, must have been very early.  The idea that language arose to talk about “hunting” is flagrant male chauvinism at its silliest.  Gathering must have had just as much to do with it.  One wishes to report to the group where the best berry-picking is, where the seeds are ripe, where the greens are springing up, and where the flowers indicate a good future fruit crop, just as much as one needs to talk about where the game is.

Tools are another possibility; my mentor in such matters, Sherwood Washburn, always used to say that “language evolved to talk about tools” (Washburn, in countless lectures).  Philip Wilke and Leslie Quintero believe that even Homo erectus tools are too complicated to make without at least some verbal instruction.  They are world-class flintknappers and instructors of younger flintknappers, so they know whereof they speak.  The need for more and more rich, uncommon, and hard-to-find patches of stone also gave people a reason to talk about where to find it.  Fitch somewhat minimizes the tool theory, noting that people usually learn to make things by observing and imitating rather than by listening.  I certainly agree—that is my experience—but some talking is often necessary, in stone tool making as in other processes.

My experience is that traditional people around the world talk largely for social reasons, just as we do, and that they learn about food-getting and toolmaking with a minimum of verbal instruction.  But the verbal instruction, little though it may be, can be critically important.

The larger the group, the more internal differentiation would inevitably have arisen.  Gender roles, age roles, and differential expertise and skills would have appeared immediately.  Even chimp troops have rudimentary forms.  These differences would have increased over time.  Differences in status and power and in social function would eventually have arisen and increased.  The oldest profession—which is that of healer, not prostitute—must go back to the very dawn of human society as we know it.  Perhaps before the dawn.  Tools and feeding arrangements were getting more complex too, and these would have had their effect.  Above all, humans would have been scattering out to forage, and would have needed to tell each other where the best food was.  I think this was probably not only a direct cause of language, but also a direct cause of social complexity and therefore an indirect cause of language.

Social communication extends to talking about social place, status, role, mating, childrearing, balancing obligations, reminding people of debts and favors, inviting people to share food and tools, instructing the young on life skills, talking about hunting and gathering, coordinating any and all activities, discussing territory and place and range, and much, much more.  No wonder a complicated communication system was needed.  But without a large group it would not have been necessary, even for an intelligent omnivore.  Raccoons manage fine without it.

An interesting point is the complexity of grammar and syntax in all languages.  Academics often miss the import of this, since they are used to academic prose, where the vocabulary is learned, arcane, and diverse, but the syntax is usually limited to declarative sentences.  Ordinary everyday speech, on the other hand, can be a wild tangle of conditionals, subjunctives, dependent clauses, dangling participial phrases, and everything else.  You may not need to know the four different types of infinitives, all inflected, that Finnish displays, if you merely read Finnish newspapers, but you will have to know them to talk.  I have noticed this extreme contrast of academic prose (simple grammar, rich vocabulary) and everyday speech (vice versa) in English, Spanish, Turkish, and other languages.  (It is less pronounced in Chinese, which has a very simple grammar, and in German and Maya, whose complex grammars are hard to escape even in simple declarative prose.)  All this suggests that the complex syntax that distinguishes human from animal communication is probably very old and very deeply rooted, contra a theory sometimes espoused by Chomsky and others that it must be a recent and rapid development.

Given the above, the idea that language was “invented” (for whatever reason—one recalls the old “bow-wow” theories) makes about as much sense as saying that people first developed complicated tools and then invented hands to work with them!  I would agree with Chomsky in thinking that his highly philosophical, mentalistic, even spiritual language (his FLN) was a late development (though I would guess on the basis of zero evidence that it began to appear in the Homo erectus stage).  But I assume it came long after productive, expressive speech had already developed the capacity to talk, or gesture, about a wide range of things, from kinship to cutting up dead elephants with stone tools.


Biological Notes and Queries


I find it plausible to think that talking, gestures, and music evolved as one single symbolic-communication system.  I do not find plausible the idea that gesture was first.  For one thing, all our evolution has been in the vocal-auditory system.  Also, all higher animals communicate largely by vocal signs (or by smells, but not in higher primates).  None uses gestures as a principal channel.  Almost all do use gestures and bodily poses and signs as major ancillary markers, however, so I expect gesture was involved from the start in human linguistic evolution.  In modern humans, gesture communicates a great deal, and in deaf language it bears the whole load.  People gesture when talking on the telephone.  In fact, I routinely see people endanger their lives by driving alone while holding a cellphone in one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.  People blind from birth gesture to each other when talking.  This suggests that gesture has indeed maintained a linguistic function straight through from the chimp, and has always been used to convey specific information.

As to music, I am always intrigued by the idea, first floated by Giambattista Vico (2000 [1725]) and later by Darwin (1871) and by Steven Mithen (2007), that language and music forked off from a single original form, a sort of warbling or chanting.  Communicating mood states vocally is also standard for humans.  Cries of pain, lulling noises to babies, noises of surprise, shouts of anger, and the like are very close to chimp calls. We now culturally construct vocal communication of mood into music.  However, I have reluctantly abandoned this position in light of the fact that the brain wirings for language and for music are very different, and also in light of the fact that the mix would be more, rather than less, complicated than either descendant.  I still like the idea, and I still am convinced that language and music—the two very complex, highly recursive, highly symbolic modes of communicatioin—evolved together.  At present, and probably always, language deals with specific concrete concepts, music with mood and broad emotionality.  This is somewhat similar to the positions that cries and songs, respectively, occupy among songbirds.


A suite of features has developed in humans for the purpose of talking: improved vocal cords, extremely fine musculature on tongue and lips, and appropriate innervation.  Fitch shows these are not particularly confined to humans, but they are certainly more fine-tuned in the human species.  The human brain is heavily involved in language.  Everyone knows about Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but language turns out to be widely distributed over the brain.  Often, the localities that show up in brain scans are ones that are used for other things and seem to have been secondarily used for language as well as their original functions.  This area is controversial.  Two things emerge:  first, gesture does seem to draw on many of these areas, making the gestural theory of linguistic origin plausible, and, second, music (or music-related functionality) is extremely widely and deeply distributed in the brain, making Mithen’s (or Vico’s) theory plausible.

It is worth remembering that a huge brain not only has a huge calorie cost, it has a huge cost in difficulty of birth, leading to more maternal and infant deaths and to a need for midwives.  (A recent claim that human birth is not all that difficult is simply wrong.)  The human brain is about ¼ adult size at birth; a chimp’s is about ½.  So humans are born very immature and in need of total care for months.  This has the interesting side function of making language more developable—the brain is so immature and plastic that language can shape it massively from the start.  This is part of Fitch’s case for the importance of parentese in the development of language (see below).


And What’s Right?


I tend to follow Chomsky (1957; see also 2013) in defining “language” by the presence of true sentences (or similar strings):  Long sequences of morphemes that can be rearranged to make questions, negative clauses, etc., and can have dependent clauses embedded.  No animal does anything like this.  Even the mockingbirds, which are known to sing around 12,000 different phrases and to learn other birds’ songs and work those into their own, apparently never do anythnig beyond a simple phrase.  They string phrases together endlessly, but they appear to have no higher-level grammar at all.  The only communications in the animal kingdom that seems almost Chomskian-grammatical are the aforementioned bowers of the most evolved bowerbirds.  The Satin Bowerbird combines materials according to rules, and even seeks out plant fibres to make little paintbrushes, then seeks out colored wet clay, and paints his bower.  The bower and his display in it are all structured according to fairly sophisticated rules, and the process of successfully combining them with his song takes us almost into the realm of transformational grammar.  But all this is done simply to lure females.  It is all different from human society that it has nothing much to tell us.

So, why and when did we evolve full syntax in the Chomskian sense?  There is no way of knowing.  It must have been gradual.  I suppose Homo erectus had something, perhaps three-word sentencelets.  I suspect that full-scale language with dependent clauses embedded in questions embedded in long utterances probably came only with Homo sapiens.  But, of course, we will probably never know.  If “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” and child language development shows us anything, humanity started with single words, then got to two-word phrases, then to three, then to very simple declarative sentences, then to imperatives, questions, and negations, and finally to embedded clauses and the like.  But, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, ontogeny does not always recapitulate phylogeny.  (Better go with James Joyce:  “Hagiography recapitulates proctology.”)  Fitch (chapters 10-14) thus maintains that human evolution may not be well reflected in child language.

We now know that Homo sapiens in the narrow sense appeared only about 150,000 years ago, in east Africa.  H. sapiens radiated out from Africa into the rest of the world a mere 70,000-100,000 years ago.  This makes the possibility of reconstructing a bit of “proto-world,” or at least “proto-diaspora,” actually thinkable.  I expect this language was inflected, at least with noun/pronoun cases such as nominative, accusative and dative, and verb conjugations to show past, present, and future, and to indicated continuing vs. one-shot actions (i.e. “imperfect” vs “perfect” forms).  This seems to be something close to a common denominator worldwide.  Exceedingly complex grammars (like the “polysynthetic” grammar of Inuit) are rather rare.  Isolating languages (i.e. without any grammatical endings) do not exist.  The claim that Chinese is such a language is based on classical Chinese, which was originally a sort of court speedwriting, probably introduced by scribes to write down court actions as they occurred.  We know that ancient Chinese, like modern Chinese, had inflections and functional grammar words, because there are some verbatim quotes preserved in historical texts.

Songbird evolution again proves useful here.  Leaving aside a few nonpasserines that have independently evolved song, we can consider the passerine or songbird order, Passeriformes.  It includes several families that are vocally primitive: they have songs, but the songs are purely instinctive, identical throughout the species’ range.  This is true of flycatchers, for instance.  Then there are some more evolved groups that have very simple but still partially learned songs, such as the chickadees, nuthatches, and creepers.  Then there are the many that have songs with a strong component of learning, much individual variation and innovation, and local dialects, such as many of the sparrows.  Finally, the mockingbirds and some other groups have incredibly complicated songs, involving learning from other species as well as their own.  Except for the fact (noted above) that social songbirds often do not sing, this proveds a model for how human language could have evolved.

Fitch closes his book with considerations of gestures and of music as linguistic bases.  I am duly convinced that people have been gesturing straight through the entire course of evolution from the apes.  Gesture was an integral part of language evolution, and that gesture is a reasonable place to look for evolutionary innovations.  The basic reason for considering gesture so basic is that apes gesture all the time, and can sign quite complicated messages even when left to themselves, to say nothing of the degree to which they can learn sign language.  (Fitch emphasizes this, but even he understates it; more and more data keep coming out on ape skills in this regard.)  I am also convinced by long discussions with David Kronenfeld  But what really convinced me was observing not just one but many drivers, driving alone in their vehicles, holding cellphone to ear with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.  (S. Goldin-Meadow 2010 has studied cellphone gesturing, and also notes the fact that congenitally blind people gesture.)  Surely it must be a strong instinct that can thus overcome both minimal regard for safety and minimal obedience to California’s strict driving laws.

As to music: here Fitch finally ran out of energy, not surprising in a book well over 600 pages long.  He lists some design features that supposedly separate music from language, and gets some sadly wrong.  Among these are discrete pitches and isochrony (p. 479), which, if he means these words the way they are normally used, are universal in tonal languages, and thus anything but distinctive of music.  Fitch discusses tone languages and notes that most of the world’s languages are tonal, so either he is using the terms in a strange and incomprehensible way, or he has made an oversight.  Another design feature he considers distinctive of music is repeatability.  For Fitch, a song can be repeated over and over again, but language is about “pervasive novelty” (480) and is not normallly repeated.  The only exception he allows is the case of minor greeting rituals.  He is thinking too much of academic discourse.  In the wider world, poems, stories, slogans, political rhetoric, taglines, and so on are repeated endlessly, and no one seems bored by that (except possibly some academics).

More serious a deficiency is Fitch’s failure to tell us whether music was fully evolved before speech came along, or whether they evolved together, or whether, as suggested by Giambattista Vico almost 300 years ago, they differentiated from a more primitive warbling or chanting, imperfectly worded and imperfectly musicalized (Vico 2000 [1725]; cf. Mithen 2005; Vico is oddly uncited by Fitch).  Vico thought modern epics were survivals of this stage—or more accurately of the stage just after it, when language existed but was still sung rather than spoken.  His general model fits well with the music of small-scale societies, which is usually extremely simple.  It might represent this next-level-up, where chanting with meaningless syllables is still common, but real tunes and words have also entered the soundscape.  Fitch writes as if music were as complex from the beginning as modern folk and even concert music is.  But the music of the San, Inuit, and many comparable groups is almost as simple as Vico’s model suggests.  Finally, Fitch does not say much about the differences in brain wiring for music as opposed to language, though these are substantial.




I conclude that language probably emerged from a mixed-channel system like that of many other animals.  Birds have displays and songs.  Dogs have scent, voice and motion.  Chimpanzees have body positions, gestures, and vocalizations.  Ancestral humans had gestures, protolanguage, and protomusic.

I think protolanguage evolved from the single instinctive cries of apes to longer but still instinctive utterances; then to phrasal language with limited phrase-structure grammar; then to more complex, sophisticated, and innovative protolanguage, and finally to full-scale language as we know it.  I believe David Kronenfeld is right in arguing that this developed along with wider abilities to plan, think ahead, and in general use recursion to bootstrap thought.  But children develop language so much faster than they develop recursion in other fields that there is clearly something more going on than mere carryover from task planning to speech planning (Fitch, pp. 492-494; there is a large literature on this issue; see also Chomsky 2013).

I agree totally with Fitch that language must have evolved in groups with relatively high relatedness, and that from the first it had a great deal to do with child care and upbringing.  Parent-child communication was critically important to every aspect of language evolution.  I need only cite him for discussion (see esp. pp. 492-494).  As he points out, this is necessary to explain why children learn language so fast, and why language is not confined to adult males, or adult males and females, as song is in birds.

Music took a separate but parallel course.  It evolved from simple singing, no doubt including lullabyes, courting songs, work songs, dance songs, and possibly other types.  Fitch’s insightful comments about the value of language for dealing with very young children certainly hold for music too, and I suspect lullabyes were the very first musical performances.  (Darwin and others held that music evolved for male display, but this does not fit the facts; Fitch’s comments on language and children work for music too.)  It gradually became more melodically and harmonically complex, with musical instruments being added very slowly over time.   It now differs from language in being a holistic, wordless way of communicating emotions and moods, as opposed to an open-ended system characterized by separate phonemes and morphemes and by the ability to combine and recombine these into highly precise but also innovative propositions.

A point too softly made by Fitch is that language, in its full-blown form, is vastly overengineered for mere family life (Bickerton 2014).  Most nuclear families get by without a rich vocabulary or a full range of linguistic performances.  The full play of language requires a wide arena, at the very least a tribal group with politics, religion, ritual, song and story, arguments, debates, discussion of different people, organizing against other groups, and all the other things for which we use language in public spaces.

So, here is a scenario.

Australopithecus:  “Instinctive” cries, used in unproductive and noninnovative situations, but complex, and used by conscious decision to fine-tune social situations.  However, no innovation, no complex grammar, no learning, no productivity.

Homo habilis:  Cries have mutated into a system in which there is some putting together of cries into two-cry or three-cry phrases, which are somewhat learned.  Increasing importance of learning over time. Homo habilis is a not-at-all-missing link; a stage fossil showing some mental and manual development.

Homo erectus:  Brain size increases; group size increases with it.  I think selection for larger and larger groups drove the whole process.  Language evolves from simple phrases made by combining semi-instinctive noises (“ug, wug, zug, phthslug” meaning “I want dinner”) in very early millennia to a simple but functional language-like system late in the career of this temporal species (“I want dinner and there is a dead mastodon.”)

Homo sapiens sens. lat.  I agree with Chomsky (1957) that the real watershed between nonhuman and human communication is the sentence—a long, complex utterance that can be transformed by head-down planning processes.  I assume that the phrase-structure grammars of Homo erectus developed into the capacity to produce actual sentences, that can be changed to questions, negatives, passives, etc. by grammatical rearrangement, over the last 300,000-400,000 years, possibly only the last 200,000.  Derek Bickerton (2007, etc.) could well be right that pidgin and creole languages re-create something like the original human sentence and grammar structure.  Brain size levels off with Neanderthal, but brain function evidently keeps growing.  We just don’t have any art or symbolic-type items of any kind from the pre-sapiens world.

I find it difficult to imagine the steps, but assume people slowly evolved the ability to plan more and more complex recursions, or at least embedded constructions, and transformations.  (Luuk and Luuk have recently pointed out that embeddedness does not really require recursion in the formal sense; iteration can model it.)  At present, the simple phrases of bird and dog communication require about two levels of embedding: planning the phrase and vocalizing it.  Humans can plan whole narratives, within which are nested paragraphs, within which are sentences, within which are phrases, within which are morphemes, within which are phonemes—six levels of embeddedness.  This is pushing the “magical number seven” (Miller 1957) awfully hard, and I doubt if we can go much higher.  Music is recursive, just as language is:  notes to phrases to tunes to themes to songs to symphonies….  Both can produce infinite numbers of sentences/compositions.  (Luuk and Luuk point out that the numbers could not really be infinite, given the finite number of humans and finite time for them to talk and write, but what matters is the potential infinity.  No animal has that capacity, except in a trivial way; no two animal calls are quite identical, but the messages are the same dull stuff.)

An interesting sidelight is that we academics tend to think our typical language is complicated while “low-class” people have what a monumental snob of a British linguist once called “restricted codes.”  The truth is rather the opposite.  Academic talk is largely simple declarative sentences, however long the words:  “The orbitofrontal cortex of Homo sapiens is greatly expanded in comparison with that of the Australopithecines.”   “Low-class” speech tends to be simpler in vocabulary but complex in grammar, idiom, style, and metaphor:  “And I was like wow when I realized that Susie would have gone with Mike if she had thought to do that, but since she was, you know, like, in the middle of something she thought was more important…”  I have noted the same contrast of simple grammar and complex vocabulary with complex grammar and simple vocabulary in Spanish and in Maya.  (Not, however, in Chinese—all simple—or German—all complex.)  Similarly, traditional languages of small-scale societies almost all have fantastically complex grammars compared to English or Chinese.




Thanks to Alan Beals, David Ellerman, Alan Fix, and David Kronenfeld for discussion of these points.





Bickerton, Derek.  2007.  “Language Evolution: A Brief Guide for Linguists.”  Lingua 117:510-526.


Bickerton, Derek.  2014.  More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Binford, Lewis.  2001.  Constructing Frames of Reference:  An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.


Botero, Carlos A.; Neeltje J. Boogert; Sandra L. Vehrencamp; Irvy J. Lovette.  2009.  “Climatic Patterns Predict the Elaboration of Song Displays in Mockingbirds.”  Current Biology 19:10


Bourke, Andrew F. G.  2011.  Principles of Social Evolution.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


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New Predictive Models of Genocide

March 30th, 2015

Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, 2015, Pittsburgh, PA


Predicting Genocide

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside




Last year at the SfAA-SASci meeting I gave papers on war and genocide.  More data are now available, thanks to the dreadful events of the last year.  Several recent authors, especially Scott Atran, stress the inadequacy of economic explanations.  I stressed last year the role of ideological systems based on emotional rhetoric against some target group.  I extend this explanation here with current data.  This raises a wider question:  if costly acts, counter to rational self-interest, are common (in this and other areas), we will need a whole new social theory.  This fits the conference theme of Continuity and Change.


Genocide may be the defining crime of the 20th century, and seems to be maintaining itself in the 21st.   Not only genocide itself, but indifference to it by the international community, remains a huge problem for the world (Apsel and Verdeja 2013; Hirsch 2014; Totten 2012, 2014).

We may therefore wish to be able to predict and explain it.  My wife Barbara Anderson and I constructed a rather tentative model for predicting genocide in our book Warning Signs of Genocide (2012; see review by Shirley Heying, 2013).  We have reported on our progress to SfAA in 2011 and 2014.

We follow the original definition by Raphael Lemkin: “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” (Lemkin 1944:79; see Lemkin 2013).  He included cultural destruction through forced assimilation, and also partial or attempted genocide that did not totally succeed.  (Indeed, few actually totally succeed.)   We further defined genocide as murder by a government of its own citizens or subjects, when they have done nothing other than belong to a particular category.

This category can be a religion or sect, a political philosophy, a “race” (however defined by the genociders), an ethnic group, or any other essentially arbitrary cultural category.  Killing of actual enemies, however general and ruthless, does not count, which means we are using a quite different definition from Ben Kiernan’s in his magistral work Blood and Soil (2007).  Kiernan, in a truly great study of genocide, defines it as any mass murder of noncombatants.  Since all wars involve this, he basically studies all war throughout all history.

Restricting genocide to murder of a government’s own peaceful subjects eliminates almost all Kiernan’s cases.  It leaves us with two quite different types:  Settler genocides (Wolfe 2006), and modern total genocide.  In the former, an ethnic group takes over an area and clears the land, once the people are subjected, by methodically exterminating them.  This occurred in the New World with many Native American groups, and in Australia with the Aboriginals.  In the latter, a government picks on long-established citizen groups and exterminates them for arbitrary reasons.  The classic case, of course, is Hitler’s extermination of most Jews, Roma, homosexuals, handicapped and mentally ill persons, political dissenters, modern artists, and several other categories.  Other particularly horrific examples include the massacre of Armenians by the “Young Turk” government of Turkey (Akçam 2012) and the genocide in Cambodia in th 1970s.

We found that modern genocide was predicted by 1) authoritarian government; 2) major challenging situation to it, almost always either consolidation after it just seized power, or civil or international war in which loss by the government was very likely.  Hitler’s genocide, for instance, began with WWII but did not become total—the “Final Solution”—till it was uncomfortably apparent that the Axis was losing ground and would probably be defeated.  Settler genocides (and conquest genocides that are structurally the same) are expected when a government of settlers (conquerors) is consolidating control, and has reduced the conquered people to subjects but is still afraid of rebellion or outbreak.  Further work showed that an ideology constructed from hatred, but extending more widely to cover economic and moral issues in general, is also deadly, and when combined with the other causal circumstances appears to be 100% predictive.

Well, “great minds run in the same channels,” and every time I have a real insight, someone else independently has the same idea about the same time.  In this case it was Barbara Harff, a student of conflict and civil unrest; she and her husband Ted Gurr are leading authorities in that area (Harff and Gurr 2005).  We were alerted to her work by Armenian genocide scholar Alan Whitehorn, whose work is more interpretive and poetic (Whitehorn nd., 2015).

Her contributions to genocide specifically are relatively brief and hard to find, but extremely good.  She was annoyingly outside the citation pattern of the more visible genocide scholars, which confirms my impression that they are not deeply interested in prediction or explanation—always excepting Ben Kiernan, but, again, his definition of genocide is so far from everyone else’s that he is really talking about a completely different thing.

Harff uses Lemkin’s definition, as we do.  She further follows the UN definition, elaborated from (and partly by) Lemkin (but she and we follow Lemkin and not the UN in including political-ideological massacres).  She defines genocide as governmental attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a communal, political, or politicized ethnic group” (Haff 2003:58, her italics; note that she does not make a point of noncombatant status, but she sympathetically cites others who do; she does not deal with the possibility that religion, gender identity, or modern art could be definers; we disagree with her here).  Her sample in 2003 was genocides from 1955 to 1997.  Ours was 1800 to 2007.

Like us, she stresses the role of autocratic governments, and also “political upheaval” 62; again, her italics) as the near-invariable immediate cause.  She emphasizes the frequency of prior genocides in a nation’s record, which we did not stress because we worked with a larger sample, over a longer period of time, which tended to wash out this variable.  She discusses the existence of “ethnic and religious cleavages” (63) and (later in the paper) found no correlation; all nations have diversity but only some have genocide.  “Low economic development (64)” also bought her little variance, and again our wider sample confirms this, destroying any correlation.  After all, major genociders included Germany at a time when it was one of the three or four richest countries in the world, and even within her time frame there were genocides in Argentina, Chile, China, Serbia, and elsewhere, as she notes.  More recently, Israel has engaged in genocidal activities in Palestine, with calls by major government figures for outright extermination of Palestinians (Robinson 2014), and several other affluent nations have hovered on the brink.

She does find, quite robustly, that recent genocides have more likely in countries that were relatively isolated or independent of the world-system (65).  Again this does not hold for older genocides.  Even in her sample, it is difficult variable to deal with, because of such issues as China’s genocides in remote western areas (Tibet, Xinjiang) while being open to the world (69).

Her final result as of 2003 (66) was that autocratic government and prior genocides were both correlated at .9 with genocides that occurred, but of course both conditions also existed in countries without genocide.  Other political upheaval correlated only .47, but “exclusionary ideologies” (our “hate ideologies,” Anderson and Anderson 2014) and rule by members of a self-conscious ethnic minority both correlated .69.  Openness to trade, a proxy for world-system incorporation in my terms, correlated .7.  She admits that the model did not predict genocides in rich, trade-involved countries (e.g. Chile), or even poor but trade-involved ones (Philippines, El Salvador, several others).

In 2012 she reaffirmed her risk factors, and predicted serious troubles in several countries.  First on the list was Myanmar, which in fact has had genocidal attacks on Muslims since she wrote.  As she pointed out, it was rather a simple prediction, since the country was a military dictatorship with almost continual war against minorities.  Second was Syria, and we know what has happened there.  Third was China, and indeed the Uighur genocide has come up since she wrote.  Fourth was Sudan, but the breakaway of South Sudan damaged the government so much that it has not had the energy to do much more than harass Darfur, though that long-running genocide continues.  Meanwhile, South Sudan has had genocides of its own.  Less successful predictions were the next few:  Pakistan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Iran, though the first two have had a great deal of violence and repression.  Then comes a solid hit, D. R. Congo, but of course genocide was already ongoing there when she wrote.  A number of lower-risk countries follow, of which only Central African Republic has had a genocide, and there—for once—the international community moved fast to damp it down (Brown 2013).  The others include very stable countries like Saudi Arabia.

In general, since we found essentially the same risk factors she did, I would make similar predictions at the top range, though different ones farther down (partly on the basis of her nonsuccesses, I admit).  However, our model has the advantage of breaking regime consolidation out from response to disruption, and also noting that economic and military disruptions are both causative and predictive.

The most hopeful sign in all this is that both Harff and we have independently come to stress more and more the ideological side—what she calls “exclusionary ideologies” and I call “hate ideologies.”  Governments that live and maintain themselves by mobilizing hatreds are almost always forced sooner or later to deliver—to exterminate the people they say they hate.  I have studied one case in which this did not happen: Mahathir bin Muhamad’s Malaysia in the 1970s.  That case may be instructive.  Mahathir took over on a ticket of hatred and suppression of the Chinese, after several years of ethnic rioting and violence in which Bumiputera (Malays) and Chinese battled.  Under Mahathir, the Chinese gave as little cause as they could for actual repression, tolerated a great deal of impact, and meanwhile worked terribly hard to build up the economy and make sure Mahathir and his group were beneficiaries of this.  His position softened in direct proportion to his own and his political group’s economic success….  Thus hate ideologies are real and dangerous, but enough economic success may convince most haters to be more quiet.  This has not happened recently in the United States, however, where every new statistic showing the US is economically flourishing seems to make the racists more and more furious with Obama.


Meanwhile, Samuel Totten, veteran student of genocide and especially of mass murder of Indigenous minorities, has added his own more immediate warning signs—signs that genocide is ongoing, not just that it is potential:

–A specific groups is “demeaned, ostracized, marginalized, segregated, excluded, or isolated”;

–“mass deportations and forcible transfer”;

–Government forces “kill unarmed civilians at will” [hardly a warning sign—the fact itself!];

–“test massacres are carried out”;

–“mass rape and enforced pregnancy are taking place.”  (Totten 2014:24).


A somewhat similar list is found in “The Ten Stages of Genocide,” posted by Gregory Stanton (2013) on his Genocide Watch website—a very useful resource.  The ten stages are classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.  They are indeed stages to watch for, and Stanton gives quick definitions and suggests countermeasures, including things for governments and the United Nations to do.  Dr. Stanton is promising a book on this.  He also maintains on his website a list and map of countries that are genocidal or threatening to go there:  The assessments are similar to Barbara Harff’s (he cites her on the website) and to ours.  An earlier posting, “Twelve Ways to Deny a Genocide” (2005), neatly summarizes that unpleasant aspect of mass murder.  It will be noted that nobody takes these denials very seriously.  They are thin excuses, not real denials.  The international community ignores them for various reasons, but rarely believes them.

With Harff and Stanton actively predicting risks and advocating preventive measures, and with other new work summarized below, knowledge about genocide prevention has been revolutionized since we wrote our book.  I wish I could be hopeful that this will translate into action, but continued fecklessness of the world community in the face of ISIS and Boku Haram indicate that the lessons are not being learned.


Also, since we wrote, a very good review by Kristin Doughty (2015; thankfully received) of our book has appeared in the American Anthropologist.  She has identified several needs for future work that we do indeed hope to address, including “the political and moral economy in which violence and humanitarianism occur,” and looking more at “recent anthropological work on violence, the state, collective belonging, and human rights” (all quotes are from p. 175); she also points out that when we define genocide as state murder of its own citizens, we should have provided an extension for genocidal pursuit of people across national boundaries.  We thought this was obvious from Hitler’s massacre of the Jews and others—he murdered all he found in any country under his control—and also from our notes on the hot pursuit by Tutsi and Hutu of each other into the Congo (which she notes), but we should have spelled it out.  Finally, she asks some questions.  First, the directs us to more attention to “how the act of labeling violence is political and…mobilized within specific historical trajectories of global configurations of power.”  On this we plead not guilty by reason of the fact that Ben Kiernan, Taner Aksam, and others have covered it beyond all need for further attention in a general work.  Much more serious is her other question: “What are the warning signs that the human tendency toward group hate is being exploited by powerful people for violent ends?” We had, again, thought that was obvious, but the appalling failure of the world at large to spot this in the Koch brothers’ manipulation of the Tea Party, the Saudi Arabian manipulation of extremist Islam, and many other governments’ exploitation of hate shows we were extremely misguided.  I will devote much future attention to this question.


On a more hopeful side, prevention of genocide and bringing genociders to justice have moved forward.  Governments are more aware of international sanctions.  Rios Montt was finally found guilty of genocide in Guatemala and sentenced to 80 years in prison, though of course he will not serve any such time frame (Faussett 2013; see superb new study of his rule by Victoria Sanford, 2014).  Marcus Alexander and Fotini Christia (2011) found that schools in Bosnia that had been well integrated ethnically did not have the hatred and problems of schools that had not.  The journal Genocide Studies International moved up from newsletter to serious major journal in 2014, with a stunning introduction by veteran genocide scholar Herbert Hirsch that bluntly calls out the world powers for failing to deal with the problem (Hirsch 2014).

The Gurr group’s biennial survey of conflict has moved to new editors (Hewitt et al. 2012; Barker et al. 2014).  Barker, Wlkenfeld and Huth’s new survey (2014) uses their own model of risk for overall conflict, which identifies—in order—Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Djibouti, Guinea, Burundi, D. R. Congo, Somalia, Niger, Mali, Pakistan, and so on down a list.  Several of these countries are indeed troubled with violence, but it seems odd that very peaceful places like Djibouti are far above Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, and Indonesia.  Syria is, astonishingly, ranked “low risk” (p. 8), in spite of one of the world’s most historically violent civil wars ongoing as the book was published—a “clouded crystal ball” of epic proportions.  However, they make up for this in later (and later-written) sections of the book, in which they provide extremely thorough and valuable summaries and analyses of conflicts in Syria and every other country.  This book is essential reading for anyone interested in conflict, anywhere.

International denial and national denial have been rigorously analyzed by Kaligian (2014).  Carol Kidron (2012) compared Jewish and Cambodian refugees in their approach toward their genocidal past; Jews talked more and worked it over, Cambodians talked less and had more problems, but the situation is not as simple as talking vs. silence; there are many issues of community support, how one does the talking, whether one is listened to, success in the new society, and more (Barbara Anderson had little trouble getting most Cambodian refugees to talk, but it did require counseling skills and some never opened up).  A new collection of texts by Bartrop (2013) gives enough anguished stories to convince anyone that genocide should be stopped.

The challenge to social science in these models is abundantly clear.  Social science has overwhelmingly assumed that people were rational, and acted in their rational self-interest.  Such is clearly not the case; humans are creatures of irrational hate.  The Harff, Totten, and other models have extremely high success in predicting and explaining behavior based on the implicit or explicit assumption (implicit in Harff and Gurr, explicit in ours) that humans are primarily social and primarily creatures of emotion, and that their primary emotion is hate.  There is no amount of self-interest they will not abandon to kill their rivals, and even their friends and neighbors.

Violence in a hierarchic, repressive society almost invariably triggers outbreaks that seem to the outsider to be literally insane.  People afterwards often recall feeling out of their minds—either crazed with blood lust or feeling like automatons (Anderson and Anderson 2012 review a very long literature on this, and I have found a lot more since; see also Staub 1989, 2011).  From a considerable literature on evil and human hate, we may mention Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy (2010), Roy Baumeister’s Evil (1997), Aaron Beck’s Prisoners of Hate (1999), and Erwin Staub’s The Roots of Evil (1989) as particularly comprehensive and valuable works.

Social science will have to start over from the ground up, with the basic principles that people are basically social and emotional, and that hate takes priority in times of threat and disturbance.  Love and solidarity may rule, or reasonable self-interest or unreasonable greed may rule, the rest of the time; in any case, emotion is the usual driver.  This may make sense in a world that is often threatening, and in which we never have the “perfect information” on which rational choice models depend.  We have to be alert to danger, and prioritize response to it when threatened—which is a lot of the time.  But when the response is social hate, as it often is, violent trouble begins.  When the hate is further whipped up and mobilized by a dictator, for his own reasons, then catastrophe is predictable.


Fortunately, better things are possible.  Some years ago, John Heidenreich (2001) gave us a number of ways that diplomacy and political resolve could stop genocide.  Far more ambitious is Ervin Staub’s life work, epitomized in Overcoming Evil (2011).  This book summarizes all possible causes of genocide and terrorism, and gives an extremely comprehensive and detailed account of what can be done by ordinary people to damp down the vicious cycles of hate and violence that lead to mass murder.  The methods range from getting people from the different sides to talk to each other and work out their problems (the classic group therapy techniques) to active-bystander intervention, and on up to political, media, and educational approaches.  The latter will certainly be needed, since encounter groups can never be comprehensive and widespread enough to do the job—though they are surely desirable, even necessary.  Staub emphasizes the need to see others as ourselves—to see that we are all in the same boat, all humans together (see summary point, p. 515).  I am more inclined to see the successes he describes as coming from damping down vicious cycles—from turning positive feedback loops of hatred into negative ones.  The germs of genocide are the millions of imagined slights and trivial hurts that we all suffer every day in our capacity as social beings.  They almost always get constructed into annoyance and exasperation, and then projected on scapegoats.  People angry at their loved ones take it out on safe targets, especially minorities and other vulnerable people.  Evil businessmen and politicians find this tendency very easy to exploit.  They deliberately whip up hatred and direct it against scapegoats.  They they get caught in the vicious cycles they have started.  We are seeing this in the United States today; the Koch brothers started the Tea Party, which has become an out-of-control rampage of racism, religious bigotry, gender hate, and structural violence against the poor.  It could easily destroy the United States, including the Koch interests.


We will all have to confront these crimes at national and international levels, and throw the whole weight of citizenry behind ways to reverse vicious spirals and get people to see each other as all in the same lifeboat, and not fighting over the provisions on it, either.


As I write, violent ethnic repression is going on in China (Xinjiang and Tibet), Congo (D. R.), Israel, Turkey (Kurds—once again),  Worst of all is the outright genocide of Yazidis and mass murder of Shi’a and of rival tribes within the unrecognized but all too real Islamic State of the Levant.

Civil war or violent civil unrest are on a large scale in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere.  Significant ethnic and related violence is taking place in India, Myanmar, and many other countries.  Hatred ideologies are too numerous to list.  The Salafi/Wahhabi form of Islam (if Islam it can be called) is by far the most deadly.  However, the BJP has taken over control of India, and its past as a terrorist neo-Nazi party is all too obtrusively evident in its policies, so I personally would now regard India as the highest-risk country in the world that is not actually at war or in a warlike state (as are e.g. Pakistan and Nigeria).

The United States is drifting rapidly toward genocide.  Many leading conservative religious figures have recently called openly on national media for total extermination of gays and lesbians.  Calls for extermination or re-enslavement of African-Americans are far more marginal, but are now quite commonly heard or seen if one follows right-wing social media.  The Tea Party, created and funded largely by Charles and David Koch, has been a consistent voice for racist, religious, and gender-based hate.  They could easily elect a president in 2016, in which case I believe genocide would be certain—I mean literally 100% probable.  Many other countries are on the edge.

In such a world, I find it incredible that most Americans seem concerned solely with video games and TV shows.  Even those who are concerned with political troubles are apparently more worried about “Wall Street” than about genocide or other really serious world problems.  I do not mean to minimize the problem with banking in America, but it can at worst slow the economy down a bit as in 2008.  The election of a Tea Party president in 2016, by contrast, would, by my best prediction, lead to 15,000,000 murdered through genocide within a few years.  (The figure is derived from looking at the percentages of their populations slain by Hitler, Stalin, Rios Montt, Pol Pot, the Interahamwe, and others; range 2% to >25%, average around 5; 5% of the US gives us 15 million.)

We need to be very worried about the United States and much of the rest of the world.  The good news is that genocide can be prevented, and can be stopped when it starts.  We need to deal with risks rapidly and thoroughly.







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Alexander, Marcus, and Fotini Christia.  2011.  “Context Modularity of Human Altruism.”  Science 334:1392-1394.


Anderson, E. N., and Barbara Anderson.  2011.  “Poisoned Soil, Deadly Seed:  Preventing the Conditions of Genocide.”  Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, annual conference, Seattle.


—  2012.  Warning Signs of Genocide.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.


—  2014.  “A Predictive Model of Genocide.”  Paper, Society for Applied Anthropology, annual conference, Albuquerque.


Apsel, Joyce, and Ernesto Verdeja (eds.).  2013.  Genocide Matters: Ongoing Issues and Emerging Perspectives.  New York: Routledge.


Atran, Scott.  2010.  Talking to the Enemy:  Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.  New York:  HarperCollins.


Backer, David A.; Jonathan Wilkenfeld; Paul K. Huth.  2014.  Peace and Conflict 2014.  Boulder: Paradigm.


Bartrop, Paul.  2014.  Encountering Genocide: Personal Accounts from Victims, Perpetrators and Witnesses.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.


Baumeister, Roy F.  1997.  Evil:  Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. San Francisco:  W. H. Freeman.


Beck, Aaron.  1999.  Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  NY: HarperCollins.


Brown, Hayes.  2013.  “The Inside Story of How the U.S. Acted to Prevent Another Rwanda.”  ThinkProgress website, Dec. 20.


Doughty, Kristin.  2015.  Review of Warning Signs of Genocide: An Anthropological Perspective.  American Anthropologist 117:174-175.


Fausset, Richard.  2013.  “Ex-Guatemalan Dictator Found Guilty of Genocide.”  Los Angeles Times, May. 11, p. AA6.


Fiske, Alan Page, and Tage Shakti Rai.  2014.  Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Harff, Barbara.  2003.  “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955.” American Political Science Review 97:57-73


—  2012.  “Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide: A Global Watch List for 2012.”  In Peace and Conflict 2012, J. Joseph Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and Ted Robert Gurr, eds.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.  Pp. 53-56.


Heidenrich, John G.  2001.  How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakrs, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen.  Westport, CT:  Praeger.


Hersch, Herbert.  2014.  “Introduction: Preventing Genocide and Protecting Human Rights: A Failure of Policy.”  Genocide Studies International 8:1:1-22.


Hewitt, J. Joseph; Jonathan Wilkenfeld; Ted Robert Gurr.  2012.  Peace and Conflict 2012.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.


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Kaligian, Dikran.  2014.  “Anatomy of Denial: Manipulating Sources and Manufacturing a Rebellion.”  Genocide Studies International 8:208-223.


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Anthropology and the Arts

March 6th, 2015

Anthropology and the Arts

With Special Attention to Music


  1. N. Anderson


“[T]o take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature…is always a mark of a good soul…it at least indicates a frame of mind favorable to the moral feeling…He who by himself…regards the beautiful figure of a wild flower, a bird, an insect, etc., with admiration and love…who still less wants any advantage from it—he takes an immediate and also an intellectual interest in the beauty of nature” (Kant 1951:141).




These stray and very preliminary notes are intended to get anthropologists more interested in the arts, and to lay down a bit of a framework for cross-cultural study thereof.  A great deal of work has been done, over the decades, on the ethnography and ethnology of music, dance (Anawalt 2007), visual art (R. Anderson 1989, 1990; Armstrong 1971, 1981), traditional literature (Hymes 1981, 2003), vernacular architecture (Moholy-Nagy 1957, 1968; Rapoport 1969; Rudofsky 1965), and even food and scent (Anderson 2014).  I have no intention of reviewing this enormous body of frequently excellent work.  Two things stand out, however.  First, the vast majority of it concerns arts in one culture, often with the claim that the music/art/food of the So-and-so is completely unique, distinctive, and special.  This is never the case; their arts always look a lot like their neighbors’.  Second, when comparative studies are done—and there are many very fine ones—they rarely dig deeply or widely into the deep origins of arts in biology and psychology.  Thus, what follows is devoted largely to general questions of the biology, psychology, and comparative sociology of the arts.  I am staying at a strictly introductory level, except perhaps on the relationship of bird song to music.  I provide references for further exploration.  I am hopeful that comparative ethnology of arts will emerge.  Arts are far more important than social scientists have generally realized.


Part I.  Arts in Anthropology


Anthropologists Discover Art


Many people, worldwide, are uncomfortable putting their emotions into ordinary words.  Emotion is often highly disruptive socially, and can be pure dynamite.  People in small communities and face-to-face societies are very chary about expressing it openly, especially to relative strangers such as visiting ethnographers.

In such societies, people “mount the rider of their thought on the horse of song,” as the Arabs say.  To understand these communities’ emotionalities, one must look to their arts rather than to what individuals may say in ordinary everyday speech.  All societies thus use music, literature, visual arts, dance, and other art forms to communicate social messages.  Typically, especially in traditional societies, arts become “collective representations of community,” like religion (Durkheim 1995/1912).

Rationalist social scientists often write as if emotion did not exist, then go home and listen to blues or Beethoven like the rest of us.  This lack of attention to expression of emotion through art has been remarked on in anthropology (Rosaldo 1989) and the best ethnographies are often those that go directly against this grain (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989; Feld 1982).

Arts often communicate the deepest and most important parts of a culture, just as they communicate the deepest and most important feelings of an individual.  For instance, most traditional cultures express their environmental philosophies and attitudes through myth, poetry, song, visual arts, dance, and ceremony more than through ordinary language.  Of course, arts can also communicate any other feelings and values, up to the most transient and evanescent.  They can serve evil as easily as good, as Nazi artists like Leni Riefenstahl knew all too well.  One cannot assume that arts ennoble or improve.  They do whatever their creators and consumers want them to do.  The point is that they do it very effectively indeed.  Anyone concerned with cultures and environments cannot neglect either arts or the emotions they communicate.

Early anthropology was deeply concerned with the arts.  This was especially true during the peak period of neo-Kantian anthropology (Patterson 2001), the era of Franz Boas and his students and colleagues.  Neo-Kantianism, especially through the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1985), was concerned above all with interpersonal interaction, and thus with communication.  Hence Boas focused on language (Boas 1917), but not only on that; he was deeply concerned with all the ways people communicate, especially the symbolic and aesthetic forms by which they communicate emotion.  Most of his work in this area was on folktales, but his most famous work on aesthetics was on visual art (Boas 1908, 1955 [1927], 1995).

As Boas saw, folk and traditional arts are the ones that most directly communicate cultural norms and are most clearly culturally structured.  Elite and popular arts are more narrow; they communicate the feelings of the elites or of the professional entertainers.  Inevitably they communicate more widely shared cultural matters, but they are specialized to varying degrees, reaching an extreme in some contemporary art forms that appeal to audiences of only a few people.  Folk and traditional arts usually (but not always) speak more directly for their communities.  Boas was influenced by volksgeist views that exaggerated this point, and tended to see folk arts as the authentic voice of the Folk, but he later learned better as studies of diffusion and creation convinced him that people more agency and independent creativity than that, and that one way they show it is by borrowing far beyond their cultures’ limits.

Boas was also profoundly influenced by the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803; see Herder 1993, 2002, 2004).  Herder, a Kant student, was the first person to theorize at length and explicitly about the role of arts in different cultures.  He introduced the idea that the arts of a given volk—a “people” or “nation”—develop naturally from that people’s experience and life.  Taking from Kant the idea of perception developing through interaction, Herder theorized that a given people would have artistic and emotional expressive forms that followed from their unique and distinctive experience of interacting with each other and with their surroundings.

Thus every poetic and artistic tradition was unique and valuable, a new and valid expression of human experience and creativity.  As he said of poetry:  “Poetry…changes its form in accordance with a people’s language, morals, habits, temperament, climate, and even with their accent.  Nations migrate; languages mix with other languages and change; human beings come into contact with new things; their tendencies assume different directions, their strivings take on different purposes…even that tiny part of the body, the tongue, moves differently, and the ear becomes accustomed to new sounds” (Herder 1993:141).

Herder was the first to argue explicitly and in detail that we should experience, value, and appreciate the cultural productions of all humanity.  He argued against both intolerance of others’ productions and shame about one’s own.  He also argued that studying a culture’s arts and ethics shows it at its best, whereas normal history—the story of wars and intrigues—shows it at its worst.  This obviously influenced anthropology; we of the trade like to show our subjects of study in the best possible light, and we follow Herder.

Herder was also an uncompromising monogenist, convinced that all humans were one, rather than being separately evolved races.  Culture, not heredity, was responsible for the important differences between nations.  This view too was adopted by Boas, who became the leader in the struggle against racism in the early 20th century.  Yet another view eventually adopted by anthropology was that each culture is the end of a long process of evolution, rather than being something to classify on a scale from “primitive” to “we moderns.”  The latter—the unilineal position—still has its followers, but was so devastated by the critical research of Boas and his students that it is practically extinct.  Herder still held a form of it, and Boas in his very earliest writings shows some of it, but he rapidly came to realize that no surviving culture is primitive in any meaningful sense.  Obviously, civilizations evolved from smaller-scale societies, and this is an interesting process, but we now realize that today’s small-scale societies are as far from the “primitive” condition as the civilizations are.  They have specialized in their way, just as larger-scale societies have.  They have changed along with—and often through the direct

influence of—the civilizations.  They bear some key resemblances to humans of 100,000 years ago, but so do modern industrial folk.

This thinking (and similar, if less elaborated, thinking by others) led to the rise of “folklore” studies and eventually to cultural anthropology with its emphasis on communication, national character, and expressive forms.

Herder’s theory of arts, and of appreciation for each culture’s unique contributions, was to be Boas’ guiding principle.  Boas devoted his life to saving what seemed to be (and often were) disappearing languages, arts, myths, and other cultural forms.  For him, each one was supremely valuable as an expression of the human spirit.

Herder’s ideas influenced his friend Goethe, and later was influential across the political spectrum from Marx to the exteme nationalists.  Herder literally invented nationalism—the word and the concept (Herder 2004).  The Marxian interpretation exalted “the folk” above commercial bourgeois culture, eventually leading to the radical but romantic idealization of folklore by reformers in the 20th century.  In the United States, this led via the Lomax and Seeger families of ethnomusicologists (see e.g. Lomax and Seeger 1975) to the folklore movement and the “folk song revivial” of the 1950s and 1960s.  This in turn produced a great deal of modern music culture.  It was also the virtually universal ideology of folklore studies in academia.

However, the extreme right could play this game as well.  By the early 19th century, hypernationalism was exploiting the idea of a folk spirit (volksgeist).  This eventually climaxed in the mad Aryanism and Germanism of the Nazis.  Nothing could have been farther from Herder’s tolerant mind (see Herder 2004).


Not only the Boasians, but other anthropologists of the time, diligently recorded myths and tales, obtained art objects for study and curation, and described dances and ceremonies.  In studying music, technology was a limit at first, but Jesse Walter Fewkes was recording Algonkian and Hopi music on Edison’s cylinders as early as 1890.  Major ethnomusicological recording began as soon as really portable cylinder-recording equipment was invented.

Anthropologists of the time have recently been attacked for “stealing” artifacts, or at best taking them out of cultural context.  Boas and most other serious scholars paid fair prices to willing sellers, and virtually all the items they bought would otherwise have been destroyed by time or by overzealous missionaries.  The only early record we have of most ethnic arts in the world is from these collections. Many unscrupulous persons, some with legitimate scholarly posts, did indeed steal artifacts and rob graves, giving this field a bad name, but that should not blind moderns to the incredible value of responsible collecting.


Arts fell from grace as anthropology turned toward more “scientific,” or at least scientistic, descriptions of culture.  By the mid-century most anthropologists were interested in narrow social dynamics (especially kinship systems) or in even more narrowly materialist studies of culture.  However, some kept the focus on art, especially Claude Lévi-Strauss (1964-1971), a Kantian inspired by Boas.  Lévi-Strauss differed from Boas in being a traditional Kantian, concerned with knowledge and its structure, rather than a neo-Kantian concerned with interaction and communication.  Thus Lévi-Strauss was more concerned with the ways myth and art reflected cultural structuring of knowledge than with emotional communication.  He joined with linguists and literary critics in the movement known as structuralism.

Again the wheel turned, and structuralism fell from favor, to be replaced by interpretivism.  This view, most explicitly and famously advocated by Clifford Geertz (1972), put the burden of interpretation on the anthropologist, rather than making the anthropologist seek out “native” understandings and leave analysis to them.  Unfortunately, this doomed the interpretivist paradigm to being mere opinion.  Very often (if not always), that opinion was promptly challenged by the “natives” when they got their turn (as in the devastatingly revealing material buried in footnotes in Geertz 1980).  Especially prominent in challenging outsider anthropologists’ interpretations was the Lakota writer Vine Deloria (1969), who had a formidable knowledge of anthropology, partly because his aunt Ella Deloria was an anthropologist who studied with Boas (she was one of many Native American anthropologists that Boas and Powell trained).

One is reminded of the countless times that authors have rounded on literary critics who “interpreted” their works.  Interpretation is valuable, even a necessary part of a good ethnographer’s job, and it can and often should go beyond the data.  But it is of no anthropological value unless it is supported in at least some way by the testimony of the actual producers and local users of the material in question.

Fortunately, vocal “natives” like Vine Deloria had the effect of forcing anthropology back on track.  Recent works on indigenous art, ethnomusicology, and other interactive communication forms do not shirk the task of providing ethnographers’ insights, but pay proper attention to “native” interpretations (see e.g. Feld 1982 for music; Hymes 1981, 2003 for myths and texts; Myers 2002 for visual art; Ness 1992, 2003 for dance and performance).  Some recent studies have returned not only to the Boas agenda but to Boas himself, as in the work of Aldona Jonaitis (1988, and see also her edited collection of Boas’ work, 1995).

What matters here is the fact that arts are major forms of communication in every culture known to anthropology, and that they usually have the role of communicating emotions and feelings, though they very often communicate specific cognitive meanings as well.  Unfortunately, far too many social scientists neglect them or to relegate them to “mere ornament” status.  Most social scientists are post-Enlightenment academics, trained to idealize Reason and distrust emotion.  Even scholars of emotion are loath to look deeply at its expression and communication in artistic forms.  The otherwise authoritative and definitive Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions  (Stets and Turner 2006) has nothing on the arts.



Origins of Art


The origins of the arts remain obscure.  Arts were once supposed to be confined to Homo sapiens, but now a mussel shell engraved with a whole pattern of hatch marks has turned up in a Homo erectus deposit half a million years old, at Trinil, Java (Joordens et al. 2015).  Painted and perforated shells and pigment containers 50,000 years old have turned up on the Iberian Peninsula when only Neanderthals were there (Branan 2010).  Some Neanderthal burials include red ochre, and one famous one at Shanidar had flower pollen, though the flowers seem to have been weeds and possibly medicines rather than beautiful blooms.  Homo sapiens groups in Africa were beads and other minor ornaments 80,000 years ago.  Art may be much older; the beauty and symmetry of early hand axes and other tools seems beyond mere utility.  (For a quick review of the latest finds of earliest art, see Balter 2009).

Rock art in Australia dates to perhaps 50,000 years ago.  The great cave paintings of Europe date back to 35,000 years ago and earlier.  The earliest of the spectacular and brilliant cave art of Europe is that old (Clottes 2008).  A 35,000-year-old sculpture of a woman with exaggerated sexual characteristics has recently been found in Germany (Conard 2009).  These various forms show that visual art was already developed.  The paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, for instance, are often as good as any animal paintings since (see e.g. Clottes 2008, perhaps especially pp. 38-39.)  Music and literature leave no archaeological traces except the bone flutes that turn up in sites a few tens of thousands of years old.  Over ¾ of the hand prints associated with these sites, in many caves all over western Europe and over the whole Upper Paleolithic period, are of the hands of women (Snow 2013)—raising some critical questions about who created this art, and why.


Representational art is often said to derive from magic.  The early cave paintings are deep in the darkest holes of the earth, and represent game animals and large predators.  Their association with religion or magic seems impossible to deny, but we have no idea what the actual cults were like.  Countless grave authorities have developed conflicting scenarios, but no one has any way of determining which ones are right.

Visual art, unlike technology, does not seem to progress much. Lascaux and Chauvet caves have art as beautiful as any created recently.  Yet they seem to be at the very beginning of art; we have little that is older.  Musical complexity has progressed with technology, but beauty is another matter; folk songs can be as lovely as symphonies, and probably go back to the dawn of modern humanity.  Written literature can be more elaborate and diverse than oral, but in sheer literary power no one has surpassed Homer or the great Native American and Australian myth cycles.

Changes in arts track major changes in culture.  Arts express emotional qualities of life.  They catch the mood of the age.

Oral poetry and epic would seem naturally to follow from this as well.  Traditional nonliterate peoples sing or chant their verbal art.  Non-sung poetry is surely a modern invention, probably a result of writing and literacy.



Evolution and Art


There is no question that the aesthetic senses are biologically grounded, and thus must have evolved through natural selection over thousands or millions of years.  In part, they developed as part of the evolution of communication.  Music in particular is inseparable from language, as pointed out by the ancient Greeks.  However, the aesthetic senses are grounded in deeper and more basic psychological processes.  The arts have biological primes—inborn tendencies that prime us to like certain things.

This is most obvious in the universal appeal of healthy young members of the (usually) opposite sex, and representations thereof.  The nude is a stock theme, and paintings of nudes rarely show aged or unhealthy specimens of Homo sapiens.  One does not have to be a Darwinian to understand, though the Darwinians have naturally had a field day with these data.  David Buss (2003) points out that cross-culturally, people desire youith and symmetry in possible mates.  In particular, one notes the striking gender difference:  straight men find nothing more beautiful than a nubile, well-proportioned young woman, while finding good-looking men totally boring and uninteresting.  Straight women and gay men usually have the reverse assessment.  This certainly proves that beauty is not just a purely idiosyncratic thing.  “There’s no accounting for tastes” is not an opinion that gets any traction with Darwinians considering sexual attraction.

More subtle and interesting biological primes exist.  As pointed out by E. H. Gombrich (1960, 1979), visual art has everything to do with the pleasure of rhythm and pattern.  (The same is true of music.)  Visual art seems to get much of its appeal from the need to recognize pattern in nature, so that we can spot the fruit in the trees and the snake in the grass.  We take great pleasure in recognizing patterns; even the snake is beautiful, however frightening.  Humans get a tremendous pleasure out of simply engaging with patterns—geometical art, rhythmic music and dance, regular prosody.  No one seems to have studied this, or even decided whether it is an “emotion,” a “mood,” a “feeling,” or what.  Yet it is one of the most pervasive, evident, and important human tastes.  Apes also show it, and indeed most higher mammals seem to fall into rhythm when communicating.  Rhythms of walking, chewing, breathing, sex, and other normal activities are clearly involved somehow, but no one seems to have determined exactly how.

The enormous importance of pattern in all this has rarely been appreciated except in the case of music (see below), but E. H. Gombrich (1979) discusses it for art, and Bakhtin (esp. 1984) for literature.  The structuralists (notably Lévi-Strauss 1964-71) analyzed structure in all the arts, but somewhat skipped over the lower-level phenomena described by Gombrich and the very high-level ones best evoked by Bakhtin.

An innate attraction to proper environment is a necessary bit of mental equipment for any animal.  A red-winged blackbird has to seek out cattail marshes.  A porcupine has to look for dense forests.  It is always striking to watch a migrating bird turn sharply aside and downward when it sees the right kind of tree or lake for its species.  Humans show a cross-cultural attraction to waterways, mountains, and scattered groves of trees, among other things.  Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen (1992) speculated that humans evolved to recognize and seek out landscapes like the savannahs on which we presumably evolved in east Africa.  Evidence includes the way we create such landscapes—scattered trees in open grasslands, with small streams here and there— in farms, gardens, parks, cemeteries, and other spaces where we can do what we want.  Lndscape paintings typically show landscapes of this kind, when they do not trade on fear and awe by showing dramatic mountains.  Even when arguing against inborn tastes, psychologists admit this (Gardner 2011:42-43).  Proof is, in the nature of things, impossible, but the idea is almost certainly correct as far as it goes.

Other inborn tendencies in visual art are harder to pin down, but most higher animals are attentive to motion, bright colors, flashing lights, and other visual cues that could be important.  Higher primates are more attentive to colors than most other mammals, because of the need to pick out ripe fruit.  They can see more colors than most mammals (though fewer than many birds).  Clearly, we have evolved with a strong color sense.  The sheer pleasure of playing with color and form is biologically grounded, as we know from watching human children and young monkeys and apes play with paints.  Young chimps, especially, produce paintings very pleasing to the human eye.  They work quite hard at it—they do not merely make random daubs (Morris 1962).

The anti-evolutionary arguments that rely on the admittedly wide cultural and social judgments of art (e.g. Gardner 2011) are flawed by confusing judgments of beauty with judgments of cultural familiarity and appropriateness.  People like what they are used to—another clearly evolved biological tendency—and judge art accordingly.

Thus, for instance, Howard Gardner and other relativists greatly exaggerate the initial rejection of Impressionism and use it to “prove” that good art can be hated.  In fact, many art-lovers liked Impressionism from the start.  The attackers were largely older critics who opposed “the new” rather than “the ugly”—however they may have phrased it.  Gardner’s main problem is that he thinks art is mainly about beauty; he neglects the fact that it is a general communications medium, which can just as easily be about the ugly as about the beautiful.  Antiwar posters, the “ash can school” of socially conscious art in the United States, and many other art forms deliberately portray the ugly.  Art is also used for social solidarity, snobbism (see below), motivating workers, advertising cars, scaring people, or any other social purpose.  Gardner is surprised to find that most contemporary art is more about being “with it” than about being beautiful; no one familiar with the history of art is very surprised.

In fact, what culture and individuality show is not that art is not biologically grounded, but that we are biologically flexible.  We can satisfy love of beauty in an infinite number of ways, though there are some constraints and some tendencies.  This is clearer in food:  we absolutely must have protein, carbohydrates, fats, and certain vitamins and minerals, but we can devise an infinite number of superb and subtle dishes that provide them.  The clearest case in visual beauty is the female form: cultures differ widely in what they idealize, but they all wind up idealizing symmetrical young adults (whatever their skin color, fat level, and so forth may be).  Other taste areas are less constrained.

As with music—but in fewer cases—birds provide a fascinating case of convergent evolution.  Male bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea construct complex, elaborate, beautiful structures to lure females.  Those of the satin bowerbirds of Australia are painted with little brushlike wads of material, and decorated with blue objects that set off the birds’ blue-highlighted plumage (Johnsgard 1994).  Blue plastic clothespins are a favorite.  Males compete to produce better bowers, and it takes years of experience to create one that lures females really successfully.  This allows females to pick a smart, experienced, survival-type male, a good genetic bet.  Such a male lures many females into his bower, and thus leaves many genes, so building better bowers is strongly selected for.  Note that this is selection for better creating of a new and different bower, not just an instinctive, never-changing one.  These birds both learn and innovate.  The various motions are based on nest-building, but the result is very different from a nest, and is largely a male activity, whereas females do the nestbuilding in this as in many bird species.

Evolutionarily, bower-building results from the higher genetic success of better builders, and is thus tightly linked with polygamy.  Humans are not usually polygamous, however.  (Most human societies allow polygamy, but few in those societies actually practice it.)  Some other reason must explain our use of arts.  In fact, almost all art is directed at large social groups, not at a prospective mate.  Paintings of nudes are for public display, not seduction.  Love songs may be all over the radio, but few actually sing them to loved ones; they are mass entertainment.  Most listeners seem to relate to the singer’s experience as a lover, not to the lovee.



Taste: How Universal?


In humans, local social and cultural standards for the arts tend to dominate, making the inborn preferences in form, pattern, color, rhythm, harmony, melody, and so on recede into a background.  However, the panhuman nature of basic aesthetic taste is shown by the general worldwide agreement on the greatness of at least some paintings, literary works, and musical compositions.  Great art is hard to define, but usually recognized by thoughtful people.  There is surprising agreement across cultures about the greatness of Shakespeare and Tu Fu, Mozart and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Ni Zan.  Their work is extremely well-done technically, extremely deep emotionally, and often significant on many levels.  Great poetry and art often use small things to show great truths: Robert Frost’s snowy woods, Rainer Maria Rilke’s panther, Edward Thomas’ fields.  Great art is often a complex but organized development of a simple theme, like the many variations on the story of Dr. Faustus, or a very simple form with extreme complexity, subtlety and evocation packed into it, as in haiku.

Thus, some sort of panhuman mechanism seems to be operating.  Some artistic creations, including Beethoven’s music, Shakespeare’s plays, and Chinese black-ink art seem to succeed everywhere.  Chinese food and Andean popular music have astonishingly universal appeal.  Other arts do not travel:  Chinese popular music and Andean food, for instance.  The exact dynamics of this remain profoundly mysterious, but the phenomenon proves that some fraction of “taste” is universal, though much or most is culture-centric.

Significantly, great art can be created for fun, or money, or personal glory as easily as for passionate self-expression.  Rembrandt and Rubens were businessmen running large studios.  We like to think of Van Gogh’s lonely and unappreciated passion, but at the same time Monet was driving hard bargains—downright skinflint deals in many cases—for his art.  Art was a commercial proposition, however emotional the artists may have been.

Worldwide evidence proves conclusively that people everywhere gravitate toward similar, and fairly high, standards of art, music, literature (or oral “literature”), and performance.  Quality is real, though easily subverted or directed into cultural channels.  Individual taste is real, but often takes the form of idiosyncratic limitations.  I love Monet and Van Gogh but have a blind spot for Renoir and Degas; almost everyone who likes painting finds this problematic, which convinces me that this is something lacking in my personal eye, not a proof that taste is purely an individual matter.  Probably everyone has similar blind spots in appreciating art, music and literature.  Individual taste matters more with second-rate (or tenth-rate) painters and musicians, but even there the existence of consensus is usually strong enough to show that there is something going on here beyond pure arbitrary individuality.  There is, for instance, certainly a universal agreement that genuinely bad drawing and awkwardly proportioned space is unattractive.  No one would ever confuse the typical Sunday painter’s efforts, or my drawings for my childrren, with passable (let alone good) art.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that people do differ, and that no two people have exactly the same preference patterns.  Evolutionarily, this might have allowed everyone to find a mate, back when personal beauty and accomplishment mattered more than they do now (that is, back before religion, wealth and political views became so important).  The point is that there is variation around a vague, general, but real central tendency or template—a very vague humanity-wide one, and a set of much more specific ones associated with each culture and subculture.

Within broad limits, artistic taste is socially conditioned.  People overwhelmingly like what their peers like.  This is notably true when it is very different from what their parents like (Harris 1998).  Good art prevails when an elite or an artistically sophisticated group dominates tastemaking and is regarded as worthy of emulation.  This group can as easily be a set of tribal shamans or folk craftspeople as a museum curatorship or university department—in fact, the shamans and folk craftspeople generally have better taste, in my experience.  The point is that somebody who knows and cares about the art needs to have a voice.

Otherwise, a “lowest common denominator” effect prevails, with the most mass-appeal material adulated and regarded as “best” and standard.   These sociocultural truths lead to a widespread feeling that all artistic taste is mere snobbism.  This belief reached serious sociology, as in Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction (1984).  This book was devastatingly reviewed for its reductionism by Jon Elster [1981] and others.  Bourdieu, presumably at least partially in consequence, massively revised his position in The Rules of Art (1996.)

Societies, or more usually their elites, find ways of manipulating taste.  George Orwell, in 1984 and many essays, wrote the definitive material on how fascism, Stalinism, and top-down bossist capitalism systematically force the worst, vilest, most soul-hurting art on the public, specifically to deaden their souls and corrupt their minds.  At the other extreme, no major religion has missed the use of the greatest art, music, dance, ritual, and even food and scent to hook people emotionally.  This is as true of Australian Aboriginal and Native American religions as of the world faiths.


Artists in many cultures are considered rather wild and deviant.  This is not true in most small-scale societies and folk communities, where anyone may create and perform.  It is most true in complex civilizations.  Among these, it is actually a rather widespread stereotype, though far from universal.  In the west, it received a major boost in the Renaissance, when artists were supposed to be real “characters”—a stereotype that owes much to the artist-writer Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists (1991, orig. 16th century) gleefully protrayed the great Italian artists—many of whom were his personal friends—as larger and wilder than life.  It received another huge boost in the Romantic period, when the idea of the “artistic temperament” became firmly established in the public mind.

Musicians, in particular, are so regularly considered deviant that music is assigned to despised or feared minorities in much of the world.  Popular music in particular was a task for Roma in Europe, blacks in the American South, and similarly outcasted groups in old China and Japan.  In fact, throughout the world, the stereotype of the “inferior race” includes the line “they are very musical.”  Americans have heard this all too often about Blacks, and I heard the same about the fishermen I worked with in Hong Kong.  I have heard or seen this stereotype applied to Roma, Irish, burakumin (in Japan), and so on—everywhere I go, the racists assure me that the people they most fear and abhor are the most musical.  Today in America, with racism somewhat less overt, “rock musicians” and “rap musicians” have become a despised class of their own.  This intolerance of musicians always seems strange to me.  It sometimes extends even to elite performers; in parts of the old Near East and Africa, even eminent and well-to-do musicians were considered low.  Similar ideas were once held by some individuals in Europe and the United States.


Most art communicates emotion by using pattern and structure to carry it.  At best, the artist creates the desired mood in the hearer or viewer.  At worst, the artist at least says what she feels in a way evocative enough to give the audience some idea of it.

As Gombrich noted (see above), many art forms are really nothing but pattern:  Islamic tiling, Elizabethan lute and keyboard music, some Russian romantic poetry, and so on.  The pleasure of experiencing them comes purely from unfolding delight at the more and more complex and intricate patterns created.  At best, this is quite capable of putting the prepared viewer into a mystic state.  This is explicitly intended in Islamic mosque decoration, for instance.  In music, the mystical dances of the Sufis and the more intense ragas of India are explicitly intended to produce mystical states.  Elizabethan musicians seem to have planned similarly; John Dowland and William Byrd can certainly send the sensitive listener into an abstracted state, and Byrd’s religious music is intended to do that.  Pattern sense is an emotional ground, or mood-state, and a very underappreciated and understudied one.

At a higher level of structuring, Greek tragedy mastered the technique of so perfectly designing a work that the inexorable logic of the system drives the audience deeper and deeper into the tragic action.  Every word of Sophocles’ plays is calculated to drive the structure, and the structure drives the message.  Even a long episodic novel like Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone (18th century) can do this.

Notable is the cross-cultural appeal of a particular kind of art:  that which operates by persuading the reader to construct her own work, prompted by the artist.  This is best studied for visual art.  E. H. Gombrich (1960) documented how artists found out by trial and error how to use brushstrokes to make the human eye and brain fill in the painting, rather than to make a “realistic” picture.  The Dutch landscapists brought this to a high pitch, Constable followed and improved on them, and Turner went on beyond him.  Finally, the Impressionists could benefit from actual visual psychology—a new science at the time—to manipulate points (Seurat), brush strokes (Monet), color fields (Gauguin), and so on, to make the viewer construct her own scene from rich-textured foundations.  This makes the paintings more real and vibrant.

The same thing operates in poetry, most obviously in Japanese haiku.  Consider Issa’s great poem on his mother, who died giving birth to him:

“Mother I never knew:

Every time I see the ocean,

Every time….”

This makes the reader fill in all the associations and emotions, which then are necessarily the reader’s own real emotions.  By contrast, the trite, cliché-ridden grief poetry all of us know so well leaves nothing to the imagination, and is, in consequence, poetic garbage.

Equivalents in music and dance will easily occur to mind.  Even food has its subtle and suggestive flavors as opposed to the crude, basic flavors of fast food.


From these and related observations we may conclude that great art may be either an extremely complex but organized run-up of a simple theme (as in the Iliad), or an extremely simple form that evokes extreme complexity, subtlety and emotion, as in haiku.


Another universal tendency in art is complex, multilayered symbolism (on symbols in anthropology, see Turner 1967).  Few widespread, long-lasting creations have only one meaning.  Consider the number of meanings attached to the rose in the western world.  Medieval and Renaissance artists in Europe systematized this, such that a serious painting would frequently have four levels of meaning:  literal, symbolic, metaphoric, and allegorical. One common realization of this was to have a literal motif, which serves as a symbol of a Christian moral value, a metaphor for perfecting one’s life with a view toward its end, and an allegory of God and His works or message (Schneider 1992:17).  Another possible mix was seen in medieval accounts of Jerusalem as a historic city, an allegory of heavenly urbanity, an anagogical diagram of what such a city could be and how to get there, and a tropological metaphor for the soul.  We see this fourfold symbolism in more recent times, including some blues lyrics.  John Hurt in his stunning performances of “Slidin’ Delta Blues” made the Slidin’ Delta—a train—into a symbol of parting, a metaphor of death, and an allegory of mystic absorption in God.  (This is clearest on the record “Worried Blues,” Piedmont Records 1963.)  All these were standard symbolic uses of railroads in American folksong, and are quite transparent to a listener used to that genre.



Art in Society


Arts, and religion, at their best, privilege individuals and make them seem important.  Human beings are infinitely important, at least to other humans, as Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 1998) pointed out.  We create each other and maintain each other; the importance of the “other” to each person is literally boundless.  Real art notes this, and real religion is founded partly on the perception.  Mass culture does the opposite, reducing individuals to stereotypes or caricatures.  Religion that does not privilege the individual, as divinely created and thus deserving of respect and honor, should be suspect.

Art once brought people face to face with the natural world.  People could see the wild through the eyes of great artists, from Lascaux Cave to modern Northwest Coast Native creators.


Arts today are dismissed as “frills” and “luxuries,” and banished from schools, economic stimulus and development packages, and other “serious” venues.  Many arts have declined sadly.  This is sometimes blamed on European rationalism, but Europe at the peak of the rational Enlightenment movement was obsessed with art.

The failure of arts in the contemporary world has much to do with the fractionation of society.  If arts typically represent the community, and often (not always!) represent its deepest moral and spiritual principles, then breakup of community naturally breaks up the arts.  Also, the world today is going through a cyclic decline in society, comparable to the Hellenistic period, the late Roman Empire (both east and west), the Near East after the devastation of the Mongols and the bubonic plague, and China in the late Ming Dynasty.  These were periods of sterile repetition or mindless innovation—change for change’s sake—rather than of creativity put to the purpose of transmitting human messages.  We see something of the same today, especially in elite music and visual arts.  Literature, more broadly based, continues to flourish, as do the less elite visual arts, including film and photography.

Globalization and dominance by giant multinational firms, including ones that promote the lowest sort of arts, is the most obvious reason for the general decline.  The equivalent of the Roman and Mongol Empires is the empire of Fox News, ExxonMobil, Hollywood, and the World Bank.  One cannot expect greatness to flow from giant corporations motivated solely by cost-cutting and market-share-expanding imperatives.  They will create on the cheap and appeal to the “lowest common denominator.”

One reason they cannot appeal beyond that is that they cannot afford to do much development of individuality or character.  Persons, being different and distinctive, have the value that such uniqueness can give.  The old tragic vision, from Greek plays to Scottish ballads, recognized this; the protagonist of a tragedy became a unique individual, and the most important person in the world as long as the drama lasted.  Today, movies treat humans in the mass. Hollywood thrillers kill legions of people every few seconds.  These persons have no individuality, no importance–no humanity.  Even the hero is a cardboard figure with no character or individuality.

Such movies teach indifference to human life, and thus deaden us to the horrors of the news.  They are ideal for pushing totalitarian agendas.  Fusion of Hollywood and Washington has been a major part of the corruption and decline of American politics.  Ronald Reagan, the quintessential cardboard hero, began it, and Arnold Schwartzenegger continued the tradition.  George W. Bush appeared to be desperately attempting to imitate John Wayne. Both Democrats and Republicans appeal to stars and try to get their public support.

This has moved into wider realms.  Decline in concern about the resource base and about endangered species may well be merely a reflection of declining concern about the human species.

Thus, arts can often debase people and ruin their humanity.  Again, this is not new: it characterized some other periods of world-system decline, including the dying days of the Roman Empire.

This raises the wider question of whether arts can improve people.  I was taught by my parents and other elders that appreciating the arts was a moral necessity, since it widened and deepened one’s awareness and emotionality and thus one’s sympathy and caring.  Well, yes, and I still believe this to some extent, but often it does not work that way.  There is what we may call Terry Gross’ Paradox.  Terry Gross, the delightful host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” show, was once interviewing a biographer of Joseph Stalin.  The biographer reported that Stalin had good taste in music, loving the classic Russian composers among others.  The inimitable Terry commented: “So much for the ennobling power of art!”

Artists themselves, especially musicians, are famously tortured souls, so we need not expect conventionally virtuous behavior of them, but what of art lovers?  Alas, knowing college professors of literature and arts does not help one believe my parents’ teachings.  Humanities professors may not be Stalin, but they are certainly no better than the rest of us.  One can take comfort from knowing that ethics professors are not particularly ethical—not just in my experience, but according to a study done by my colleague Eric Schwitzgebel (pers. comm.).  I think I understand:  the ones who are less than ennobled by art and philosophy are those for whom these are very much a “snob fields.”  They go with the most “in” views, generally the pontifications of incomprehensible writers at the French academies, or, failing that, the elite private universities of England and America.  Literary criticism in particular is a field driven by fads started in these institutions.

Arts can improve people if the people in question meditate deeply on what they are reading or watching or hearing, think deeply about it, and let it widen and deepen their emotional and intellectual experience.  This tends to produce sympathy and caring.  On the other hand, evil arts (think of the Nazi artists and the whole BDSM industry), or any arts attended to for shallow or snobbish reasons, simply debase people.


Arts, at best, allow a person to break through the barriers of hate, dullness, and everyday culture, and come to direct unbarriered experience of nature, love, and basic humanity—the beautiful human mind and body uncluttered by our usual blindnesses.  Vermeer can make you see a peasant girl’s intense humanity so perfectly that a sensitive viewer is moved to tears, as in his painting “The Milkmaid” (ca. 1658).  His use of color and shading was so perfect at bringing out the girl’s humanity that it is almost impossible to reproduce; I had seen countless book-illustrations, but was totally unprepared for the shattering impact of seeing the actual painting.

Michelangelo’s religious art makes one see the vast power and unity inherent in all things—the hand of God directly touching us.  Monet’s landscapes have a literally shamanic power.  As noted above, Gombrich showed how good painters trick us, the viewers, into constructing the scene ourselves rather than seeing it literally copied in the painting.  Monet’s genius was to see how to strip a scene of all but the most intense, powerful, and direct elements, making us construct not just a scene but an incredibly powerful emotional effect of the scene.  If I went to the gorge of the Creuse, I would probably see it in dull midday light with all sorts of distractions.  If I look at Monet’s paintings of it, however, my eye turns the subtle brushstrokes into a scene that is not only savagely beautiful but that seems to come right inside me and tear my heart.  No other landscape painter accomplishes this for me, though some come close.  We know enough about Monet to know that this is not some weird quirk of mine; Monet was quite deliberately trying for this, by portraying only what will make the viewer construct the scene in the most compelling way possible. In fact, in his paintings of the gorge of the Creuse, he trimmed the tree that usually centered those paintings, to prevent it leafing out in spring and to maintain it stark and bare.  Similar careful work lies behind Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s humans, Michelangelo’s and Luca Signorelli’s religious art, and the great Chinese mountains-and-water paintings; artists learned how to create intense effects by very complex and subtle means.

Great music drives deeper and deeper into our emotions till it wrings out the entire mind and soul—everything we have becomes concentrated in the experience of Beethoven’s Ninth or John Hurt’s blues.  Again, an incredible amount of effort and understanding, both conscious and intuitive, goes into this.

By contrast, a poor artist gives us at best a stale, flat view, and at worst merely heightens and thickens the barriers that prevent our seeing.  Bad music in particular does this.  It is the art of those who seek for wealth, power, and status—the opposites of nature, humanity, and love.  Wealth means treating the world as “resources,” not wonders to revere and respect.  Power means treating humans as enemies.  Status means treating humans as means to self-gratification, not ends, and status-seeking is thus incompatible with love, though people often manage to have both by compartmentalizing.  If one wants those, one will naturally produce either the cheapest, dullest music possible, or the most bombastic and overdone.



Authentic Tradition?


Two red herrings in talking about ethnic art are “authentic” and “traditional.”  “Authentic” can be an invidious label, used to put down contemporary artists.  “Traditional” can imply “rigid” or “stagnant.”  It is best to unpack these and see what we are really talking about.  Being no philosopher, I can do that most easily through examples.  I will draw on Northwest Coast Native American art, a highly distinctive and easily recognizable style much analyzed by Franz Boas.

One confusion is about the authenticity of the artist as a Northwest Coast native and the authenticity of the art as an example of the style.  The wonderful art historian and ethnographer Bill Holm worked out the rules of the traditional arts, and made exquisite pieces in impeccable classic Northwest Coast style—yet he was entirely European by background.  Conversely, some Native people have done fine European-style artworks; they are Northwest Coast Native artists but are not creating Northwest Coast art.

There are, inevitably, some people who are part Northwest Coast and part White.  They often become perfectly good Northwest Coast artists, and can create Northwest Coast art, but they merge into truly borderline cases.

Because of problems like this, I generally avoid the word “authentic.”  There is a large literature on the matter, but it seems somewhat extraneous to my charge in the present work.

As far as tradition goes, modern Northwest Coast Native people who create art following the rules of the grand style—the classic style of the period from around 500 AD to 2000 AD—are obviously traditional.  Then there are artists like Preston Singletary or Susan Point, who are Northwest Coast Native people creating art in brilliant and original modern transformations of classic themes and motifs.  They are traditional, but less so in some ways.  Yet, perhaps in other ways they are more traditional, since it was praiseworthy in the old days to innovate and freely vary interpretations and executions of the themes.  Innovation is traditional.

Turning to folk music, we find Scottish folk music and American country music being composed today; the rules and styling are traditional.  The “sound” is more or less what it has been for at least two centuries.  Anyone can compose a tune, following those traditions, and though new it will be a traditional-style tune.  It may become a “traditional tune” in due course.  It appears to take about three generations to make something fully traditional in the eyes of its usual audience.  If Grandpa did it when he was young, amd we’ve done it since, it’s traditional now. Many traditions are even younger, especially if they are only small variants of older theme (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

Traditions change, develop, and add or subtract stylistic elements all the time.  English is English though it is not Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s English.  Tradition has disappeared only when there is nothing left of the canonical forms and styles.





In sum, arts communicate emotions and moods.  Arts are intensely social, yet intensely individual.  They are, at best, about an individual sharing his or her full, unbarriered, unchecked selfhood with the wide world.  At their greatest, arts communicate the most intense, powerful, and dramatic emotional states.  But they must do this in a tightly controlled, stylistically guided way.  The more perfect the artist’s control of his or her medium, the more intensely the emotion can be communicated.  Most of us wrote awful poems or sang awful songs in our teenage years, getting our raw emotions out for our friends.  Maturity brought either silence or much better control and much more effective communication.  The brilliance of John Hurt’s “Slidin’ Delta” depends on his matchless control of blues guitar; he could thoughtlessly and effortlessly make perfect music, using all his conscious mind to drive the intensity of the message.  In poetry, Creide’s lament for Cael at his death seems all the more intense, spontaneous, and heartrending because it is written in the most elaborately complex and stylized medieval Irish Gaelic; somehow we forget the improbability of such high style under such circumstances.  Shakespeare’s love sonnets seem spontaneous and personal, not least because Shakespeare was such a master of English poetry that his exquisitely crafted poems flow without apparent difficulties.

Of course, such control and stylistic overlearning has its dangers.  If form becomes an end in itself, technical brilliance can, and very often does, smother the message under layers of mannerism. It can even replace the message entirely with mere style.  Some traditions, like the blues, Renaissance masses, early Gaelic poetry, and Baroque Spanish religious painting, try to avoid this by deliberately seeking to drive emotion as intensely as possible, and design the whole art form to communicate it as intensely as possible.  Other traditions, however, follow an all too familiar path downward into sterility.  This has notoriously been the bane of poetic forms, from sonnets to haiku.  Even more extreme is the decline of impressionist painting from Monet to the “plein air” painters and on down to today’s Sunday artists painting-by-the-numbers.



Part II:  Music as Example


Music:  Biology and Evolution


Of all the neglected realms of social science, the most neglected may be music.  A major problem is the lack of interest in music in the puritanical Protestant culture that gave rise to so much modern science, especially social science.  Music is at best a frill, at worst a sin, to many or most traditional Protestants.  Any familiarity with almost any culture outside northwest Europe and its colonial offshoots destroys the idea that music is a frill.  A few other cultures seem indifferent, but the vast majority see music as an essential part of life and communication.

Music is not only universal, but is highly developed in all cultures.  Many of the world’s cultures have rather rudimentary visual art, but none lacks a highly developed musical tradition.  Moreover, music is important in almost every human life.  People love it.  In this electronic age, few are out of earshot of it for very long.  Even in traditional societies not blessed with ever-present noisemakers, people sing frequently.  Work songs, dance songs, love songs, lullabyes, and play songs seem not only universal in all cultures, but important in virtually everyone’s life.  Humans have considerable brain wiring for music, and by some accounts reading and playing music is the most complex mental act we perform.

It appears that people playing music together synchronize their brain waves (Sänger et al. 2014; the study involved guitar players, but surely applies to all musicians).  They seem almost telepathic; deep brain structures as well as (presumably) mirror cells are involved.  The ability seems wired in, though developed by practice.

This implies that music is exceedingly important to humans.  The Greek theorist Polybius was already well aware of this, maintaining that the people of his native Arcady—an impoverished montane region in Greece—centered their institutions around music, to soften and (literally) harmonize the minds of the people there (Glacken 1967:95).  He proved his point by noting that one area within Arcady did not take to music.  They did little except fight and cause trouble, and Polybius drew his conclusions. If he was right, this seems to be the first known case in history of a group consciously changing its culture to improve its adaptation.  Even if he was wrong, it is an interesting point, because he would have been the first to discuss the possibility with such self-conscious interest.

Durkheim’s ideas of religion building solidarity within community were anticipated by the early Chinese, and they gave music a prime place in this. Xunzi wrote:  “Music unites that which is the same; rites distinguish that which is different; and through the combination rites and music the human heart is governed” (Tr. Burton Watson 1963:117).  In other words, music unites everyone involved in the worship rites and ceremonies; rites distinguish the different groups that participate, keeping them separate and reminding them of their different tasks.  This was criticially necessary in Xunzi’s society, where bureaucratic systems were part of ritual.  From a different world but a similar psychology, the Spanish proverb tells us donde musica hubiere, cosa mala no existiere (“where music is, nothing bad can exist”).

Yet, until recently, music received very little attention from psychological and social theorists (though see Feld 1982; Rouget 1985; and a tradition of ethnomusicology going back to Curt Sachs).  “Primitive” music was thought to be miserable, which drew a recent blast from the great archaeologist Martin Carver:  “…why does every attempt to represent Paleolithic music have to resemble a dying duck in a thunderstorm?…  Paleolithic persons had an ear for nature’s noises, a good sense of pitch and rhythm, flutes with pentatonic notes, rattles with pebbles.  There is no evidence that they were permanently trapped in the seventh level of hell, gnawed by angry aardvarks.  Why is it so improbable that they might express a sense of harmony, excitement and joy—like their paintings in fact?”  (Carver 2011:329.)  Of course he is correct, and we can safely assume that good (if simple) music existed tens of thousands of years ago—indeed, song may well have preceded speech (Mithen 2006; Vico 1999).

Recently, however, some good work on the social science of music has appeared (Jourdain 1997; Levitin 2007; Patel 2008; Raffman 1993; Sacks 2007; Seeger 2004).  Ethnomusicology and music history are small fields, largely devoted to description.  Evolutionary studies of music have been largely confined to bird song (reviewed in Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004).  Darwinian essays on human music have been rather tentative and preliminary (see e.g. Wallin et al 2000, in which the best articles are on nonhumans).  This is changing fast, with the work of scholars such as Aniruddh Patel (2008).  Darwin himself suggested that music might have evolved partly for courting, and indeed we all know that successful musicians can succeed notably well in finding mates (for long or short time periods).  Music may indeed have evolved partly as a mechanism for mate choice.

Animal song is useful as a source of simple models, or at least simple ideas.  Crickets sing to attract females, and, other things being equal, the one who sings most gets the females and actually leaves more descendents.  Thus a small cricket with a good steady song can leave more offspring than a big tough bruiser who doesn’t sing much (Rodríguez-Muñoz et al. 2010).  Song in crickets is generally thought to show superior health, and the females judge that a constantly singing male is probably a good bet, reproductively.  Successful human musicians may not be such a good health bet, but they are probably drawing on an ancient ploy.

Bird song is strikingly similar to human music, except that it is much simpler (Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004; Patel 2008; Slater 2000).  Biologists, however, underestimate its complexity.  Patel, who as a sociobiologist should know better, even says it is used only for “territorial warning and sexual advertisement” (2008:244).  Even his own book mentions other uses:  individual and descent-group recognition, local-population recognition, and physical state.  Many species recognize their close neighbors’ songs, and also the song-dialects of their geographical areas.

Bird song is known to signal health, reproductive state, energy level, seasonality, and quite a few other things.  Better singers are, other things being equal, healthier and more “fit,” and members of the opposite sex preferentially seek them out (Zuk 2002).  Whether the bird is “conscious” of all this or not is another question, one that cannot be answered with present experimental protocols.)  Simple calls work fine for announcing territory and for mating; song would not have evolved if that had been the only game.  Incidentally, birds often share human tastes, flocking to the opposite-sex individual that we humans would call the “best singer.”  There are spectacular exceptions—the male Yellow-headed Blackbird charms his mate with a sound reminiscent of the screech of a rusted gate, and the more awful it sounds to humans, the more the females seem to be attracted.

Bird song is always at least partly learned, in the advanced songbirds.  It is concentrated in the left brain, as is human speech, but human music is largely a right-brain activity.  This might imply that bird song is more about communication, less about emotion, than human music, or it might be mere chance.

Many birds sing different types of songs for different occasions, often a simple song for general social note (and possibly amusement?) and a more complex one for territorial display or courting (Slater 2000).  As long ago as 1963, Edward Armstrong showed that simplistic accounts of bird song (as mere “instinct” or for simple reasons like courting and territoriality) were hopelessly inadequate.  Birds improvise, and clearly sing for pleasure (in the sense of self-reinforcing activity).

Parrots, moreover, actually can understand and use human language semantically, to a very limited but very real degree (Pepperberg 1999; there has been much further work, but no easily available synthesis, since that book).

Why do they learn rather than merely giving instinctive calls?  Flycatchers, woodpeckers, and other highly evolved and intelligent birds do perfectly well with the latter.  Several possibilities exist and some are proved.  Recognizing one’s neighbors is the best-studied (see Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004, and other sources above).  If one knows one’s neighbors and is in one’s proper community, one is safe, and can avoid major fights.  Territories are already worked out within the ‘hood, and a stranger who needs to be fought can be recognized.  Also well demonstrated is the preference of females for better singers; a good singer is generally more experienced, more clever, and more good at social matters, as well as healthier.  Another possible benefit is confusing predators, but this seems dubious.  Every birdwatcher with good hearing soon learns to recognize a Bewick wren’s song by its tonal quality, in spite of the notorious extreme variation of pattern from wren to wren.  Even the dumbest predator should be able to do as much.

There are certainly more reasons than the above.  Bird societies are much more complex than we thought even 10 years ago, and song must be used to negotiate much of the complexity.

One thus wonders whether mockingbirds are really just wasting their time and energy with their endless and brilliantly original songs.  They can sing for 12 hours at a stretch, as every sleepless southern Californian knows.  They not only imitate; they modify imitated sounds to weave them into their own songs, and then improvise highly original phrases.  If this were mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior” (Patel 2008:356) they could get away with a few squeaks, as most bird species do.  Obviously something more is afoot.  It would be truer to say that my singing when I was courting my wife was mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior”; I didn’t write my own songs, and I most certainly didn’t sing as well as a mockingbird.  Patel seems to think that birds only sing in mating time, but of course mockingbirds sing all year.  So do many other good singers among birds.  Mockingbirds are monogamous and apparently mate for life, so their singing is not usually to lure a mate.  It does, however, keep longterm mates in touch.  Among nightingales, and thus very possibly among mockingbirds too, constant original song keeps females duly impressed with their mates and less prone to stray into “extrapair copulation” (Birkhead 2008).  Song lets adults keep track of their young as well.  Thus it can happen any time.  Mockingbirds sing partly to hold territory, against not only other mockingbirds but also other invaders of the turf, and this coupled with their fearlessness gives them an incentive to sing a lot.  But it does not explain the improvisation.

Mockingbirds that are healthy, safe, and secure sing more, louder, and more creatively.  Probably, much else is communicated: perhaps level of sexual arousal, level of fondness for mate, level of excitement at life in general, level of peace with the world.  Mockingbirds sing ardently on moonlit nights, a fact which must have a reason—especially since their arch-enemies, the cats, are out, and can see better in the dark than the mockers do.

A major study by Carlos Botero et al. (2009) of mockingbirds and their relatives (the family Mimidae) shows that there is a strong correlation between song diversity and climate—the more drastic the variation from summer to winter, the more song types.  The range is from the Caribbean islands’ pearly-eyed thrasher, singing rather monotonously in an idyllic climate, to eastern North America’s brown thrasher, which ranges far north and must deal with terrific cold even in freaky summer weather.  The extremely good singers are all highly migratory, a pattern found also in related families like the thrushes.  It turns out, on analysis, that the higher the need for intelligent, adaptive behavior, the more varied the song.  Females apparently pick the best singer, having evolved to assume he is the smartest adapter.

This does not explain the imitation, however; it does not correlate.  Californian gardeners know how mockingbirds deliberately scare other birds by imitating hawks, jays, and cats—apparently purely for fun, though sometimes they seem to be scaring nest-predators off.  Is there more going on?  Is this the only time they actually refer to the things they imitate?  Mockers frequently imitate killdeers and roosters.  Do they think of those birds as they imitate them?  Do they really enjoy this, as they seem to do?  Does a good imitation make the singer’s mate think of killdeers or roosters?  Does he feel pride in his ability?  We just don’t know.


One thing we do know is that birds, even mockingbirds, appear to have nothing beyond a simple “phrase structure grammar” (in the linguistic sense; Chomsky 1957).  They do not seem to plan utterances beyond the short-phrase level, and phrases seem pretty stereotyped and simple, even in mockingbird song.  The only indication that there is a “more” is that mockers and other good imitators often work at a given imitation to make it fit better with their overall song pattern.

Productive, creative song is confined to one group of birds, the advanced Oscines branch of the Passeriformes.  Otherwise, real song is limited to two other groups:  Many hummingbirds have simple songs, and some learn a bit of their songs.  Parrots, closely related to Passeriformes, have evolved their own form of productivity, more transferable to verbal learning.  Apparently song evolved to give the smaller passeriforms a better way of communicating fairly complex messages over long distances.

Simpler singers are instinctively wired to sing in a particular way, but may need some learning or practice.  Zebra finches raised in isolation sing formless, disorganized songs, but their descendents, if raised together, gradually move back to the normal song—they have a genetic template somewhere in their brains (Fehér et al. 2009).  By contrast, flycatchers, even raised in isolation, sing pretty much the same old song; they are instinct-driven and do not learn their songs.  Mockingbirds, on the other hand, might never work out the right sound.

Significantly, the birds with extremely elaborate songs, like mockers and nightingales, are often dull-colored inhabitants of dense brush.  They also tend to be either aggressive, or fast, elusive flyers, or—like mockingbirds—both.  They have to be, since their songs are a neon billboard as far as hawks and cats are concerned!  Birds often get so caught up in their songs that they seem almost in a trance state.  I once sneaked to within three feet of a singing nightingale, and I have been almost as close to many a mockingbird.  A romantic legend has it that the nightingale presses his breast against a thorn to make himself sing more plaintively.  Nightingales do indeed hide in thorn bushes to sing, but the reason is sheer self-protection.

The California towhee shares the mockingbird’s suburban habitat and is aggressive and successful, but has a feeble song given only at the height of the breeding season.  The difference is that towhees spend their lives on the ground, where they are susceptible to cats and other ground predators; thus they have evolved to avoid attracting attention to their whereabouts.  Significantly, the only time they get far above ground is to sing from a high perch.

Bird communication, especially its functions, remains understudied.  It is a sure bet that birds are not even reaching the lowly level of “I’m here!”—birds have nothing like the incredibly complicated human concepts of “I,” “am,” and “here.”  But it is an equally sure bet that the birds are doing more than merely marking territory and calling mates.  One point often missed is that “calling mates” includes both finding mates and maintaining pair-bonds with one’s long-term mate.

Many birds, especially migrants, sing only in the breeding season because the song center of the brain actually shrinks after that time, and regrows only the following spring.  This is apparently to lighten the bird’s wing loading.  Birds, like humans, are highly encephalized.  The song center is a large part of that relatively big brain.  The song center weighs only one or two grams, but that is significant to a bird weighing at most a few ounces that has to fly hundreds of miles.

Social mammals and birds have many different sounds for different purposes.  Coyotes (another animal with which I have a great deal of field experience) howl to maintain pack contact, bark to attract attention, whine on a level pitch to show pain, whine on a descending scale to beg, growl to show fear and vigilance, snarl to show outright aggression, and also yap, yowl, make purring sounds, and so on; the young have their own sounds.  Coyote families sing extremely complex, long-lasting choruses, with each individual contributing a different type of note; the father may howl while his mate yodels and the pups bark, whine and yap.

Wolves are probably even more complicated.  Coyotes and wolves will communicate with humans.  They answer if I howl.  Once when I was singing and playing my guitar on my balcony, the local coyotes joined me, in the same key.  Movie buffs will recall the film Never Cry Wolf, in which the hero plays his bassoon to the wolves and they howl back.  I was once camped out in a remote part of Canada.  At the next campsite was a saxophonist—clearly a professional; he was a superb player—who had obviously seen the film.  He spent half the night playing riffs for the local wolves.  They howled back, in key, with a similar riff, every time.  Human and canine alternated every five minutes or so, and kept it up for hours.

There is a You-tube video of a woman, “Krissy,” playing a saw and getting coyotes to answer it, in the Angeles National Forest near my home (“Duet for Saw and Coyotes,” circulating on the Internet, 2014).  Of course coyotes routinely answer dogs, and join in with ambulances and fire trucks.  More interesting is my dog Kangal’s fondness for playing his squeaky-toys along with my records.  He once accompanied Andres Segovia in a marvelous duet, Kangal on the squeaky-toy perfectly matching Segovia’s pitch and timing for quite a while.  Segovia is probably turning in his grave, but the sheer ability of Kangal to follow recorded music is impressive.  I had not known or heard of a dog doing this, but my wolf and coyote experiences alerted me to the possibility.


Among primates, music seems unique to humans.  Most other primates’ calls are instinctive—hybrids even give hybrid calls (Wallin 2000).  Chimpanzees dance and whoop, but their sound repertoire is instinctive and simple, whereas music is largely learned and is very complex.  Rhesus monkeys have no musical taste; they prefer silence to any music, and dislike harmonious music as much as dissonant (Holden 2007).  Presumably, however, they enjoy their own calls, which sound horribly raucous and uncouth to human ears; they spend a great deal of time calling.  Some primates apparently learn some of their calls, and all can learn when to call and when not, but at best the nonhuman primates are far behind songbirds.

Music evidently evolved in the human lineage, like language.  Music probably evolved along with language as part of one communication system.  In modern humans, music communicates primarily emotion, while language communicates specific cognitive information (as well as a good deal of emotion).  The neglect of music by scientists is presumably related to the role of music as primarily a mood-communicator; science has tended to shy away from emotion (Damasio 1994).  Some grave souls have even denied that music has an important role, even claiming it is a sort of accidental by-product of evolution (Schrock 2009).  Oliver Sacks (2007) and Robin Dunbar (2010) refute this view.  Darwinian theory renders impossible the view that such an enormously important, universal human trait, involving more of the brain than any other activity, could be a mere trivial accident.  Darwin himself noted this, writing of it as an important evolved capability of humans.



Music in Humans:  Society and Communication


The enormous importance and appeal of music was well stated around 400 A.D. by St. John Chrysostom (a nickname, “golden mouth,” in recognition of his ability with words):  “By nature we take such delight in song that even infants clinging at the breast, if they are crying and perturbed, can be put to sleep by singing….  So too journeymen, driving their yoked oxen in the nonday, often sing as they go…wine-growers, treading the winepress, or gathering grapes, or dressing the vines, or doing any other piece of work, often do it to a song.  And the sailors likewise, as they pull the oars.  Again, women who are weaving…often sing…” (quoted Dronke 1969:14).

In the 18th century, Giambattista Vico (2000) speculated that people originally sang to communicate; music and speech diverged late in human history.  The idea that music and speech slowly diverging from a common source deserves, and has received, further consideration (see e.g. Mithen 2006; Patel 2008; Sacks 2007).  Music and language share hierarchic planning; just as phonemes combine into morphemes, which combine into sentences, which combine into texts, so notes combine into lines which become tunes which can be parts of much larger rituals or masses or concerts.

Many good theories of music origin have been proposed (Schrock 2009), but none seems adequate to me.  The commonest one has been noted above: music evolved for sexual display and selection—basically, for courting.  Indeed, men and sometimes women court by singing, and many songs are about love, but the vast majority of human song is in the service of dance, work, religion, and children’s activities.  Even love songs are more often produced for group entertainment, often including group dance, than for actual courtship.  Music for courtship seems rather rare except in societies where actual talking would be considered risqué or worse.  Moreover, among humans, both sexes sing.  In striking contrast to almost all songbirds, humans do not have a male bias in their singing activity.  Dunbar (2010:72) thinks music may simply be a general social communication device, later adapted to more specific messages like courting.

Ellen Dissanayake has argued that music arises from mother-infant interactions (that should have been parent-infant).  This certainly explains some of the action.  But it is, again, inadequate to explain the use of music in so many venues.

However, all these theories seem to me to be too specific.  Recall that higher mammals all have different noises for different purposes.  It is effectively certain that the immediate ancestors of humans had separate classes of noises for baby-care, mating, coordinating co-work, coordinating dances, inspiring warriors to fight, lamenting tragedies, and all the other purposes to which music is routinely put.  In fact, we still have nonmusical, and at least partly instinctive, noises for baby-care (lulling, soothing sounds), war (angry yells and screams), lamenting (weeping, sobbing), and so on.

As human communication became more and more a matter of learning, less and less instinctive, the sounds all came to be  incorporated into the new media.  They inspired or developed into songs.  These culturally-learned descendents of instinctive noises merged into one vast cultural soundscape.

If Vico and his modern followers are right, as seems increasingly likely, music and language developed from one original system—a chantlike or murmuring sound (as Vico described it), rather like the babbling of babies when they are at the threshold of talking.  If you slow down and computer-analyze a baby’s babbling at that time—around 7 or 8 months old—you will find that she is trying to say actual words.  Cleaning up the tape reveals “mama,” “papa,” and other deep thoughts, expressed as well as practice permits.  I suspect that songlike babbling is expressive of emotion, as adult song is.

As communication became more and more complex, more a matter of cultural learning, language and music forked off—language to communicate cognitive data, music to communicate emotion.  Language always nested in the left brain (in most people), but music is distributed over the whole brain.  Language differs from bird song in that it can communicate nested ideas:  “He said that she thought that I said that the President acted stupidly.”  Humans can easily handle up to five levels of this (Dunbar 2010) and, if necessary, even more.  Music is similarly “recursive”:  tunes and themes nest in longer compositions, with up to five levels of recursion in ordinary music and many more in Brahms or Beethoven.  Bird song is recursive only up to one or two levels, so far as we can determine.


Music obviously evolved from biological primes.  Simplest of all is rhythm:  it builds on heartbeat, breathing, walking, working, sex, and other body rhythms.  Humans are a rhythmic animal.  Very often, music is explicitly used to coordinate work or enhance sex, and of course it is virtually inseparable from dance.

People everywhere chant to coordinate dancing and working, and grieve in a characteristic high-falling cadence.  They speak in characteristic, language-specific rhythms and tonalities.  Many local musics correspond well to the local language (Huron 2006:188).

One rarely-mentioned proof that music is basic and important to humans is the worldwide phenomenon of the “earworm”—getting a song stuck in one’s head, particularly a song one is learning.  Mark Twain wrote a famous story about being driven nearly mad because he could not get the popular song “Punch, Brothers” out of his mind—till he taught it to someone else, and passed on the obsession!  Somehow, many or most of us are driven, almost or quite instinctively, to repeat a new song till we have it down.  Birds seem to share this; a mockingbird or nightingale will practice a newly-learned imitation for hours, all too often just outside the window of a human trying to sleep.  I recently heard a local thrasher work for hours on perfecting his imitation of a Bell’s vireo song, not an easy song to copy.  This cannot be explained except by assuming that songs are fundamentally important to the life of the singer, and that an attraction, or even compulsion, to learn them has been built into the brain.

In fact, learning to perform music, in childhood, leads to brain growth in several areas, including the connections between right and left brain.  Maximal effects require learning by the age of seven.  Children trained extremely early by the Suzuki method turn out to have more developed brains than controls (Healy 2010). Children with early musical-instrument training have more cortical thickness in regions associated with executive function (Barnes 2015a).  Working memory, attention, self-control, and organizational abilities are involved.  Music training also has the enormous value of teaching children that competence in an area comes slowly, from hard work, rather than being inborn or coming easily.

Biology also gives a wider range of patterned sounds:  speech rhythms, work sounds, natural sounds.  Our ancestors presumably responded to sound patterns in nature because they needed to tell a game animal’s noises from the wind in the trees, a lion’s roar from thunder, a mate’s call from a random bird noise.

Humans have built on this to create far more complex layers of patterning.  Biology gives us the basics, but only human ingenuity can build it into blues cross-rhythms or Balkan dance beats.  Some musics, notably in West Africa as well as the Balkans, specialize in rhythmic complexity.  By contrast, Laurel Trainor, one of the people who has found that children’s brains benefit from music, points out that western classical music is astonishingly simple rhymically compared to many folk forms.  The west has specialized on complex harmonic systems instead (Trainor 2008).  It is hard to do both.  Jazz manages to do it, but is a specialized, sophisticated form.

The emotional moods of music apparently have biological roots also.  Sad songs convey benefits by stimulating peacefulness, nostalgia, tenderness, and wonder, and may stimulate release of prolactin, the hormone associated with breastfeeding and other pleasuarable physical representations of tenderness (Sciencealert Staff 2014).  Happy songs more obviously connect with plesaant emotions.  Military music, lullabyes, and mourning chants all sound appropriate to their occasions, stimulating the mind accordingly.

It would seem, then, that music exists to allow emotion and mood to be socially shared, through being patterned in such a way that a large group can coordinate their musical performance and thus make easier the sharing.  More:  Music exists to allow a social group to coordinate action—work and dance in particular—and at the same time to get them in the proper mood for that action.  Music and dance bring people together and allow them to share culturally appropriate moods.  We in the modern west think of dance as “fun,” but other cultures have dances for ritual, for mourning, for communication of important messages, for war, and for almost every other conceivable purpose.

An occasional claim that music evolved for courtship is based on analogy to the old, discredited belief about  bird song.  In fact, courtship is one of the important functions of music in humans, but is much less important than are several other functions.  Music is far more important in large-group settings, from Australian Aboriginal rituals and Inuit shaman sessions to New York concert halls and Los Angeles dance floors.  Even in intimate contexts, courtship is surpassed in frequency by lulling babies, singing to and with children, and playing tranquil music to relax.


In short, music is to mood what language is to concrete meaning.  Music gives a hierarchical and recursive patterning to the communication of mood, just as language gives it (through phonemics and grammar) to communication of cognitive and specific messages.



Psychological Functionality and Music


Music has been widely used in psychotherapy.  Music therapy is not especially popular now, but was a hugely important part of treatment, especially for the mentally ill but also for the physically ill, in the medieval and early-modern Near East (Dols 1992:166-173).  Hospitals had live music, designed to cure the mad and soothe those in pain.  Apparently it worked well, because it remained popular and had the weight of medical authority behind it.  (It had the opposite effect on one French traveler in the 17th century, though; he described the music as “wretched” [Dols 1992:172].  Possibly it was as bad as modern medical-office music, which so often elicits the same opinion.)

We are now a long way from medieval Islam in this regard, but music therapy is still done.  A recent review of music therapy by William Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug (2015) picks out an amazing range of ways music is now used.  One notable way is in retraining people who have had left-brain strokes.  Science has known for decades that people who have lost the use of ordinary language, due to strokes to the left temporal lobes where language is processed, often retain the ability to sing.  Often, they can even sing what they want to say, even though they cannot say it in ordinary speech.  Building on this by mental bootstrapping allows stroke victims to develop linguistic ability in the right half of the brain.  The brain is perfectly capable of retraining in this way, but it has to have something to build on, and song is the foundation.

Music also coordinates and entrains body rhythms, and thus is used in helping disabled people to learn or regain abilities, and in helping ordinary people to coordinate better and exercise more effectively.  Use of music to set the rhythm for exercising is almost universal.  Music also engages people socially, entraining emotions, as Durkheim said ritual does; it was the music and dancing in the rituals that really did the work.  Of course, secular sociability builds on this too.  Music has helped people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s cope with deteriorating functionality.  It is also extremely valuable in helping people on the autism spectrum (as I can attest; I have some Asperger’s condition, and music has made an enormous difference for me).  Autistic persons can be calmed, socially integrated, and socially coordinated with the help of music.  Music identifiably changes the brain—physically.

Training in playing a musical instrument helps language learning and overall ability to learn, partly by providing discipline.  One extremely valuable side of musical-instrument learning is not related to the music, however: musical instrument training inevitably starts from scratch and is a slow, incremental process, but one in which every week brings material improvement (if the learner does what he or she is told).  This has saved many a child who was expected to perfect at first try, or at least very soon, by overly driving parents and peers, and who thus developed a huge fear of trying (since nothing worth doing is easy at first attempt).  It has also saved many who were put down savagely and told they could do nothing.

Finally, singing during childbirth makes labor more bearable.  It appears that many women sing at this time.  They may start only to prevent themselves crying out in pain, but, from accounts, they find the singing actually helps the whole process.  (This from personal communications, largely from my midwife spouse Barbara Anderson.)

Given the enormous benefits of music, it is tragic that Americans have so greatly reduced their singing and playing in recent decades.  Most Americans now say they “can’t sing” or “can’t learn an instrument” or “don’t have time,” and thus miss it.  Things were very different when I was young.  We were always singing: in school (all schools had music then), in church, on camping trips, on the road, during parties, during drunken get-togethers (when I got old enough for that), and just around the house and around the town.  All that is gone.  Our loss is incalculable.  Even the sheer physical loss in brain development is profound; the social losses are much greater.



Structure in Music:  Some Psychological Considerations


Music creates a world of steady rhythms, pure tones, neat and simple harmonies, and exciting micro-variations.  (Elite music in the 20th century often violated all these rules, but almost no other music ever has.)  People are remarkably sensitive to the building blocks of each other’s musics, in spite of cultural differences that often make them insensitive to the total package (see below).

Patel (2008) emphasizes the differences of music and speech.  Speech rhythms are very different from the carefully counted, more or less equal and regular beats usual in music.  Speech contours, including the tones of tonal languages, are not set to absolute pitches, and differ a lot even in the same utterance, let alone between different speakers.  On the other hand, Patel and others have found that people do process grammar and musical sequences in similar ways; there is commonality in the overall processes that allow us to construct and interpret sentences, on the one hand, and long musical pieces on the other.

Sentences differ from phrases (as in bird song) in that sentences are more complex, and can be transformed grammatically.  “The boy hit the ball” is already beyond a bird’s (known) ability, but the grammatical sense necessary to turn it into “the ball was hit by the boy” and “did the boy hit the ball?” are truly beyond any animal’s comprehension (Chomsky 1957—confirmed by every bit of evidence since).  Similarly, birds may string phrases together indefinitely, but they cannot create a even a simple song that integrates several phrases into a composition.  Some can make up a simple, consistent song of four or five phrases strung together, but this is as good as it gets.  Still less can they parallel a blues song or a concerto or anything else requiring overall planning.

Many scholars strongly suspect that this is simply one aspect of a wider human ability to do hierarchic planning.  Animals cannot seem to do any sort of multilevel, hierarchic, recursive planning.  Humans do it not only in language and music, but also in hunting and gathering, farming, war, and indeed every activity we take on.  We are born to plan.

Patel gives enormous technical detail about the small-scale building blocks that we process subconsciously and usually do not think about.  Most people do not even realize they are doing all these complex things until linguists point it out.  This was brought home to me by his comment that “there are tone languages with stress (e.g. Mandarin) and without it (e.g. Cantonese)” (Patel 2008:119).  I speak both, or used to, and had indeed been properly using stress in the one and not in the other, but I never realized it.  I learned it and processed it preattentively.  (Actually, Cantonese has slight stress patterns, but not enough to make the contrast invalid.)  He finds plenty of similarities and differences between language and music.

John Sloboda reports that “a fifth of adults believe they are ‘tone deaf,’ so they don’t see music as something they do; rather, they experience music as something that is done to them” (Sloboda 2008:32).  He suspects that this part of a “disconnection” that arose “in the past 50 years” because we consume music rather than producing it.

Certainly, as noted above, there has been a profound change in American life in my time.  When I was a child, everybody sang, most people played musical instruments, music was taught in schools, and folk music was a living tradition rather than a record genre.  Today, few make music any more, and music is out of the schools.  However, most teenagers do at least something (be it church choir or rock band), and more people sing than admit it.  Watch individuals alone in cars at any stoplight; you will soon see several who are obviously singing.  Most would probably never do it in public.  Sloboda, and Patel (2008), suspect that few people are really tone-deaf.  Most are simply too ashamed of their purely imaginary lack of ability to let themselves develop their musicality.

Group bonding is certainly involved in the uses of music (Dunbar 2004; Patel 2008:370).  It cannot be the only factor; primates bond into big groups without it, while humans perform music alone for their own amusement, as well as in or for groups (Patel 2008:370-371).  Still, the universal use of music and chant as group phenomena tells us a very clear story.

Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle, in an excellent study that is the first actual test of theories, proved conclusively that music engages and entrains social linking.  They quote Darwin on the mysterious nature of music. They found that music is “intimately tied to the other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups” (Loesch and Arbuckle 2013:777).  Those phenomena included general sociability as well as language, personal traits like extraversion, and group activities.

Music does not display many of the features that prove we have evolved for language (Patel 2008:379f.).  Patel rather surprisingly concludes that music was invented rather than evolved (Patel 2008:400-401), though building blocks such as rhythm sense might be genetic.

I find this unsatisfactory.  I can live with a theory in which only the building blocks—rhythm, pure tone, harmony, recursive tune compostion—are evolved, but only if a need to express emotion and mood state through composed song is also involved.  Music is universal.  It grades into speech via chant, word-music, tonal languages, rhythmic speech, and the like.  Thus it is clearly a part of the evolved human communication system.  Recent findings disprove the old idea that speech is located in the left brain, music in the right; in fact they are both distributed widely, music in particular being a total-brain activity, though some key components are right-brain-processed (see e.g. Deutsch 2010).  Babies respond to their parents’ voices and speech rhythms, and even young infants’ crying is in those rhythms; people (especially women) with more “musical” speech tend to be more socially adept (Deutsch 2010).

Individuals create music alone to put themselves in particular moods, or get themselves out of same.  I find I have to play and sing music to settle and harmonize myself during exciting moments, and to wake myself up during dull ones.  Almost all children sing for sheer pleasure; they seem to have an almost physical need of it during joyful times.  So both manipulation and communication of mood states is involved.  This gives us the beginning of a theory, but only the beginning.



Music:  Some New Findings and Speculations


A recent study of music by several psychologists (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013) deserves to be quoted in extenso.  They found that people in the modern world—their study was in the United States and the UK—are intensely engaged with music.  This varies with age.  The peak was among teenagers; 18-year-olds topped the list with 25 hours a week of listening.  The low point was 58; people that age averaged 12 hours.  The range, over all ages, was dramatic—from zero to 96 hours a week!

Once retired, past 65, people renewed musicality, typically considering it more important than at any previous time.  Adults often did much of their music listening while working around the house (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013:706).

No one will be surprised to learn that teens were much more prone than others to listen to music as a part of active socializing.  It is well known that teenagers are especially influenced by music; that tastes picked up from teenage peers tend to be permanent; and that teenagers’ and early twenty-somethings’ favorite songs tend to be beloved throughout their whole lives.  Even songs that one did not much like at the time often remain deeply embedded in consciousness, not displaced by other far better songs learned later.  It appears that the growing brain reaches a point at this time when music gets deeply encoded in the neurons (Stern 2014), apparently as part of the formation of a stable self.  It is also a part of the rapid expansion of the social circle that takes place at that age; after all, the self is defined socially (G.H. Mead 1964).  It is also relevant that we reminisce about childhood and teen years more than about other times (Stern 2014).  (For the record, my most deeply felt songs were largely learned or heard from 18 to 24, but many date from my 6-to-14 years, and many from 35-45.  This fits the social-universe theory: the 35-45 period was the time of the breakup of my first marriage and my slow re-forming of a new social universe.)

The study follows recent literature in dividing music into mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, and contemporary.  There was some stereotypy according to music preferred: lovers of heavy metal and punk were supposedly bad dudes, listeners to classical were supposedly affluent and educated.  This reminds us of the African-American psychologist Claude Steele and his use of whistling Vivaldi to disarm fears of him as a “black male.”  I suppose that would work only among people who could tell Vivaldi from Snoop Doggy Dogg.  Most of the people who might attack a black psychologist probably cannot do that.  Still, Dr. Steele felt safer when whistling the former (Steele 2010).

Tastes changed across the life track.  Mellow music was popular with teens and older people.  Sophisticated music (classical music, modern jazz, and the like) grew steadily over time.  So did unpretentious music (folk, country, conventional religious).  Intense (heavy metal, punk) and contemporary (other current forms) declined steadily.  The investigators did not find a cohort effect.  This proves they were not going far enough back; the change in taste from unpretentious or sophisticated in the cohorts born before 1940 to intense and contemporary in later cohorts would have stood out clearly.  Personality somewhat influenced preference, with lovers of intense music being a bit low on conscientiousness, and openness to experience being associated with liking for most musical styles.  No surprises there.


Music can be described in terms of schemas (basic structures of knowledge).  One can speak of a very simple schema for 2/4 rhythm, or a very complex one representing a whole symphony.  Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, must have had a set of schemas not only for all Beethoven’s works, but for all the ways to play them—every note (microvariations and all) of the first violin, every bang of the cymbals, every sort and level of performance.

Patel (2008; see esp. p. 290) compares these patterns with syntax in language, finding, as usual, similarities and differences.  Both are created by generative grammars, but of course music does not have nouns, verbs and so on; it has notes, themes, ornamentation, and the like.  The point is that generative rules work for both, organizing an infinite range of possible sentences and compositions.



Findings on Musical Taste


Patterns are basic; suddenly varying the pattern, therefore, keeps the music interesting.

One poorly explored musical type is the theme-and-variations pattern found worldwide, especially in cultures with sophisticated stringed and keyboard instruments.  Middle Eastern ‘ud and santur music, Indian ragas, Chinese qin and zheng performances, Elizabethan lute music, Baroque harpsichord music, and West African kora and bania music (and its descendent, American country blues) follow a general pattern:  they take a theme and subject it to more and more complex variations over a period ranging from a few minutes to several hours.  Often, the intensity of the music builds up, as in Indian ragas, but equally often it remains at a calm, cool, crystalline level, as in Chinese qin playing.  (Chinese performers have told me there are over a hundred ways to strike a single note on the qin.)  No one seems to have analyzed the reasons why this generally cool, low-volume music is so universally popular.  It looks very much as if the theme-and-variations piece is a larger, more consciously processed equivalent of the patterned microvariations discussed below.

David Huron (2006) and Philip Ball (2008, 2010) have dealt with the role of predictability and surprise in music.  Much of this is related to such pattern variations.  Huron points out that major surprise provokes a fight-flight-freeze response in an animal.  In humans, mild surprise provokes a kind of relievedly unserious shadow of these.  Mild fight response, provoked by scary music, is frisson—the prickling you feel at horror-movie music.  Mild flight becomes laughter, and musicians (notably Peter Schickele, whose music Huron analyzes) provoke it by sudden outrageous violations of musical norms.  Mild freeze-response becomes awe, and is evoked by the more bombastic romantic composers.  Surprise may be based on subconsciously processed or consciously known factors.  Huron distinguishes several kinds of surprise, based on what sorts of expectation we have:  for rhythm, tone, sequence, melody, and so on.  A sudden fortissimo at an odd spot in a quiet passage, as in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, is the most basic level of surprise.  Even an infant gets that.  At the most complex level, we have wild jazz variations on well-known themes, and even on well-known previous variations of the themes.  To get the surprise, you have to know the themes and their usual variations.  Huron, who knows his ethnomusicology thoroughly, sees this throughout the world.  He discusses the total assault of the high modernists, Schoenberg and Stravinsky in particular; they lived to devastate people’s expectations.  Huron laments the disappearance of the world’s small musical traditions—those of indigenous and local communities—not only because we lose their wonderful music, but because we have no comparative material left to study (Huron 2008.)

This being said, musical surprise—to the point of frisson, laughter, and awe—is actually quite rare in actual performances.  Ball’s contribution is to point out that we want expectations that are played with, not devastated.  We build expectations about particular genres, composers, tune types, and so on.  Then variations are most striking when just subtle enough to take some attention.

Especially important is microvariation:  tiny, almost imperceptible variations in pitch, timing, attack, dynamics, rhythm, and everything else.  These are controlled with exquisite perfection by a great performer.  A naïve audience is usually quite unaware of them at a conscious level, but still shows subconscious awareness by responding dramatically to good performance in this area.  Even sophisticated listeners may be aware to only varying degrees.  I had long realized the importance of these tiny details, but did not realize how self-consciously they are cultivated until, many years ago, I heard Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet working with a young string quartet whose cellist was a close friend of mine.  My friend played the cello marvelously, but Schneider showed him some tricks that made a real qualitative difference—the performance went from excellent to sublime.  Yet the tricks were incredibly subtle—tiny differences in sharpness of attack, slur in pitch, dynamics, and motion of the fingers on the strings.

Ordinary unsophisticated listeners who have no intellectual knowledge of these fine points can most certainly appreciate them in practice.  A few years later, at a folk festival, I listened to fiddle music by some of the famous names in fiddling—some of the best fiddlers I have heard.  The crowd applauded politely.  Then an unknown teenage kid named Alison Krauss took the stage and blew them all away.  The crowd simply went wild—screaming, jumping up, dancing.  As many readers will know, Alison Krauss has gone on to fulfill the promise of that long-ago summer day.  The point here, however, is the audience response.  This listeners were local residents out for a day in the park.  Most had little or no musical training, and could not have picked out the extremely subtle microvariations that Krauss so exquisitely controlled.  They most certainly could hear them, though; they were picking up on them subconsciously.  They could fully react to what they heard.

A fascinating study shows this is true of rhythm too.  Many of us know all too well the mindless bump, bump, bump of the drum machine, driving any sensitive listener crazy by its utter sameness.  Some programs try to save it by injecting small random variations.  Now a study by Holger Hennig et al. (2011) shows that people find these meaningless variations unsatisfying, but respond to, and enjoy, the patterned, systematic variations that good human drummers inject into their drumming.  Of course, the better the drummer, the more control he or she has over this, and the better the result.

Singing is similarly variable in ways easy to hear but almost impossible to describe.  Tango singer Carlos Gardel rose from the slums of Buenos Aires’ port to world fame on the strength of a voice so heavenly that women who had never seen him committed suicide when he died.  The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum had men literally swooning when she was in her 70s.  People across cultural and musical boundaries responded more or less the same to these singers; their vocal appeal was not culture-bound.  People everywhere respond more or less the same to awful singers, too (trust me…I speak from experience).  Cultural differences in singing style are dramatic, but have not prevented Tuvan throat singers and Peruvian mountaineers from hitting world best-seller charts, simply by doing a stellar job with their distinctive cultural traditions.  One pair of Bulgarian singers simply happened to be picked up in a rather random collection of local folklore; they were just a couple of village teenagers.  But they were good enough to get on the world music circuit on the basis of a cut on an obscure folklore record.

Culture is real, and as an anthropologist I am hardly about to underplay it, but some things cross cultural lines with ease and grace.

One wide implication of all this is that knowledge and culture are improvisational, not stereotypic.  People learn from each other.  They do not mindlessly absorb; they learn what they expect, want, and need to learn.  Then each person adapts, transforms, personalizes, and applies that knowledge.

This stands in extreme contrast to the views of learning and culture as mindless absorption, from Leslie White’s “culturology” to Dawkins’ “memes” (the latter concept vies with racism for the title of most ridiculous thing to pass for science in the 20th century).

The examples of Alison Krauss and Carlos Gardel, among many others, show that listeners, including those with no musical background to speak of, do discriminate musical quality when they listen to it.  When they are not carefully attending, though, they may miss it very widely indeed.  The Washington Post recently placed a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, in the subway to play for pennies.  He performed great classical violin pieces in the Washington metro for a morning.  “Only 27 out of 1,097 (2.5 percent) put money into Bell’s open Stradivarius violin case and only 7 (0.5 percent) stopped to listen for more than a minute” (Ariely 2009:218), and, of these 7, one recognized him and another was a professional violinist.  Most passers-by stopped and interviewed by the Post had not even noticed Bell.  I must say that this is not usually my experience of street musicians; many people do listen.  I certainly do, and, if they are better than I am, I give them money.  Since I am no musician, this means that almost all of them get their buck.  Even in the Washington Metro I would probably pick out a Krauss or a Bell.  But I might not; those subways have awful acoustics.


Types of Music and What Is Communicated


Music has rather consistent functions and structures across cultures.

Lullabyes are, for obvious reasons, usually the simplest kind of music.  Humans everywhere lull babies to sleep with soft crooning noises, and so do at least some primates.  Lullabye songs are simple cultural constructions from this shushing noise.

Culture makes little difference at this level.  Lullabyes are pretty much the same everywhere, but symphonies aren’t.

Lullabyes construct up to the bland, syrupy music infamously infesting elevators and stores today.  Dentists routinely use such music to soothe their clients.  Music psychologist Laurel Trainor discusses the lullabye issue, and adds that a more active, playful music for the young is also widely similar:  “Across cultures, songs sung while playing with babies are fast, high and contain exaggerated rhythmic accents;…  Talking to people of all ages, we use falling pitches [notes going down the scale, not falling cadences] to express comfort; relatively flat, high pitches to express fear; and large bell-shaped pitch contours to express joy and surprise” (Trainor 2008:598).  She believes these basics of music are hardwired into the brain.  This explains our persistent failure to like atonal music much.

Funeral laments everywhere are very similar to weeping from intense grief, and are obviously culturally constructed from that.  This is quite explicit in many cultures, from the Kaluli of Papua-New Guinea (Feld 1982) to the Hupa and their neighbors in California (Keeling 1992).  It is also obvious in the great requiem masses of Victoria, Duarte Lobo, and Mozart.

Sad music from blues to rembetika also builds on laments, with high falling cadences, drawn-out notes, minor-third intervals, and so on.

Work songs drive the rhythm of the task.  They may have been among the earliest songs in the world.  They tend to be simple, for obvious reasons.  Humorous songs, welcoming songs, farewell songs, birthday songs, and similar minor-occasion songs also tend to be rather simple.  Narrative songs such as ballads may be simple, or they may be elaborated extensively.

An interesting worldwide finding is that the bass instrument of an ensemble, or the bass strings on a single instrument, almost invariably give the rhythm; this is because the human brain is better at detecting timing and rhythm at low pitches than at high ones (Hove et al. 2014).

Romantic music related to love—probably the most universal and common of the categories—is naturally soft, with swooping glissandos and simple but mellifluous harmonies.  It may sound happy or sad, depending on whether it celebrates true love or laments loss and loneliness.  It can be a vehicle for the most deep and complex musicality, but usually is less ambitious, and thus it provides most of the ear-candy all too familiar as auditory tranquilizers in supermarkets and dental offices.

Popular music—the music of mass entertainment—is normally simple and uncomplicated, not so much because it has to appeal to the unsophisticated as because it has to be fairly cheap to produce and because it naturally expresses the relatively shallow, simple interactive relationships of public places.  As specialized audiences build up for particular forms of popular music, the music quickly grows more complex, sophisticated, and elaborate.  This is an evolution visible very widely.  Some scattered examples include this progression in Neapolitan songs of the 19th and 20th centuries, in Chinese popular songs of the middle ages, in dance music from Argentine tango to American rock, and in medieval French popular tunes from early times to the complex dances recorded by Thoinot Arbeau in the 16th century.

War music often builds on defiant cries or on coordinated march rhythms.  Throughout the world, especially in the old and warlike civilizations, it evolved into a great deal of court music, outdoor music, entertainment music, and popular music.  Chinese opera, Indian street music, Near Eastern public music, and European brass band music all have roots in martial music, and all have a loud, strident, far-carrying sound and a driving heavy beat.  (Some of these forms have been rather sourly compared to the sounds of a man trying to get rid of squalling cats by yelling and throwing kitchen pans at them.)  Martial music may also lie somewhere behind contemporary world pop.   No one can miss the extreme anger of much rap music and other modern pop forms.  Many of the lyrics glorify random and criminal violence in the same way that old-time war songs glorified the structured military equivalent.

In short, public music tends to be loud, strident, simple, monotonous, and raucous.  The shawms and nackers of old Europe and the modern Near East and India, the music of Chinese operas and street fairs, the brasses of the military, and the dramatic drumming of Africa find a natural descendent, and apotheosis, in the popular music of the world today.  It outdoes them all in strident, obtrusive noisiness.  It forces the public will on everyone.  We should remember that it does have an ancestry, and is not really a solely modern phenomenon—let alone a plot to corrupt the morals of the young, as it is often alleged to be.

Even so, modern corporate callousness has taken pop music to new lows.  The music is marketed at the least sophisticated audiences—typically, young teenagers.  The corporations have found that simplicity sells and that certain tune and rhythm combinations sell particularly well, so they produce these same things over and over (Barnes 2015b).  Virtually identical songs sung by virtually identical singers are the result.  As corporations get more entrenched, this only gets worse (Barnes 2015b).  Niche markets preserve some originality, but with the pop material setting the bar, standards cannot be very high anywhere.  Thus, a combination of public noise, giant corporations, and angry moods among today’s young people produce a music of simple tunes and harmonies but highly expressive of loud, angry emotions.

By contrast, folk and classical music are for narrower but more sophisticated audiences and for more enclosed spaces, so they are usually softer and more subtle—unless they are going for a broad-scope audience.  Literature, a more private art form by nature, shows similar contrasts; public declamations are usually sorry stuff.  Great literature and folk literature are both for small and special audiences.

Biology also gives us emotions, and apparently a great deal of the music-emotion correspondence, but culture does the real work.  For example, the old idea that driving rhythm automatically led to trance is incorrect; culture has to teach what rhythms lead to what mental states (Rouget 1985).  Even more arbitrary is the identification of minor key with sadness (most of the authors discuss this, including Patel 2008).  This well-known association is found in western European music of the last couple of centuries, but not in Asian music, or even in early European music.  I remember having to learn it, as a child.  It is certainly cultural, not a natural linkage.

Sometimes, the links with specific meaning are quite clear if one has any cultural knowledge at all.  Evocations of cuckoo calls and nightingale song are common throughout western musical history.  Even more evocative, and well-known from the Middle Ages until today, are musical versions of hunting. Often these involve barking dogs, running horses, blowing horns, and shouting men—all imitated by a choir, or even a harmonica.  They are often hilariously funny, partly because they gently satirize a frequently silly pastime.  More common today are train imitations.  Usually these too are playful.  On the other hand, the use of the train as a stock blues image of parting, grief, and death makes some of them extremely serious indeed.

Readers raised in American suburbs in the 1950s will recall the imbecilic “program music” considered suitable for “the kiddies” in that benighted age, and the even more imbecilic explanations that teachers provided:  “Now, children, in this passage you can hear how the squirrel runs up the tree….”  Apart from giving us a lifelong hatred of that kind of music, this proved to us young people that music’s “meanings” are learned, not innate in the sound.  The composers had done their damnedest to make the music transparent to people supposed to have exceedingly limited intelligence, but explanation was still necessary.

This must all be sorted out from the actual effects of the music by itself.  A Japanese or Australian Aboriginal listener to, say, a cuckoo imitation might enjoy the sound, and might even know it was a cuckoo, but would be unable to place the cuckoo in western culture, and unable to get any sense of the connotations of the bird.  Anyone ignorant of blues traditions and American cultural symbols would fail to pick up the powerful significance of the imitations of railroad sounds.

Patel points out that all these cultural emotionalities prove a general point shows that music cannot have precise “meaning” the way a normal, declarative sentence does.  Culture has to give it specific meaning, and even then the meaning is rarely as specific as a sentence’s.  Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a musical equivalent of Theocritus’ Idylls, but does not fill quite the same cognitive niche.

Patel wisely notes that many musical feelings are not among the “emotions” we normally list, and indeed may be specific to music.  In my experience, and I think in others’, the theme-and-variations music described above sets up a unique feeling.  This is particularly true of pieces that do nothing but work out more and more elaborate patterns, on a single instrument, from a very simple theme, like William Byrd’s variations on “John Come Kiss Me” or Giles Farnaby’s on “Woodycock” or Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s ragas.  I get a sense of increasing involvement in the pattern, until the pattern becomes my whole life, and every cell of my body seems to depend on it.  The resolution can be shattering.

This is a pure pattern sense.  It is an intellectual passion; it does not arouse any fear, awe, anger, love, or joy.  It is pure delight in pattern.  I get something similar, though weaker, from looking at Islamic decorative art.  I have never seen this feeling described, but the universal appeal of such music (it is often used, in many cultures, to heighten sex) seems to indicate that I am far from alone.  Also, I can get it equally easily from closely equivalent pieces in Chinese classical music, Andean folk music, and West African kora music.  So it is certainly not a culture-bound or culturally learned feeling, at least in my case.

From this and many other examples—dance music, laments, lullabyes, and so on—we may conclude that human vocal communication has a built-in ability to stimulate mood.  On the other hand, specific meanings have to be culturally assigned.  If a person is screaming “Help!” a hearer ignorant of English will probably get the message.  But a quiet, matter-of-fact statement, “I’m afraid it’s terminal, Ms. Rogers,” will cause overwhelming fear and grief only if hearer knows English.


In most (perhaps all) premodern musical cultures, including early classical European music, ritual and religious music is the most complex and involved, from Australian corroborees to Baroque masses.  Love music is usually second in importance and complexity, and devotes itself to celebrating the beloved or lamenting his or her departure.  Complicated “mood music” has, of course, been cultivated deliberately since the Romantic period.  Beethoven, Wagner, and later composers developed all manner of musical tropes that came to be associated with specific emotions.  Today, movies and television build on this; we know what music is supposed to accompany scary situations, romantic situations, and so forth, and can almost work out the whole plot of a movie from hearing the music track.  Most, if not all, of this is culturally learned; little of it transferred across cultures until Hollywood became the world.

Indian ragas are coupled with mystical meditation—one gets deeper and more intensely into the meditative mood as the raga develops.  On a perhaps baser level, ragas—like similar musical forms around the world—are often used to enhance sex.  The slow increase of intensity and complexity in a rhythmic performance is of obvious use in this regard.  Whole genres of music are sometimes identified with such; “jazz” is an old term for semen, and “jazz music” was originally the music of the “jazz houses” of old New Orleans.  Nor was New Orleans the only place in which houses of prostitution had their own musical traditions.  It is interesting that grave authors like Huron and Patel never mention the universally-known use of music in sexual encounters.

The cooler, sharper musics of the Elizabethans or Chinese or of Arab ‘ud playing seem less adapted to such roles.  One must fall back, once again, on personal experience:  these pieces arouse a general good feeling of being in harmony with the world, and then deepen it, till one loses oneself in a generic sense of goodness, rightness, and moral value.  One comes out a significantly better person, at least for a few minutes.  This is presumably why music (or some music) has often been considered a moral enterprise.  Both Plato and Confucius recommended slow, restrained music as moral, and condemned as immoral certain other forms—probably fast dances associated with erotic agendas.

Another area that needs exploration is why much European religious music has the effect it has.  Is it only learned association that makes many of us feel spiritual when Mozart’s Requiem or Sweelinck’s organ pieces are played?  Why do Palestrina’s and Victoria’s masses have the effect they do?  Why does Black gospel music have its quite different but equally passionate spiritual impact?  There is evidently more than culturally learned response here.  Just-any-religious-music has, if anything, the opposite effect.  When Rimbaud wrote of the “vingt gueules gueulant les hymnes pieux” (“twenty snouts snouting the pious hymns”) he was clearly moved away from, not toward, spirituality by that particular church choir.

The rich, complex variation within the tightly constrained structure of a Baroque mass is important.  The great range of pitch and volume must also matter.  At least in my case, when a Victoria passage climaxes in a full-throated open chord, I feel that every cell in my body shatters and reassembles in a better way.  (And I am not a Catholic like Victoria—though his involvement in the liberal-humanist movement of his time makes us perhaps closer than dogma would suggest.)  I have never felt the same after discovering Victoria more than half a century ago.  Music is life-changing.

Individuals everywhere love to make music alone, often to soothe themselves or ease work, but music is essentially a communicative activity.  It communicates and usually synchronizes mood, feeling, motion, bodily state, and effort.  It is inseparably linked with social practice.  Frequently, a given culture’s most elaborate music is part of an even more elaborate performance:  religious ceremony, social dance, festive party, grieving funeral, court ritual.  Music is almost always involved in dance and ritual, and these hold societies together (Durkheim 1995).  It is also invariably a part of religion.  Frequently, it is used to help the faithful achieve intense emotional and mystical states.  Mystic ecstasy over music is not confined to religion; concert-goers know it well (Jourdain 1997).


Sometimes people like new and different traditions.  Recently, Celtic, Andean, North Indian, and even Australian aboriginal music have gone global, performed by street musicians or concert professionals from Vienna to Singapore.  Not only have they survived; they have “swum upstream” against the vast outpourings of American pop. One hears them in the very streets and shopping malls of Hollywood itself.

However, people are not necessarily fond of each other’s music.  A Jewish traveler in the 10th century described German singing:  “There is no uglier song than the groans that come out of their throats.  It is like the baying of hounds, only worse” (Ibrāhim ibn Ya‘qub, in Ibn Fadlān 2012:163; in another translation, a“’quite horrible sound, resembling the barking of dogs but more beast-like’”; Lewis 2001:136).  Evidently he had been hearing the ancestors of Wagner’s music, which, as Ambrose Bierce tactfully noted, “is better than it sounds” (Bierce 2000:305).  One could find many similar quotes by Europeans about Chinese music, by Chinese about European music, and indeed by almost everyone about strangers’ musics.  Even familiar music can be cordially hated.  I have friends today who abhor country music, others who abhor rap, and others who abhor “easy listening.”  This can get socially constructed in striking ways (see below, “Music History”).

Recall (from above) that musical tastes are apparently most significantly shaped by the peer group in teenage or immediate preteen years (Harris 1998, confirmed by my own wide experiences with children, students, and fieldwork).  We like what our teen peers liked, and often hate music associated with bad experiences at that time.  Parents and teachers can have a major role too.  Musical abilities and tastes probably have a genetic component, but this remains little known (cf. Patel 2008:358).

This makes Patel (2008:301) a bit more unusual than he thinks, in his ability to appreciate music from different cultures.  For a trained, widely-experienced listener like Patel, it is very much easier to understand another culture’s music than its language.  But our Arab friend must also have been highly sophisticated in music.  It was part of any literate Spanish Arab’s training at the time.  Yet German music was as incomprehensible to him as the German language.  I have talked with many ethnomusicologists about this issue (the general one, not the Arab case); some agreed with Patel, others thought music is hard to reach across cultures.

A rather unfortunate problem for anyone interested in the biology of music is the narrowness of some of the writers; this is why I rely on Patel so much.  Jourdain seems not to know much besides late Classical and pop, and Levitin (2007, 2008) little beyond pop.  Without serious comparison of other radically different traditions, such as Patel makes, little understanding is really possible.  Many of Jourdain’s statements are invalidated by common folk traditions of his own culture!  Even Patel seems unaware of how extremely different music is in certain remote parts of Indonesia, Aboriginal Australia, and highland Southeast Asia.  However, the many ethnomusicologists I know who are familiar with this entire range are understandably unwilling to generalize.

In general, however, Patel seems broadly correct.  Music is, if not a “universal language” (as it used to be called), at least easier for most people than actual languages are.  People everywhere can relate to pure sounds, harmonies, and rhythms.  This seems wired in the human animal.  In many years of teaching survey courses in ethnomusicology, I found—and colleagues also found—that students with reasonably open minds soon learned to relate to almost any music we would play.  Only very rigid students failed in this.  Some musics, however, seem much more accessible than others, as witness the globalization of those mentioned above.

Patel reviews several brief studies testing how cross-cultural music understanding and appreciation are, but they are limited.  They are usually carried out with Western late-classical music, which is to some extent familiar to almost everyone worldwide, thanks to Hollywood film music.  The studies remain inconclusive.



Music and Culture


One reason music delights us, even across cultural borders, is that it is a simple model of life.  Life is often a matter of improvising endlessly on a few themes.  Often, the themes are very simple, the improvisations extremely original and complex, as in blues or jazz or Baroque pieces.  The degree to which improvisation follows rules then becomes important.  Jazz riffs are infinitely variable, but they follow certain broad rules, and standard riffs are well known.  Jazz musicians know what Bix Biederbecke, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk did with a tune.  Any decent jazz musician has a vast mental library of well-known variations for every note in every theme in every tune in the standard repertoire.  The musician will be able to build from those to create new variations.

This is how we ordinary mortals deal with culture.  Culture gives us general rules.  Some, like the more ordinary grammatical rules, are quite cut-and-dried and generally known.  Others, like the rules for courtship, are more complex and variable, and call forth more original riffs.

Music, in fact, is a very good model for culture in general.  The various elements of music build on biological groundings, and go on to more and more complex realms (see e.g. Jourdain 1997).



Music History


Music seems to have evolved from very simple rhythmic crooning to melody, harmony, themes and variations, and finally full symphonic complexities with many layers of meaning.  All societies on earth have basic rhythms and simple songs.  Only civilizations have complex harmony and multi-theme composed pieces.  Only the more recent civilizations (possibly starting in China or in India) came up with such spectacular bits of complexity as operatic performances with multiple themes played by full orchestras.  (Jourdain argues that Wagner is some sort of high point because he went the farthest in this direction.  If so, never was more effort expended to less worth; see Bierce above).

Music clearly tracks public emotional needs.  American popular music was cheerful and assertive in the early 20th century.  This gave way to lullabye music (crooners and big bands) when the Depression and World War II traumatized the west.  Peace and prosperity led to youth preferring simple and driving music in the ambitious 1960s.  The break when the rising post-World War II generation rejected crooners for rock’n’roll, around 1955, was extremely dramatic, and led to real generational tensions; many venues banned the new, disruptive music entirely.  Some Americans blamed it on Communism, at the same time the USSR was banning it as capitalist!  Rock’n’roll in turn gave way to savagely angry rap in the greedy, selfish 1990s, and again society was convulsed by controversy.  Many middle-class Blacks (and others) held that rap was a deliberate ploy by white racists to keep African-Americans down by steering them into anger and crime.

Music also has the advantage of showing clearly how different individuals can be in the same culture.  Almost all members of standard American culture know about major and minor scales; they can tell the difference even if they don’t know the names.  Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a few children’s tunes.  Virtually all know something about the latest popular music.  Here consensus ends.  Individuals select differently from the vast smorgasbord of musics available.  Some are musical, some not.  Some are expert in their favorite line of music, some barely know the major names.  Some play instruments or sing at virtuoso level, some fool around with an instrument, some only listen.  Blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, campfire songs, Charles Ives, John Cage, rap, and Sacred Harp hymn-singing are all part of American musical culture, and all in some sense equally typical of it, but one would be hard put to find anyone knowledgeable about all of them—or even able to stand all of them.

Thus, observing the vicissitudes of music in human society can tell us a great deal about human mentality.

In the Renaissance and Baroque, musicians delighted in exploring the possibilities of ever more complicated and elaborate patterns of rhythm, melody, and harmony.  The last developed from unison singing to melody over ground bass, chordal harmony, and finally the complex polyphonic music of Palestrina and Victoria.  Cross-rhythms made a brief but spectacular appearance in Elizabethan music; they may have been introduced by lute players from the Mediterranean world (notably Alfonso Ferrabosco, from Italy via Spain).  The rhythms would have come ultimately from the Near East and Africa.  Intensity in the music of the time derived from piling more and more subtle, complex, and dynamic variations on relatively simple themes.  The excitement lay in this development of patterns.  This was the extreme opposite of later “mood music,” which evokes gross audience emotions and images rather than pure musical intensity.

Much of modern folk culture perserves elements of Medieval and Renaissance European culture.  Folk music, for instance, continues those forms in the few places where it survives.  The typical folk dance piece, in the more conservative parts of the European world and as far afield as Afghanistan, is a four-line, sixteen-bar tune with two somewhat differing melodies.  These are usually “major key” (Ionian mode in Medieval terminology, referring to the places where half-notes occur in the scale), sometimes “melodic minor” (basically, the old Aeolian mode), rarely Dorian or some other mode.  These are alternated:  one is played and repeated, then the other is played and repeated, then the first is played and repeated again, and so on.  This very characteristic way of making music has been constant since the late Middle Ages at the latest.  It usually goes with a lyric, a poem rhyming the second and fourth lines.  This form appears rather suddenly in Europe, in the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus in the 6th century.  I assume an ancestor of the two-part folk tune must have gone with this poetic form.  The form is surely not native to Europe, and may come from East Asia, where such poems were universal and had been for centuries.

Other folk dance music of a newer form flourishes and grows in Latin America and elsewhere, but retains much of the same spirit:  complex, rhymically sophisticated, musically rather simple but carefully constructed.  It speaks to a self-reliant, hard-living rural world.  In Latin America and elsewhere, African influences have long been known.  The first cumbia (or “cumba”) piece to be written down was recorded in the mid-18th century by a Spanish composer, Sebastián de Murcia, who was fascinated by the amazing new musics he met in Mexico when he traveled there(he also recorded Native American-derived pieces).  Cumbia is a West African dance form, fused in the Caribbean with 18th-century Spanish music.  It survives very robustly today.

Somewhat less archaic is the folk choral music now surviving in shape-note hymnal singing and a few other choral traditions that hang on today, many of them on the Mediterranean islands.  These reflect Renaissance and Baroque norms, as well as later innovations.  The open chords and wildly stark harmonies of Victoria, and the fuguing of Bach, survive there, though long abandoned in concert music.  Some shape-note singing groups have faithfully copied their forebears since the early 19th century, and their music was archaic even then, so we have a rare insight into older musics.  One thing such relictive musics show is that open, unornamented singing was essentially universal in early times.  The constriction, operatic style, downslurring, and weird variations that modern singers feel called upon to add to Medieval and even Renaissance music are purely modern.

Perhaps this goes with a continuation of the Renaissance world in isolated folk circles.  Clearly, the world has changed greatly since then, and folk societies are far from conservative; they have picked up modern technology and many modern art forms and themes.  Where they preserve old forms, they must have an ongoing, functional reason.  They do not preserve anything out of mindless conservatism.  It seems more likely that the music reflects a world of sober, rational, hopeful, self-sufficient people who have to know a wide range of things to get along in the world.  Non-affluent rural people still have to be “Renaissance” men and women—able to play music, fix cars, raise food, manage without gas and electricity, and keep hoping for better times through it all.

Folk music, by definition, is performed by musicians who are not professionally trained or licensed.  Normally, however, their local audiences demand that they be highly skilled.  The best are at least as skilled at what they do as the finest concert musicians.  Their audiences, consisting (again by definition) of family and neighbors, are highly knowledgeable about the traditions involved, and are exceedingly demanding.  Standards in good folk music are high.

This is often true when the audience breaks out of purely “folk” bounds and becomes wider and more anonymous.  The golden age of blues was not in its folk days but in its early urban period in the 1920s through 1940s.  The golden age of country music in the United States and Canada was the 1920s and 1930s, with records and radio driving the phenomenon.  Celtic folk music had a slightly later golden age, from the 1930s onward.  (I will not dare to set an ending date, since many would say the golden age is still with us.)  Folk music tends to evolve eventually into popular music, defined as folk-like music performed by full professionals for anonymous mass audiences.  Old-time country music was folk; bluegrass was popular, not only in the sense that millions liked it, but also in the sense that it was performed by professionals for huge anonymous audiences rather than by neighbors for neighbors.  Old-time blues were folk; after the early years, urban “Chicago”-style blues were for wider audiences.  Rock’n’roll began as a black folk form, but went popular very fast.

Folk music also drifts off into elite music.  Elite composers (from medieval choristers to Beethoven to Aaron Copeland) constantly adopt folk tunes and styles.  The music is radically transformed—regularized, complexly harmonized, and so on—in the process.  And elite music trickles down to the folk, changing as it goes to fit folk forms.  It may happen that a tune starts as a folksong, becomes a pop tune, gets elite treatment, and sinks down to folk level again.  This happened to “Greensleeves,” which has been a widely-known tune for almost 500 years now.  Thus, folk, popular, and elite musics never actually separate.  They are best thought of as corners of a triangle.  The folk corner would be represented by an old farmer of a century ago, fiddling for his neighbors; the elite corner by Mozart; the pop by modern radio music.  Most music is somewhere in the space within the triangle.

None of this is a new phenomenon; it is not confined to modern times.  All was anticipated by the evolution of lute and guitar music in the 16th through 17th centuries, harp music in 18th-century Spain, and many other musics in history.  More recently, not only did Copeland use folk songs in classical-style compositions, but the neo-“folk” music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and other songwriters is a continuation of the process; these singers extracted some styles from folk music and injected them into the pop-music world.

The slow development from Renaissance and Baroque music to Romantic has been equated by some historians with the rise of the “bourgeoisie”—the urban class divorced from actual production, living by trade, commerce, management, and intellectual endeavors.  As it get farther from primary production and independent living, it came to need more shallow but violent emotional stimulus.  Also, music got farther and farther from a small, highly trained circle of performers and sophsticated audiences, and became more and more a mass phenomenon, attempting to rouse at least some emotion (however shallow) from the sleepers and bored husbands in a concert hall.  The bored bourgeois, especially the women (living empty, confined lives in the 19th century), needed Wagner and Tchaikovsky to keep from emotional freeze-up.

Admittedly, this brief picture of 19th-century music history has become such a cliché that revisionists have duly taken it apart, but there is surely something to the idea. Obviously there is much more to it, but further exploration of the issue is outside our concerns here.  What matters is watching the evolution of music from something performed for a tiny sophsticated audience to something performed for a huge but unsophisticated one.  The consequent progression from subtle skill to “lowest common denominator” is hard to miss.

In any case, in the early 20th century, late romantic music forked off in two directions.  Among the musical elite, it gave way in self-consciously “modern” circles to the clean, cool, rationally calculated, sometimes arcane music of Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.  Among the ordinary listeners, it gave rise to film music, which is derived from late romantic music.  At the same time, popular music, also highly romantic, was suddenly and dramatically confronted by African-derived forms:  blues, jazz, Caribbean music.  This led to an incredible musical ferment in the 1920s and 1930s.  Depression and World War II, however, not only ruined many small recording companies, but made people seek a calm, simple music.  By the late 1940s, the most popular music was extremely simple (three chords maximum!), almost always major key, slow-paced, dynamically limited, and, in short, exactly the type of music used as lullabyes in all times and places.  Then, as noted above, rock’n’roll broke the mold, and popular music followed changing culture into the 21st century.



Music Grades into Speech


Patel explicitly exempts poetry and chant from consideration, thus ruling boundary phenomena off the turf.  This is wise for his purposes, but impossible for mine.  I have to look at the boundary.

His contrast of music and speech slurs over a vast range of intermediate forms.  We have chant, prayer, ritual incantation, and above all sound-poetry and word-music, in which poets deliberately “problematize” the boundary.  One reason he can do this is that English-language poetry is rather indifferent to word-music.  Russian and Welsh, among many other languages, do far more with it.

Dylan Thomas imported Welsh word-music styles into English poetry, influencing a whole generation.  His readings were legendary, and deservedly so.  I dare say that listeners completely ignorant of English would have appreciated them thoroughly.  I find the word-music of Russian poetry shatteringly beautiful, though I know very little Russian, and thus have no idea what the meaning is.  Following a translation actually detracts from the experience.  Reading translations of lyrics by Afanasy Foeth or Fyodor Tyuchev or even Pushkin, you may wonder what anyone ever saw in such efforts.  Then you hear a native speaker read them in the original…and when you have picked yourself up off the floor, all you can say is “Oh.”  English simply has nothing comparable to the Russian sacrifice of meaning to sound.  Some Russian poems are almost literally meaningless; the whole game is the word-music.

Middle English poetry paid much attention to sound; lyrics like “Lenten is come with love to toune…” (Luria and Hoffman 1974:6) are as pyrotechnic in their displays of internal rhyme, alliteration, vowel harmony, assonance, and so on as is Celtic literature.  The Great Vowel Shift and the roughly concurrent fashion for continental literature, often in translation, combined to dilute this in the 16th century.  Of course sound never went out entirely.  Swinburne tried to reintroduce it, partly at least from ancient Greek, but did not succeed.  Readers will, of course, point also to obvious passages of Keats, Eliot, Stevens, and many other poets.  The point is that even they never got off anything like “Lenten…” or like Foeth’s other-worldly lyrics.

Of course, early modernists pushed the boundary as far as they could.  The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters wrote a “poem” consisting of the letter W, pronounced “v” in Schwitters’ native German; the poem consisted of his making a v sound for 15 minutes, playing with pitch and dynamics, ending with a shriek (Moholy-Nagy 1956:325).  He has not been widely imitated.

There is also the question of lyrics and melodies.  It is rare to find a happy theme set to a slow, monotonous melody, or vice versa.  Good songwriters try to fit text with tune, according to whatever cultural rules apply.  A songwriter has to know the rules for her culture, genre, and audience.

Both linguists like Chomsky and Hauser and musicologists like Patel and Jourdain ignore these intermediate formations.  This costs them far more than they realize.  The most important intermediate form—chant and chant-like song—is absolutely basic to almost every religious tradition of every one of the 6800-odd cultures of the world.  Relevant religious forms range from African-American sermons to Gregorian chants, and from Temiar dream songs of Malaysia to Yuma creation-myth chants of Native California.  Praying and chanting in unison is at the core of religious services from the Church of England to the deserts of Australia and the stone temples of Polynesia.

Exceptions are largely confined to rare hyper-puritanical sects that ban all music, and they usually have some kind of rhythmic speech.  (There are, of course, those legendary tribes in the Amazon that “lack music,” the way they “lack numbers” and “lack religion” and “lack color terms” and “lack general nouns,” but we await serious studies of them.  They appear to be as real as the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and the Madagascar man-eating tree.)

Even greeting rituals can be musical chants.  Formal greetings in the Wolof language of Senegal can go on for many minutes.  The words are purely formulaic; the art is in the deliverery, which follows Wolof musical style (my observation, based on tapes collected by Dr. Sabina Perrino, heard Mar. 2, 2015).  Speeches, sermons, and other language forms around the world often dissolve into rhythmic speech and then sometimes into actual song.  This is true, for instance, of African-American sermons, which are partly based on Wolof forms.

Obviously, someone should be studying these neglected vocal forms.  There is clearly something about chanting together that creates social solidarity in a way nothing else quite accomplishes.  Add the sharing of food—be it a sacrificial bull or only a wafer and a sip of grape juice—and you have communitas.



Music into Words:  Song Lyrics and Their Diffusion


Ideally, lyrics are fitted to the music.  Tunes may go down or up in pitch along with the speech rhythms one would hear if the texts were spoken (Patel 2008:342-343).  Usually, the fit is looser.  The same lyrics may be sung to different tunes, and the same tunes used for wildly different sets of words—as will appear.

The best-studied case of diffusion is the spread of folktales and folksongs.

Probably the best-studied of the folksongs that got around are the great tragic and romantic ballads collected by Francis James Child (Bronson 1976; Child 1882-1898) and a host of later workers.  These include some of the deepest and most intense statements of the human condition in all world literature.  Yet many of them spread throughout Europe and often beyond, and were appreciated everywhere.  Several things emerge from this research.  (The following account draws on hundreds of records, plus field work, singing experience, and scattered published sources, but most of the essential information is in Bronson and Child.)

Child found 305 ballads that had entered oral tradition and been collected from folk sources.  “Folk” in this case meant relatively unlettered working-class people who sang these songs because their parents and elders had.  No one knew who wrote them or where they came from.  Further collection has disclosed countless more folk ballads, including many written since Child’s time.  Rarely is an author’s name known.

Beyond the 305 ballads, there are thousands of English folksongs, and every other culture on earth has countless songs.  Singing is the most universal of arts, being highly developed, complex, self-conscious, and diverse in every single cultural group on earth, even those that almost totally lack visual art, instrumental music, or crafts.

To the anonymous folk songs may be added a large number of songs of known authorship that have entered folk tradition so completely that they are passed on orally and without general knowledge of whence they came.  I was surprised, on reaching adulthood, to learn that many songs I had “always known”—some of them from my father’s singing—traced back to well-known poets like Robert Burns and Thomas Moore.

Most European songs are made up of four-line stanzas, with four beats per line, and with the second and fourth lines rhyming.  Most often, the last words in these two lines are dragged out over two beats:

“Fair Margaret sat at her high chamber,

Combing out her long brown hair,

When who should she see but her own true love

Ride by with a lady fair.”  (From a version of the Ballad of Margaret and William, Childe 74.)

The general rhythm patterns go back to the Roman Empire; the first example of the pattern seen in the first two lines above is in a chant for Caesar (Waddell 1955:16).  The four-line stanza emerged by the 4th or 5th century A.D., and became popular for hymns.  The same pattern existed earlier in China—it is typical of the rhymes in the Book of Songs, ca 500 BC—and almost certainly is earlier in southeast Asia as well.  I find no evidence that it spread from east to west, and it seems to come naturally from Roman prosody, but one wonders.  In China, Malaysia, and Europe, in lyric folksongs, the first two lines often provide a natural image used in the next two as symbol for a social one, often erotic:

“The higher up the cherry tree,

The riper grow the cherries;

The more you hug and kiss the girls

The sooner they get married.”  (From the folksong “Shady Grove”)


“Brown-pepper plant fruits

Spread far, grow large;

The gentleman over there,

He is great without peer.”  (Book of Songs, Song 116, my translation.)

Most readers will know the symbolism of “cherry” in folk English, but will not know that the Chinese pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like tiny male genitalia, inspiring a euphemistic image that was used for centuries.

Among European traditional songs, the ballads are most interesting, because they tell actual circumstantial stories.  (That is the definition of a “ballad”:  A song that tells a coherent story.  A “lyric,” by contrast, simply poses a scene or tells a brief, generalized tale—usually of love successful or love unsuccessful.)  Thousands of ballads have appeared over the last few centuries.  Many survive in chapbook and handbill collections.  Any event of interest could be memorialized.  Some survived, some did not.  Sheer chance must have something to do with this, but most of the songs are clearly more memorable than the average throwaway handbill.

Since the memory research of F. Bartlett, considerable effort has gone into the characteristics that make them so (Dundes 1965).  The stories are memorable in themselves, but especially so because they follow canonical plots of endless fascination to ordinary audiences.  Often they incorporate permanently fascinating themes such as love, sex, violence, ghosts, unexpected meetings (often with failure of recognition), deception, betrayal.

Particularly important is that most of them highlight, clearly and dramatically, major tension points in society.  Many of them turn on the age-old plot of the marriage forbidden by parents.  In the tragic ballads, this leads to suicide, fighting, or other violence.  In the happy ones, it is resolved by the lovers’ persistence or cleverness or luck.  This brings out and highlights the broader conflict between agnates and affines—to use the classic anthropological jargon for blood kin and marital kin.  In “The Douglas Tragedy” (Child 7; ballads in Child’s collection are always referred to by their numbers in that work), the hero abducts the girl, is pursued by her father and seven brothers, kills the brothers and wounds the father, and subsequently dies of his own wounds—leaving his lady to die of grief.   In one version, roses grow from their graves and twine in a “true lover’s knot,” but her father—the sole survivor—tears up the one growing from the hero’s grave, and throws it in St. Mary’s Loch, a huge, dark, brooding, cold lake in Scotland.

Other ballads turn on forbidden love, which raises the same tension:  follow parents’ will or heart’s desire?  In one of the most popular ballads, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” (Child 73), Lord Thomas’ mother orders him to marry “the brown girl” instead of his love Fair Eleanor; the lord, his love Eleanor, and his unloved bride all end up dead.  “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” (Child 74) has an even more sinister ending:  Fair Margaret kills herself so that her ghost will haunt and kill Sweet William, who has married another, though it is not stated that his parents made him take her.  I encountered this same belief in the avenging ghost of a wronged woman in China; it seems nearly worldwide.

This theme in turn is part of a wider concern with conflicting loyalties.  In feudal and folk societies, personal loyalty is life and death.  Thus, when a person is caught between two irreconcilable and unshakable loyalties, death is the expected result.  Loyalty to love versus loyalty to parents is the most immediate, comprehensible, and telling.  It involves sex and desire as well as simply loyalty.

Loyalty by itself, though, produces epic conflicts.  Other ballads deal with these.  Possibly the most dramatically powerful ballad in English, the very old Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58), is a simple story of a ship captain and his noble passengers sent out in winter on the north sea in a storm.  This meant certain death, given the frail sailing craft of the Scottish Middle Ages.  Tradition tells that the king wanted to get rid of Sir Patrick and the others, and had figured out this underhanded way to do it.  Sir Patrick could have rebelled, or fled, but he stayed loyal and went unflinchingly to his fate.

Interesting is that these ballads were effective enough at evoking timeless themes to carry on in oral tradition not only in their native Scotland but in the United States, where immigrants (presumably Scottish) brought them.  They, and all the more popular Child ballads, have been collected from Appalachian-region singers.  Some of these were far removed from Scottish medieval life.  Thus, singers converted “I have six galleons a-sailing on the sea” to “I have six gallons a-sailing on a ship” (in “The House Carpenter” [Child 243, under the name “The Daemon Lover”—comparing the Child versions with Appalachian versions as sung by Jean Ritchie among others).  But the basic plots were preserved faithfully except in very fragmentary versions.  Ballad singing is far from extinct even today in the Appalachians, though since the early 20th century it has benefited from books, records, and radio, and is no longer a strictly oral, person-to-person matter.

The long-lasting ballads songs have much more going for them than good stories, however.  To summarize a large literature, they are more tightly organized and structured than the average throwaway song.  Language is simple and direct.  They have few superfluous words.  When they do have duplication or repeating, it is in contexts that are particularly helpful to memory, but also such repeats usually occur at transition points in the song.  The first statement introduces a theme; the repetition introduces a sharp change, a new development in the plot.  Thus helping memory and marking transition combine usefully in one rhetorical device.

The ballads are tightly structured, with clear rhythm and rhyme, but enough variation to avoid monotony.  They build to a climax instead of wandering over the rhetorical map (as the nonmemorable ballads almost invariably do).  The only problem with basing too much on this is that we have the original, or nearly original, forms of some of the ballads, and they were wordy and poorly organized at first (“The House Carpenter” is a case in point); folk transmission has cleaned them up and streamlined them.  This throws us back on plot issues as basic to their initial popularity.  Even so, clear, tightly structured, spare songs do better and get into oral tradition more easily.

Many ballads treat of themes that were not polite subjects for ordinary speech:  sex, treachery, conflicts with parents.  This is a universal subject for song; everywhere in the world, people sing what they do not dare say (see e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989 for Egypt; Anderson 2006 for China).  They also sing out themes so passionate that speech is inadequate (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982; Seeger 2004).  Usually love and death are the themes of such songs, which are very often laments (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982).  Steven Feld’s classic study of Kaluli singing in Papua-New Guinea, which is the best study of traditional song known to me, turns on this theme; Kaluli song reaches its highest point in the agonizingly beautiful laments for the dead.  Feld’s recordings of these are heartbreaking even to Anglo-American listeners (Feld n.d.).

Not only the themes, but many of the symbols and images, are the sort that Carl Jung called “archetypes” (Jung 1964) and Mary Douglas called “natural symbols” (Douglas 1966).  One need not share Jung’s mystical approach or Douglas’ social-functional one to realize that birds, trees, flowers, rivers, sea, and the sun and moon are going to crop up in folk poetry, and that British Isles rural society will add horses, grain, and weaponry to the mix.  The songs make the most evocative and effective use of this, often making one symbol stand as metaphor for two or three meanings.  Some of them, possibly influenced at some remove by medieval religious poetry, use its four-layered symbolism (image, symbol, metaphor, allegory—in one scholastic formulation).

Like ballads, folksongs, and epics everywhere, stock phrases and repetitions make stories and songs more memorable.  The classic studies of this phenomenon were done by Milman Parry (1930) and Albert Lord (1960) on Homer and on Slavic folk epics, but the same has been found for ballads and songs everywhere.  Stock phrases, lines, and images carry over.  Countless Child ballads have their “milk-white steed,” the maiden “sewing her silken seam” (note the alliteration—a standard memory aid), and the rose growing from the grave of the lover.  These images and lines, however, have to be selectively deployed, or they overwhelm the song, and ruin rather than aid memory.  The monotonous repetition of the same religious clichés in hymns makes them almost impossible to remember; one never recalls which set is found in Hymn 103 as opposed to 104.

It has been noted many times that catchy tunes make good ballads.  Child commented, and almost everyone agrees with him, that “Lord Lovel” owes its existence to a very simple, hard-to-forget tune; the words are not anyone’s idea of excitement.  Some tunes have jumped around rather freely from song to song.  I found one Appalachian ballad tune used by a Kwakwala-speaking Native American in British Columbia for a Kwakwala hymn!  Presumably he had learned the tune from a missionary, likely one from Appalachia.  (Thanks to his granddaughter, Mabel James, for making the tune and story available.)   A tune picked up by a missionary in India became (with some changes) the old religious song “There Is a Happy Land Far, Far Away,” and that tune was then “liberated” to serve for the riotously obscene drinking song “Poor Bugger Jagger.”  Martin Luther is said to have set his hymns to current dance tunes “so that the devil would not have all the good tunes.”  Certainly, hymns, ballads, and lyric songs have been swapping tunes since, and some popular tunes become vehicles for several different unrelated songs in folk usage.

Stories can go on and on as well.  Many children still sing “The Fox” (“The fox went out on a starry night, And he prayed for the moon for to give him light…”).  This children’s song is attested in two 15th-century versions (Luria and Hoffman 1974:125-127).  These are already divergent enough, and sophisticated enough, to prove a fairly long history even then.  Some of the classic tragic ballads, including “Margaret and William,” have versions all over Europe.  Indeed, some of the stock phrases and poetic devices go back to Proto-Indo-European.  Calvert Watkins finds many formulas, taglines, and stock themes distributed over Indo-European languages at very early dates, and hypothesizes that most, if not all, of them go back to Proto-Indo-European (Watkins 1995).  This may not always be the case, since some are found in non-IE languages too, but at any rate they diffused very widely and very early.

On the other hand, Child’s belief that all ballads had to be old, and that none was being written now, was wildly wrong.  Collectors soon found that ballad-making was as common as groundhogs in the Appalachians, and was common also in isolated, traditional parts of Europe.  Even the radio did not end it; dozens of new ballads were written for the new medium.  Only TV, which privileges visual impact over long narrative, ended the ballad worldwide.

Folktales have a similar fate: some stories are good enough to spread worldwide, some stay local, some die at birth.  Variants of the Orpheus and Swan Maiden stories, far too similar to be independent of each other, have been recorded all over the Northern Hemisphere.  Flood myth stories are worldwide, but in this case the stories are different enough that no one can tell whether they come from one source or were independently devised.  In any case, retelling prunes excess words, but the constraints of folktales are much looser than those of classic ballads and lyrics; rhyme is not needed, for instance.  Folktales thus turn on good, adaptable plots, and on dramatic, evocative, easily-understood symbolism.

Beyond these simple literary criteria, there is the question of what gets accepted where.  The Child ballads died out in North America everywhere except Appalachia.  (A few lasted into the early 20th century in New England and neighboring Canada.)  Folktales are not told often any more, except for very brief or very unprintable ones.  Mass media have usurped the role of ballads and folktales in entertainment.

The rural world of these forms—a world of lords and ladies, horses and swords, barren moors, peasants tilling tiny miserable plots—is simply too far from modern experience.  Rap and rock’n’roll replace the old songs.  Even the aforementioned literary songs of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore have died out of ordinary life (except in Scotland and Ireland respectively!).

So the songs and tales spread far and last long, and the best of them can get very far from their social and cultural origins (“Sir Patrick Spens” in Tennessee, for instance), but they cannot escape change forever.  Sooner or later, the world is so different that they cannot survive.

Yet a very few literary pieces that started in oral transmission go on forever.  Homer, the first known bit of European literature, is more popular than ever.  So is the Spanish poem of the Cid.  Beowulf keeps getting retranslated and retold.  To be sure, they have been book-learning for centuries, having long died out in oral transmission, but the point here is that they are so dramatic, so deathless in theme, and so compellingly told that they simply never die.  The Orpheus story—having shown up as ballad, myth, folktale, and Native American religious legend—continues to inspire.  Rainer Maria Rilke’s incomparable telling of it in the poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” is strikingly close to the Nez Perce traditional version from the mountains of Oregon (Ramsey 1981).  Its tale of love, loss, and yearning is so powerful and so universally human that the sophisticated imagist poet and the remote horse nomads of the Wallowa Mountains not only loved it, they developed it thematically and emotionally in the same ways.

In short, some things spread more easily than others.  Those that spread speak to universal human social and psychological tension points, and use universally appealing symbols to talk about those.  They tell their stories in spare, direct, clear, but beautifully structured language.  They hold up a bright mirror to our deepest concerns.

Many good stories do not spread far; they are narrowly tied to one lifestyle or culture, or they are not tense and dramatic enough.  Many poor, sorry stories and songs spread, for various reasons.  In all cases, some historical analysis will find both general and contingent reasons why fate has been so.  (For one contingent reason, it certainly helps to have one’s tales written down early; Homer would have been forgotten if the Greeks hadn’t done that.   The tales picked up by the brothers Grimm have lasted longer than other German stories, in their rather bowdlerized and cleaned-up Grimm forms.)

One could go on to discuss the appeal of literary productions—the plays, novels, and poems that never were in oral transmission but have spread anyway.  Shakespeare, Tolstoi, and Goethe are part of every educated person’s knowledge, worldwide, and the great Chinese philosophers and poets are rapidly becoming so.  Cultural gaps have not proved barriers to their spread.  Some cultures have been almost overwhelmed by borrowings, and, of course, countless cultures have succumbed to others and have disappeared, as Gaulish civilization melted away under Roman and German impacts.  (A few Celtic influences survived in France, but mostly through the Bretons, not because the Gauls kept the flame.)

In short, people borrow some literary productions all over the world, because they speak to common human concerns in a compelling way.  They state the concerns clearly, use evocative symbols, and come out with clear, sharp ideas on the matter.

Productions are appealing in proportion to how well they fit with—or can be fitted to—local society and culture.  Epics and ballads were products of feudal society.  Symphonies and operas were notoriously associated with the concert-going bourgeoisie, who wished to be impressed by vast assemblages of musicians and by spectacular effects.  Chinese solo stringed-instrumental music has been associated for almost three millennia with the scholar, alone or with close company, playing for meditation.  Rock music spreads with the rise and dominance of the machine, because it involves fancy electronics and the associated machine noises.

In general, feudal cultures and early agrarian civilizations valued individual skill highly, because it was rare and tended to be economically limited.  The rulers thus loved to show off the amount of skilled workpersons they could control, by having the finest quality of ornaments, music, and food around them.  The bourgeois and socialist cultures that followed depended on mechanical mass production, and thus their status consumption has always been sheer mass.  Clothes were works of art in the Renaissance; they now are made by children in Third World sweatshops. to be sold worldwide, and are worn a very few times before being thrown away.  (Anyone who thinks I am unfairly comparing early elites with modern masses is invited to visit the Benaki Museum in Athens, examine the exquisite clothing of even quite poor people in the old-time Balkans, and compare that with what rich Americans wear today.  Or one can listen to old folk recordings and compare them with modern pop music.)

Here and elsewhere, it should be noted that almost no songs, tales, or other fairly complex knowledges, are universally distributed in a culture.  Almost all Americans share knowledge of two or three songs (“Happy Birthday…”), but few share many more than that.  The view of culture as knowledge universally shared in a culture is quite inadequate.  Most cultural knowledge is distributed, not universally known.  Assessment of cultural consensus (Romney et al. 1986) is very valuable, but precisely because consensus is the unusual case.


Knowledge diffuses rapidly.  Not only useful knowledge, but folktales and even children’s songs (Dundes 1965; Opie and Opie 1961), can diffuse around the world in a matter of weeks.  This was true even before mass media appeared.  Lewis and Clark ran into French folktales among Native Americans previously uncontacted by whites.  Folktales, like diseases, ran well ahead of settlers.

Significantly, the very first sustained participant-observation fieldwork ever done, Frank Cushing’s research in Zuni Pueblo, established the fact that folktales change to suit local needs.  Cushing found that the Zuni had drastically reconfigured Spanish folktales to reflect Zuni rather than Spanish society and morals (Cushing 1931).


High aesthetic levels emerge in most societies that have leisure and enough material wealth to give them a settled life with some comforts.  Aboriginal northeastern North America, the nomadic societies of eastern and southern Africa, and many hunting-gathering societies in really harsh environments produce relatively few large and complex works of visual art; they simply don’t have the spare material and time.  But societies with onliy a little more wealth in northwestern America, west and central Africa, and northern Australia have produced a great deal of the world’s finest art. Some areas are anomalously thin.  Aboriginal southeastern North America left us very few items of art, but this may be because most of the art was done in wood and other perishable materials.  The late Roman Empire had little beyond dully repetitive statuary and columns.  The modern United States reveals its puritanical tradition through low level of spending on arts.  There is, today, an incredible contrast between the stale and emotionally thin pop and elite mainstream art and the genuinely great and superb art of contemporary Native peoples, Chicano artists of the American Southwest, and other minorities kept out of the artistic mainstream.







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January 11th, 2015


  1. N. Anderson, 2014



Anthropology has developed some excellent methods over time, and so have other social sciences.  Not using these is comparable to an astronomer using a spyglass instead of computer-integrated information from modern telescopes, or an anatomist using a paleolithic handaxe instead of a scalpel and microscope.  There is simply no excuse for doing poor work, especially on a genuinely valuable project, because of failure to learn a few simple methods.


  1. General Background


Technically, a methodology is a suite of methods entailed by a particular theory.  One uses these methods because they are the proper or best way to test hypotheses generated by the theory.

A theory, in turn, is a general assumption (or set of interconnected assumptions) about how things work.  (The best account of such matters is Kitcher 1993).  The theory may be just guesses, like string theory, or may be very obvious statements that need formalization and extension, like the theory of gravity. Newton did not discover that things fall down instead of up; his genius was to explain why they did, as well as could be done at the time, and to state it mathematically.

A theory should lead to hypotheses (predictions or similar bets) that can be tested; otherwise it’s too vague to count.  Many theories get along without making clear testatble statements, though, in spite of positivism.  Still, if the theory doesn’t make you formulate some sort of testable hypotheses, it’s a waste of time.  Marxism and capitalist economics are both famously untestable bodies of theory, but do lead to testable statements.  The failures of the USSR and Mao’s China show that, whatever Marxism-in-general has to offer, some orthodox Marxisms don’t work.  The Great Depression and the world recession of 2008 show that capitalism doesn’t always work, either.  Many do not count Marxism as a body of theory, however.

Some theories are disproved and are essentially dead.  The most famous of these is Galen’s theory of humoral medicine, which guided medical science throughout the Old World for centuries.  Usually, however, a theory does not totally die; it generates a few useful formulations that go on and on.  And even a bad theory can generate useful hypotheses and conclusions.  Galen’s ideas about moderation in diet and exercise are still with us, since he was perfectly right about them, though for the wrong theoretical reasons.

A theory differs from several theory-like formulations, all of which can be useful but are not really theories.  Orienting statements are one type.  An orienting statement gives you a general way of looking at things, but is too general and abstract to test or to suggest testable statements.  Recent “theories” about globalization, for instance, direct us to look at global-scale phenomena, but usually do not make testable claims about those.  Often an orienting statement is a moral claim, and therefore untestable because it is about what we should do, rather than what we do.

Another shaky type of “theory” is the banal, trivial sort of statement for which certain branches of sociology are infamous (Mills 1959).  Saying that humans are social, that society requires organization, and that organization requires leadership is too bland to be worthy of the name “theory.”  Theory begins when we make claims about how organizations form, how leaders come on board, and what form leadership structures take under given social circumstances.

Another, and much worthier, alternative to true theory is interpretation (Geertz 1973).  Interpretation is, by definition, unprovable.  It can range from my idiosyncratic take on something to a generally accepted understanding, but it is not provable in the scientific sense.  We find it most frequently in literary studies.  Science cannot prove that one or another understanding of the Bible or Hamlet is the “right” one, or that Beethoven’s Ninth is noble and imposing, or that Dutch still-life paintings were comments on the transience of life.  We do not have the creators of these works around to ask.  Yet, it is well worth while to talk of such matters and speculate about them, and anthropology would be immeasurably poorer without such discourse.

One goal of theory and interpretation is to “tell the story behind the story”—i.e., to figure out what is actually causing the events we see.  In social science, theories often divide into broad categories according to what is assumed to be the main cause of action.  Economists tend to assume people want money or material goods.  Sociologists often assume social solidarity or social position are especially important.  Political theorists, including “critical” thinkers like Foucault, often assume power is the most basic thing (though they often have a hard time defining it).  There are other possibilities.  The wise social scientist will keep an open mind, and see how all factors play in a given situation.

Finally, we have philosophy, classically defined by Plato as the study of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”  Neither science nor interpretation will ever tell us what those are, but the human race cannot stop speculating and arguing about them.  We are better and nobler for doing so, in spite of the ultimate hopelessness of the task.

Hopefully, all this will save readers from the all-too-common tendency in anthropology to write a fun story about one’s field work, and then—after the fact—hang some sort of “theory” on it because an editor demanded same.  A decent anthropologist goes to the field with a body of theories, or interpretive ideas, or philosophic concepts, and expects to test them, or at least learn something important about them.


Methodology comes in as a way of testing the hypotheses and examining the theory.  It can also greatly sharpen, expand, and improve the quality of interpretation and philosophy.

Usually, we in anthropology do not follow the rigorous positivist rule that a given theory must call forth a specific methodology and a given method-set must be theory-driven.  (Some anthropologists, especially in archaeology, do follow the positivist rules on this.)  We use the term “methodology” to refer to methods in general.  Moreover, all the methods I describe below can be used with almost any theory, though a particular mix of them may be appropriate to only one body of theory.  However, it is well to remember the connection with theory.  Most current cultural anthropology is weakly theorized; at worst, it is mere travel writing.  So-called “theory” is often no more than a positive attitude toward the people studied and a negative attitude toward outsiders that have an effect on their lives.  This is bias, not theory.

Physical anthropology uses Darwinian theory, archaeology often uses ecological or processual or post-processual theories, but cultural anthropology currently uses actual theory rather sporadically.  Theories of the past (Boasian, Durkheimian, Marxian, etc.) are now used only in a rather loose or general way.  Some ecological, linguistic, and economic theories are still used, but are often dated by now.  The theories of mid-20th-century writers like Michel Foucault remain valuable, but often used vaguely or loosely.  This has produced a situation in which much of anthropology reads like poor-quality journalism—a situation in serious need of correction.


It is extremely valuable to go into the field with a full tool kit of theories and methods.  No theory is adequate by itself.  Even the most comprehensive social-science theories need major supplementation.  The more you reject theories, the more limited and hard to use your results will be.  Both the “postmodern” anthropology that rejected science or even systematic data collecting and the hyper-“scientific” work of the early optimal-foraging-theory days have turned out to be too limited to use for any purpose except stimulating others to go beyond them.  A simple theory is always a good starting point, but anthropology by 100 years ago had reached a stage where truly simplistic theories were known to be inadequate (see e.g. Lowie 1937).

Many anthropologists over the years have found great consolation in T. C. Chamberlin’s classic essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” originally published in Science in 1890 (republished 1965) and now available online on many websites—just search the title.  Chamberlin, a geologist, learned to go into the field with multiple theories and hypotheses available for every observed event.  His explanation of how and why to do this has never been surpassed.  I have actually found this method the most valuable I have ever used.  It means you have to be familiar with the widest possible range of high-level and mid-range theories, from functionalism and structuralism to Foucaultian ideas and Darwinian biology.

Thus, you might think of using some or all of the methods below, so as to get at least some real control on data.


Anthropology is based on a methodology consisting of three fundamental approaches:

–Extended field work, usually lasting at least a year, with a particular community.  The preferred method is “participant observation,” in which one lives as much as possible in the way the local people do.  Of course, really living as the locals do is possible only if one is a local; many anthropologists study their homelands, but most go to some less familiar group, which involves adjustment and makes participant observation a rather qualified matter.

–A holistic approach, which involves taking into account ecological, economic, technological, social, psychological, and political factors.

–Cross-cultural comparison, which involves comparing as many different cultures as possible, to establish or disprove generalizations about people.

This methodology was devised by Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, in the 1850s and 1860s.  I think of it as the three stones that hold up the cooking pot— a metaphor used for social categories (rather than anthropological methods!) by indigenous peoples from the Toba Batak of Sumatera to the Maya of Quintana Roo.


The leading methods book for anthropology is Russell Bernard’s classic Research Methods in Anthropology (now in its 4th edition, 2006).  This is a genuinely great work, a real Bible, and must be kept at hand in field work and analysis.

The only other work I consider indispensable for all ethnographers is Charles Frake’s Language and Cultural Description (1980), which contains several essays on methods that are vitally important.  These essays include especially the classic descriptions of frame elicitation (see below)

There are specialized journals devoted to field work and methods.


  1. The Question of Interpretation and Reality


The key thing anthropologists can do is find out about the local culture.  This does not mean “getting inside the heads” of the locals or “finding out what they think”; it means finding out about what they share.  As an outsider, you will not have the level of access to that shared knowledge and behavior that an insider has, but by using specialized anthropological techniques you can get very close.  You can learn just as well as any immigrant and almost as well as any child.  Frake gives excellent discussions of what the ethnographer can and cannot do.  You can’t read the local minds, but neither can the locals; they have to infer rules, structures, and understandings, just as you do.

The goal of the field worker should be what Frake (1980) calls “appropriate anticipation”—be able to predict, more or less as well as the locals do, what will happen in a given situation.  The goals of the ethnographer, again following Frake, should include telling the reader enough that the reader could act appropriately if s/he were there.  Think of a language textbook:  it should, at the very least, tell you what to say in given situations.  Similarly, an ethnography of local religion should at least tell you how to act and what to expect if you go there and are asked to a ceremony.  (Of course, a work on general theory, or on comparative mythology, or on demographic history, will probably not have such instructions.  We are discussing ethnography, specifically, in this case.)

On the one hand, this means you can learn the culture, and claims that the locals have some mystic telepathic sharing denied to you are just silly.  On the other hand, it means you should be exceedingly modest about “interpretation”—even if you are a local!  Geertzian “interpretive anthropology” (Geertz 1973) and its ancestors (“national character” studies, etc.) have a dubious record.  Unless you are a cultural insider, you will not normally share individual or collective experiences of war, genocide, bias, or for that matter the joys of good harvests or religious ceremonies.  It is wise to simply quote the locals, extensively, on such matters.  Let them do the sophisticated interpreting.

In short, you should do everything possible to find out shared knowledge and shared behavior, but you should be appropriately modest about your ability to understand personal experiences of particularly intense, evocative states and situations.

There was a major debate within anthropology in the 1960s over whether we can get at “what people think.”  Marvin Harris (1968) took an extreme view on the “no” side.  He maintained that we can record only behavior, and cannot trust what people say, let alone our interpretations.  People lie, misrepresent, misunderstand their own motives, etc.  At the other end of the scale, interpretivists like Geertz and cultural psychologists like Rick Shweder (1991), without making a huge point of it (as Harris did), took relatively strong “yes” positions.  Geertz and Shweder implied that understanding what is in people’s heads is relatively unproblematic, at least if one uses modern methods of finding out.   Geertz is modest about his interpretations, leaving the possibility of other interpretations quite open.  Shweder, and  others, have been more assertive.

The field basically solved the problem by voting with their feet for the latter position.  I do not know of anyone maintaining Harris’ position today.  All anthropologists now infer, to varying degrees, “what people think.”  All anthropologists admit that people do sometimes say what they think, and that by careful cross-verification and other techniques (see below) one can get at, or at least approximate, truth.  Even archaeologists are increasingly confident in their ability to infer at least some simple, straightforward ideas from material remains and ethnographic parallels, though this is a tricky game.

There is, however, a huge range.  Some extremely careful anthropologists use a whole armamentarium of techniques to establish meticulously a few rather simple understandings; this would include many cognitivists, who work hard to find the meanings of “simple” plant and animal names, food lore, kinterms, landscape terms, and other straightforward terms that can be grounded in visible reality.  (I am in this category.)  Others make really quite wild assumptions about their ability to understand in depth the most arcane and abstruse religious and philosophical ideas.  This is obviously a dangerous game, since even the locals may not share abstruse ideas very widely.

One necessary part of this is getting a thorough sense of what words mean.  You don’t have to be totally fluent in the local language, though it helps.  Systematic questioning, coupled with lots of listening and observation of how words are used in actual conversations, is necessary.  (See Frake, again.)  Using the words yourself is obviously desirable—you’re sure to misuse them in interesting ways, thus producing innnocent amusement for your subjects as well as a learning experience for yourself.  (Every ethnographer has a favorite story.  Mine is:  when first in Hong Kong I had to buy water from a local standpipe.  People would give me the standard greeting, “Where are you going?”  I would answer “I’m going to buy water.”  After a couple of shocked looks, I realized something was wrong, and found out that the phrase “buy water” is used only when you are getting water to wash the corpse of a family member!  Just one of those idioms….)


Finally, it is abundantly clear that anthropologists have been far too dismissive of local interpretations, theories, and wisdom generally.  The interpretive or functionalist anthropologist, the optimal-foraging or economic theorist, often assumes his or her interpretations and theories are better, truer, more privileged, and more insightful.  Comment should be unnecessary; you come for ONE year and you know more about these people than they know about themselves from thousands of years of interaction?  Right.  But traditional and local people are not used to verbalizing their philosophies and social theories.  You have to be sensitive and keep asking.  Also, as an outsider (if you are one), you CAN see things that the locals don’t notice because they are so used to them.  Proper humility is needed, but is not self-abnegation!

There is the notorious risk, though, that if you do that you will get into a dialogue with a local thinker and wind up with something marvelous and original but outside normal local thinking.  The type case is Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli (1965), a wonderful and classic book by a larger-than-life French adventurer-ethnographer and the brilliant (if illiterate) Dogon sage Ogotemmeli, in Mali, Africa.  This book is a philosophical classic that you should read, but it is the philosophical speculation of Ogotemmeli as prompted and encouraged by Griaule, not the traditional Dogon view.  Of course, in the world I usually work in (China), traditional philosophy is more well known, and the fact that individuals have different philosophies is also well known, but very few non-Chinese ethnographers have used Chinese social theories to explain anything.  Fortunately, Chinese ethnographers do, so we have that benefit.

Now that there are many Native American and other ethnographers, we have many books explaining traditional philosophy from within, such as Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk (2004) and Traditions of Tsawalk (2011; Richard is Nuu-chah-nulth, from Vancouver Island, Canada, and like several other Nuu-chah-nulth he has an anthropology Ph.D.).


  1. Techniques


Field work by cultural anthropologists usually involves participant observation (DeWalt and DeWalt 2001; Spradley 1980), lasting at least six months and usually a year or more.  Serious comprehensive ethnographic research requires this.  However, for many reasons, we also do quick visits, long-distance studies (using other people’s findings), straight interviews, visual studies, library and documentary research, and cross-cultural comparative studies, among other things.  Limited projects (e.g. to find out about one narrow subject—say, fish names or vegetable marketing) can be completed in a few weeks, especially if one is familiar with the area and people.

One valuable technique is rapid rural assessment (RRA), which is a specialized interview-and-observation technique that allows very rapid discovery of a lot of data (Gladwin 1989 covers it; there are more up-to-date, complete sources).  Related is participatory rural assessment, which involves organizing local people to do their own fact-finding and synthesis.  In participatory rural assessment, local people set their own goals, map their communities, figure out what they need by way of development or problem-solving, figure out what resources they have, and so on; the anthropologist guides the approach and sets the tasks.


Getting started:  Every community has somebody who knows everybody.  Frequently, this individual is a minor government functionary in a “helping” role (as opposed to a person keeping the place in line).  The local postmaster filled the role in American small towns.   So did the waitresses at the local coffee shop.  Sometimes the village storekeeper is a contact person, but sometimes he is seen as the village skinflint.  Check around!

Then, wander around the community being very nice to everyone, greeting them, learning their names, introducing and explaining yourself.  Become a local fixture to the point where you are semi-invisible—just the local foreigner.

A census is a good way to start serious work and get to know everyone.  Ask very nonthreatening questions on an initial census!  See below on finding out about local question etiquette.

There is a whole literature on field notes (Canfield 2011 provides perspectives from all field sciences, not just anthropology).  Suffice it to say that recording everything is impossible, but getting as near as you can is a good idea at first, till you figure out what is really important.


Interviewing is the basic technique in ethnography.  This can mean anything from applying a set questionnaire (closed-ended interviewing) to free-ranging questions and discussion (open-ended interviewing).  I get best results with a semi-structured questionnaire, one that you memorize thoroughly before the interview and then apply in a rather improvisational manner—not letting the interviewee escape without getting all the questions answered, but letting some free play happen, so the interviewee can get clear about meanings, discuss points, clear up ambiguities, etc.  See any good book on social interviewing, as well as Bernard.

Keep working on the language—we could all use better fluency.  I am a terrible linguist, but I try.

The whole issue of how to interview and ask questions is the first thing to address when you get to the field.  Cultures differ dramatically as to what types of question are acceptable.  Many Americans are astonishingly open about sex but hate to disclose their income.  Chinese (at least the ones I worked with) are the reverse.  Americans also hate to admit they are racist.  A colleague of mine was amazed at how little racism his students found in our city of residence.  I asked him if it had occurred to him that having bright young university students doing the interviewing might possibly bias the responses.  “Why, no….”  Another colleague was similarly surprised by how carefully people were shopping in the supermarket—I was less surprised, since he and his co-worker had followed shoppers around with a videocamera.  Having (again) bright young university students watch every move would make anyone more careful!  Such examples are so obvious as to be funny, but the danger is in far more subtle matters, especially when one is translating a perfectly innocent question in English into what may be a subtly leading question in Spanish or Chinese.

See also The Long Interview (McCracken 1988) and James Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (1979)Others recommend (but I have not seen) a book by Charles Briggs called Learning How to Ask (1986), one by Meyer and Booker (1991) on interpreting interview data, and a book on “active interviewing” by Holstein and Gubrium (1995).  It is also very worthwhile to spend a while with reporters finding out about journalistic methods of interviewing and getting data.

One absolutely critical interviewing technique that nobody covers well is depth interviewing.  This is a 2- to 4-hour interview in which the ethnographer probes deeper and deeper into the interviewee’s emotions, feelings, and personal stories.  A good interviewer tries to keep questions down to a minimum, and usually just makes encouraging noises (“and then…?”  “mm-hm?”).  The interviewer must appear relaxed but thoroughly engaged—completely present, interested, and supportive.  A good interviewer will appear not to “pry” or “apply pressure” but will be sympathetic and concerned and genuinely interested.  This involves being comfortable with silences—Native American informants in particular often remain silent for a minute or even several minutes during such conversations.  On the other hand, very gentle questioning of the type “How did you feel about that?” and “are you comfortable talking with me about that?” is necessary.  In such cases, DO take “no” for an answer; be comfortable with letting the interviewee set limits.

Almost anyone loves to talk about almost any subject, if they are given this level of genuine concern.  (Be prepared for tears and other emotional releases.)  Such interviewing is an art form, though it is basically developed from what close and empathetic friends and family members do for each other all the time.  It is also so intensely personal that unless you are genuinely concerned and caring about the interviewee, YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT IT.

Depth interviewing is necessary in many, many ethnographic cases, especially in interviewing about tragedy and major stress.  It is astonishingly rarely taught or used.  Psychotherapists are supposed to learn it but often do not.  The literature that alleges lack of mother love and lack of regret for dead infants in certain societies is evidently based on lack of familiarity with this interviewing technique.  I know this not only from the literature but more directly from my own field work in at least one society where such lack was widely alleged by superficial ethnographers, but instantly disappeared under depth interviewing, when grief could come out openly.


Finally, never underestimate the value of “deep hanging out”—an excellent phrase used by Clifford Geertz to describe everyday ethnography.  Just hanging around keeping your eyes and ears open remains the best of all field techniques.  I have found I talk less and look more every time I do field work.


Etics and emics:  Kenneth Pike liberated the linguistic endings from “phonetic” and “phonemic.”  He meant something really creative:  Etics involve studying a system by applying a universal metric or analytic system—in the case of phonetics, the international methods of studying sounds, via the sonagram and other mechanical/impersonal techniques.  Emics involves studying a system by finding its internal structure and the units that make that up—in the case of phonemics, the sounds recognized by speakers of the language as making meaningful contrasts.

Etics does not mean “outsider’s view” and emics does not mean “insider’s view,” contra the sloppy usage in many anthro books (including Conrad Kottak’s widely-used textbooks).  Using the terms this way loses all their value.  Both emics and etics can be done by either outsiders or insiders, but only when trained in structural analysis. In language, for example, any trained insider can use a sonagram as well as any outsider; conversely, most people cannot provide a phonemic analysis of their own language—only trained linguists do that.

A good ethnographer, whether outsider or insider, will study both etics and emics, just as any decent linguist will record both the phonetics and the phonemics of a language.  Consider food:  a good ethnographer will do a nutritional analysis and some kind of optimal foraging model or Bayesian-optimizing model (all these are etic), but will also find out what the locals call their foods, how they classify them, how they structure them in terms of nutrition and social use, and other emic matters.  Neither of these has anything to do with outsider vs insider per se.  (The typical outsider’s view of local foodways is “yuck!”  The typical insider’s view is “yum!”  This does not get us far analytically.)


Stories and texts:   These were the bread-and-butter of old-time ethnographers, and often is to this day.  Nothing beats collecting stories—personal stories, stories about the community, about the origin of the world, about the economy, anything.  People love telling stories.  In most cultures, stories are teaching devices; people teach their children and each other through this medium.  Any and all texts and accounts are valuable.  Record them and transcribe them.  A particularly good authority on working with stories is Julie Cruikshank (1998, 2005).

A specialized, extremely important story to collect is the life story. Since the brilliant and innovative work of Paul Radin in the early 20th century, collecting detailed life stories from interviewees is a key part of many anthropologists’ work.  Most, however, do not do it; it tends to be rather a specialized thing to do.  I have collected brief life stories in Hong Kong and a long, detailed one in Mexico (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005).

There is now, in psychology rather than anthropology, a valuable and widely-used interview prompt for this work:  The McAdams Life Story Interview (1995; Google it; it is available to download).

One standard thing to do with life stories is textual analysis.  This often begins with, but does not end with, analysis of words.  Psychologists have developed a terrific software for scanning a document for important words (Pennebaker et al. 2007).  From words, one often progresses to themes, and here McAdams has developed some key themes to look for in the life stories he collects (McAdams et al. 1996, 2001).


Decision-making is also a very important, basic approach, best introduced in Christina Gladwin’s little booklet Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling (1989, Sage) is basic.  A classic study, with methodological reflections (especially in the 2nd edn., 1994) is James Young and Linda Garro: Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  Shankar Aswani has done some good work on decision-making in fisheries, and thoughtfully related that to more purely economic and biological methods (e.g. Aswani and Weiant 2004).  Basically, the idea is to ask people in detail about the steps that they went through to make a particular decision—what crop to plant (Gladwin), what to do when someone in the family is sick (Young and Garro), what to do about fishing and fish conservation (Aswani), and so on.  This technique assumes that decisions can be broken down into ordered sequences of yes/no answers:  Can I get the seed for this crop?  Can I get fertilizer for it? Can I get enough water for it?  And so on.  People usually do decide that way, at least in clear-cut matters like crop choice, and even if they don’t you can break down decisions into yes/no or more-versus-less choices.  But sometimes people decide on impulse, or subconsciously integrate several factors at once.  Careful questioning allows you to deal with such cases, and continue to use decision tree analysis.  It is a particularly powerful technique, especially for decisions that are important but that involve well-known, rather routine choices, like agricultural decisions.  A farmer or gardener normally knows exactly what crops she can plant and how to grow them, and how to get information if she does not know enough about something.  Decisions about what to do in an unforeseen new emergency are less clear-cut and consequently harder to analyze, but in principle can be covered the same way.

Decision-making studies have led to looking at cultural models, but so far little methodology has been developed for this; for a major exception that gets us fairly far in doing comparable analyses of this difficult realm, see Victor de Munck (2011) on romantic love.


Another absolutely essential technique is the focus group, in which the interviewer recruits 4-6 people or so and gets them to talk about the specific subject under investigation.  This has turned out to be a major winner as a research method for political researchers and marketers as well as for anthropologists.  See David Morgan (1996).


Another universally used technique is the Likert scale, that little scale where you get to rank things from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” or “most liked” to “most disliked,” as on student evaluations, political surveys, etc.   It works well only if you use 5 or 7 cells.  5 is generally better.


A large range of personality tests and other psychological tests is available.  In general, I advise against using these, because they rarely work in local conditions—the local worldview and language are probably too different from the testmakers’.  But they may be useful where this does not apply and where you can get a psychologist to help administer them.


Other formal techniques include frame elicitation.  This is best explained by Frake (see above), but basically it consists of looking around and asking everyone “what’s that?”  When you have names, you sit down with a consultant and ask “what kinds of X are there?” till there are no more divisions.  Then you can work up:  “Is X a kind of…?”  Beware, though; this can force a spurious level of systematization on your consultants.  Better to do all this informally in the field, one question at a time, and to use focus groups to get people talking about how they conceptualize things.  Carefully used—with much asking, pointing, and walking around, rather than mechanical frame interviewing in a house—this is the most valuable of all the analytic or specialized techniques.

Related are card-sorts and pile-sorts, in which names of things are written on cards and sorted into piles according to whatever criteria you want to study.

On all these formal methods, and on basic statistics, see, in addition to Bernard’s book, the superb article by W. Penn Handwerker in A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology (2011).  Handwerker manages to get into a few pages more solid advice and reference material on methodology than many authors get into whole books.  On statistics, however, be sure to read Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics (1954).  “Figures don’t lie but liars figure,” as the proverb says, and Huff warns you of a lot of ways they do it.


Walking around in the fields and woods, asking about everything, remains the best of all techniques for finding out about names, categories, and ethnobiological knowledge.  A formalization is a “nature trail,” in which the investigator lays out a short set course with known plants along it.  Then the investigator can walk this trail with different subjects, seeing how many plants they can name.  This is particularly useful with children—one can see how much they know at what age.  (Brian Stross, Gene Hunn, Rebecca Zarger, and J. R. Stepp, studying children in the south Mexican highlands, have worked particularly with this technique.)

Child-following is used to advantage in such situations, and in nutrition research.  You just follow a child around, seeing what she does.  It’s the only way to find out what children actually eat, as memorably shown by the late Christine Wilson in her field work.

For that matter, following adults is necessary too, but has to be done with more circumspection.


There are also censusing, surveying, survey design, optimal foraging study and modeling, GIS and GPS, statistics, economic data management, and other formal techniques; Bernard covers all of them adequately, though if seriously interested in optimal foraging or in economics you will need supplementary reading on these (they have a large, specialized literature).

Surveys often involve poorly designed questions that lead to misleading results.  Most people agree with both “Individuals are more to blame than social conditions for crime” and “Social conditions are more to blame than individuals for crime”—depending on which one you ask (Radwin 2009:B9).  In other words, people love to agree with any old statement.  It’s all in the way you phrase it.  Question order, bias words, and so forth all influence the result.  Some questions are so poorly worded that a large percentage of the respondents cannot figure out what is being asked.  This is particularly common when a questionnaire is translated from one language to another, as very often happens in anthropological research, so watch out; pre-test questionnaires for comprehensibility.

Remember to avoid leading questions (now often called “push questions”):  questions that imply you want a certain answer.  Indeed, avoid everything that might be taken as implying you want to hear a particular kind of answer.  Find out what counts as leading questions in the culture you are studying.  Many questions that are perfectly innocent and non-leading in English turn out to be strongly leading when translated into Chinese.  I found out the hard way—but at least I learned it fast—that “how are you?” was interpreted as “you look sick, what’s wrong?”  Similar pitfalls occur in other languages.

Response bias can enter quite dramatically.  Surveys of food consumption in the United States correlate very well with sales figures at stores, but sales figures of liquor consumption can be up to five times what the surveys show!  People may understate consumption, but more important here is the fact that an extremely high percentage of liquor is drunk by relatively few people, and those few are rarely in any condition to answer a survey.

Finally, people lie, almost always to give the socially “correct” response.  Many more people say they voted in the last election than could actually have done so (Radwin 2009:B9).  And almost no racists exist in the United States—if you believe the survey results!

Anthropologists also do a great deal of visual anthropology: photography, recording, film and videotape work, and other methods of making a permanent and more-or-less-objective record of what we find.  There is also ethnomusicological recording to worry about.  There are specialized works on this.   My experience is that it is difficult to do quality visual work and quality interviewing or other talking-ethnography at the same time.  One can work as a team, or do the interviewing first and visuals later.  Some geniuses can do both at the same time, but I am far from this level.

I’m not an expert, and will not push this one, but a useful tip from Douglas Medin (presentation at Society for Anthropological Sciences, 2010) is that there are four general ways to do a picture:  directly on (the usual approach—“voyeur”), embodied (shows hands working, from the viewpoint of the worker—as if you and the camera are doing the work with your hands), over the shoulder (of your main subject—so you are standing behind her and seeing what she sees), and “fourth wall” or “breaking the wall,” in which case the people in the photo are all looking at you (as in a standard group shot).  Doug showed that Native American children’s book illustrations (drawings, not photos) have much more of the last three types of pictures than Anglo ones, a culturally very interesting observation.

This brings home the point that interpreting others’ photos and pictures is a major part of visual anthro.  Both interpreting cultural representations (pictures, etc.) and getting your subjects to take photos for you are standard techniques and very effective if well done.


Another under-taught topic is historical research–documentary, archival, and text work.  Historians learn as a kind of second nature how to evaluate a document—how much to trust it, how to cross-check, how to allow for biases, etc.  The best way to find out about this is to ask a historian.  They have their own books, but an hour with a seasoned historian will give you a good enough start.

At the very least, read the major anthropological and historical works on your area!  I am appalled at the illiteracy of some graduate students.  What were their professors thinking?  Egregious mistakes even get into the published literature.  This is inexcusable.  Much more common is the field worker who misses a great deal for lack of knowing the questions to ask, the deeper matters to look for, and the contexts to use in interpretation.


How to take and keep field notes is the subject of Roger Sanjek’s Fieldnotes and a lot of journal articles.  Some other useful lore is in Tony Robben’s Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader; Joseph Casagrande’s marvelous and far too neglected anthology, In the Company of Man; and Michael Agar’s classic The Professional Stranger.  See also LeCompte and Schensul, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (2nd edn. 2010).


Multi-sited ethnography:  this has been advocated by George Marcus and many others.  Obviously it’s appropriate if you’re studying mobile, transnational, or migrant populations.  It isn’t if you’re studying people who stay put, unless you want to do systematic or controlled comparisons (very valuable, but a different issue).  Use common sense and don’t feel compelled to do it just because it was a buzz word for a while.  If you have only a year, as most of us do, it’s better to stay put.  Finding out much about even a very small community in a year is already challenging enough.  The great transnational studies, like Michael Kearney’s (see Kearney 1996—a “must read” if you’re working with this), were 30-year or 40-year projects.


Teamwork:  The day of the lone field worker who found out “everything” about the Trobriands or the Nuer is most emphatically gone.  Do what you do best, and collaborate with other people who do what they do best.

Work with biologists, political scientists, photographers, anyone that has expertise you need.  Many ethnographers go in as part of a team.  I find it more useful to work with people on the ground.  Local scholars generally need and appreciate the opportunities.  (On the other hand, many see outside scholars as a threat to their monopoly and their status.  Be careful about this.)

One type of “teamwork” is working as a family.  Fortunate is the anthropologist who has a spouse who can work with him or her.  Alas, field work is not always the easiest posting, and some spouses do not adjust well.  Most valuable of all is working as a family with children.  Children disarm suspicion, attract friendly and solicitous attention, evoke stories, and allow study of child-training practices.  Also, when they are old enough, they are born ethnographers.  They are curious about everything and are amazingly quick with social cues and social learning. (They are wired for it.  The human animal evolved as a social creature, and social learning is a child’s main occupation.)  However, working with children is reasonable only if you are near a good hospital.  Children have died in remote field situations.


“Studying up”:  Laura Nader and others have advocated studying the rich and powerful.  Unfortunately, I could never get a million-dollar grant for subsistence.  More seriously, most anthropologists don’t have the tools and training to do this effectively.  If you want to study up, work with and learn from political scientists and sociologists!  They have the methods and tools!  When faced with the need to find out what the powerful were up to, I have worked with political scientists, and have also picked the brains of anthropologists who had done that type of work and had learned the techniques and methods.

There are lots of political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others studying elites, but only anthropologists study the people low on the political hierarchy.  We thus best use our talents and training in the latter cause.  We are generally the only people that can bring their words and concerns to a wide audience.  Now and then we get the chance to help them bring their own voices or causes to the wide arena—a blessed and wonderful chance if carefully done.  I thus strongly recommend studying ordinary people and especially neglected and oppressed ones.


  1. General Philosophical Concerns


Completeness and comparability are major concerns, and major problems with many field projects.  Be sure to get all the data possible on the subjects under study.  Be sure that interviews, forms, and data recording makes findings strictly comparable between subjects and situations.  The same information has to be collected in the same way.


One word of philosophical guidance about culture in general:  Only real people (or animals) do things.  This should be obvious, but anthropologists all too often fall into the social science trap of saying that Capitalism, or The State, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did such-and-such a thing.  No.  They didn’t.  People did.  Capitalism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist (the former is an analytical abstraction that bears only some resemblance to any current real-world referent).  The State exists, but if you think it acts or is real by itself, look at Somalia, DR Congo, or Afghanistan.  The State functions because the people in it have decided that preserving it and working for it will best accomplish their human goals.  It becomes a true emergent, like a kinship system or a myth, and thus has a genuine reality (unlike capitalism).  However—again like a kinship system—it exists only as long as a lot of people buy into it and don’t question it too strongly.  Always study emergents and recognize their reality, but remember they don’t really act by themselves.  The ability of people to believe in such things, and to believe they act on their own, is fascinating, and related to the belief in supernatural beings.


As Andrew “Pete” Vayda has been insisting for years (Vayda 2008), some background in the philosophy and history of science (specifically, epistemology) is absolutely essential.  This would include, at least, Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science (1993).  See also Ian Hacking (1999), Bruno Latour’s work (esp. 2004, 2005), Alison Wylie’s work (2002, 2004), and Pete Vayda’s and others’ relevant writings.  Some background in the history of anthropology is essential (see many books by Adam Kuper and by George Stocking).  Theory and history are not covered adequately in many anthro graduate programs, so read these on your own.

Perhaps the most valuable thing one learns from these works is how to avoid mindless use of current buzzwords.  Buzzwords usually start out as useful concepts, but lose it all when they become too widely used.  Go back to the original source and read the full, properly qualified story.  Those of us who have checked are always astonished at how wrong even the best secondary sources get the classic writers, to say nothing of slapdash textbooks.  Reading Durkheim, for example, is a real revelation if you knew him only from even the best histories of anthropology.


Ethics:  Here again, one can start with Bernard, but an excellent practical guide to working ethics has now appeared (Whiteford and Trotter 2004)  Many ethical questions have been treated in detail in Anthropology News over many decades.  The American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics is easily available online from the Association, and is basic.

Always be meticulous about touching bases in the field area.  Contact local scholars, and promise to help and work with them if possible.  Go through all the bureaucratic hoops uncomplainingly.  Find people you can work with, institutes you can collaborate with, and universities you can hang out at.  Be humble; First World investigators are threatening to many Third World bureaucrats and scholars.  Many—if not all—Third World and indigenous scholars have encountered arrogant, overbearing, and inconsiderate First Worlders.  These were not usually anthropologists, but you will pay the price even if it was a diplomat or an agricultural advisor that dissed the local scholars.  Bear it and be genuinely polite.  Save your hate for the diplomat or advisor, not the locals.

In your community, similarly, get the official cooperation of the local authorities—complete with signed permission to workShare your results, in so far as possible, when you do any writing up.

Questions that permanently concern anthropologists include:  Are we really somehow ripping off the “natives” by finding out things?  How does one collaborate?  Coauthor?  How does one “represent the other” without being a mental colonialist?  How to get honest responses and publish them?  How much can one publish the local dirt—corruption, conflict, sordid tales?  (My recommendation is simple:  don’t unless you have to.)   How to be tactful?  How much to get involved in local matters?  How to avoid factions?  How to avoid local entanglements? One would, for instance, think it unnecessary to warn people NOT EVER to get sexually involved with people one is doing field work with!  But I hear that some people do this—a good way to get killed.

Err on the side of caution.  Remember the first clause in the AAA’s Code is that your most immediate duty is to the people you are working with.  It is not acceptable to put them at serious risk.  It is not acceptable to exploit them for money, e.g. by selling photos or writing a bestseller without cutting them in on the profits.  It is not acceptable to use their words and information without giving full credit, including coauthorship if their input is really significant.  It is not acceptable to refrain from helping them with medicines, etc., if you have the knowledge or connections; if it messes up your medical anthro research a bit, too bad; their lives are more important than any dreams of intellectual purity.  Do not let yourself be exploited or “used,” but be as helpful as possible when help is needed.

Avoid involvement with local factions, no matter how right your favorite one seems to be.  Involvement ruins your field work, endangers your safety, and inevitably makes local politics worse.  Let them sort it out.

The wider question of advocacy is more serious.  Anthropologists almost always find that their groups are getting a raw deal, because we usually study small, less-than-affluent communities who are low on the political hierarchy.  Serious advocacy is often desirable, but should take the form of “speaking truth to power” as the phrase goes.  It is not usually appropriate to get off into strong statements or political action in the field site  On the other hand, it sometimes is appropriate, e.g. in cases of outright genocide.  Generally, the very best thing is to carry local voices to the wide world—if you can do it without endangering your subjects.  For example, giving quotes that can be traced to an individual is not a good idea in a state that is persecuting that community.  Confidential reports to trusted government people who can really help your community are sometimes desirable.  The best thing is usually to do the best job you can at getting the facts right and producing a scholarly book.  Do what is morally right, but in the most cautious and least overstated way.

Think seriously about who can hear your message and use it.  I did one substantial piece of field work in a really dangerous situation.  I never published or disclosed the worst and most hidden material.  I got the rest of the really touchy material to people in the government whom I knew I could trust and whom I knew would use the information wisely.  I kept everything else on ice for years, until the situation changed and I could safely publish the less touchy chunks of it.

Anthropologists are driven almost mad by the steadily increasing obsessiveness of institutional review boards (IRB’s, a.k.a. Human Subjects Review Committees).  They exist to prevent lawsuits over problems arising in sensitive, invasive, or dangerous medical and psychological research.  Thus they are often inappropriately restrictive for anthropological field work.  We cannot always get signed, detailed protocols proving that our subjects know every possible risk they are incurring.  And we may have to take photographs and films of large ritual or market situations where we cannot possibly get signed permissions from every man, woman and child.

And we rarely do anything that puts subjects at any real risk.  The main exception, and it is an important one, is research in or on military, criminal, or other genuinely dangerous matters.  For these, the investigator does need to worry about the full IRB panoply of concerns.  For the full story, see the fall 2007 issue of American Ethnologist, which has a whole excellent section on IRB’s.


Applied anthropology is a whole separate area that I do not want to cover here; suffice it to say that the same general moral rules apply.  Do what will actually help and what will actually not be undercut by someone else.

Collaboration with local communities in getting particular projects done is another enormously complex and involved topic, beyond my range here.  See the journal Human Organization—just search back through it.


The question of objectivity always surfaces.  No, you aren’t totally objective; you’re involved with your subjects.  But, as one anthropologist wrote, “just because you can’t maintain pure asepsis doesn’t mean you can do surgical operations in a sewer” (Geertz 1973).  Be solidly grounded in facts and establish everything as solidly as possible.  I once worked with an anthropologist, a superb field worker, who collected over 50 detailed stories of the same event—and stayed perfectly neutral and calm through it all, properly writing down everything, though the stories wildly disagreed about basic details!  Then we sat down to analyze why the stories were so different.

The idea is to be as factual, or objective, as possible, but be open about your biases, too.  Self-awareness is important.


  1. Final Tips


Field work is lots of fun, but one thing we face is culture shock, a useful term coined by the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg.  This condition is not confined to anthropologists.  What typically happens, when Person A goes to live in Society B, is that the first 3 to 6 months are a sort of honeymoon period.  After that, Reality hits, and it can hit pretty hard.  A period of painful adjustment follows—the 6th month is usually the hardest!  It’s good to plan a brief vacation from your field work at that time.  After the 6th month, things get easier.  Students are familiar with a mild form of this from adjusting to college (dorms, roommates, classes…).  Adjusting to marriage or any other life-and-residence change is comparable.  There is a honeymoon period, a let-down period, and then adjustment, hopefully peaceful and contented.

Once you have adjusted to a new community, adjusting back to your own home typically involves some “reverse culture shock.”  Do not be surprised at this; it’s normal.


Field work is normally one of the least dangerous activities on earth.  I have always been healthier in the field than at home.  Forget the poisonous snakes and scorpions of the travel books—you won’t see any, or if you do they will be the least of your worries.  (I have had to kill more than one cobra in my field dwellings.  They don’t usually strike.)

However, don’t take insane chances.  Take a first-aid kit and standard first-aid medications, notably general antibiotics that will quickly knock out skin infections, traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning (Salmonella, Shigella, etc.), and the like.  Be sure to take the proper anti-malarial medicine in malarial areas; the medicine of choice varies from region to region.

Use tough, sturdy shoes or boots if in a literal “field” situation.  Today, the “field” is often an urban neighborhood, but some of us still work in actual fields.  You are far more likely to come to grief from wearing inadequate shoes than from all those poisonous critters put together.  Take sunblock and suchlike things as appropriate.  DO ask people who have been in the area you are going, and DO read the Lonely Planet guides, or similar guides for active and enterprising travelers.

Don’t worry about the local food, including “street food.”  It’s safe enough if cooked at high heat.  Any fruit or veg with a tough peel (bananas, mangoes…) is safe if the peel isn’t broken.  In most of the tropics, the water is still dubious, however, and so is raw seafood.  The only time I got really sick in 2 years of field work in Mexico was from eating undercooked oysters in a fancy restaurant.


The fad for “reflexive” ethnography a few years ago gives you lots of accounts to learn from.  Many are far from exemplary.  One particularly candid account of a particularly intelligent, sensitive researcher’s first taste of the field is found in Eric Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001).  I could name many others.  A nice balance of self-revelation with consultant’s own stories is Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen (1991).  She has her opinions and experiences; she also gives the facts; and she gives the women’s own testimonies, which often disagree with her interpretation.  Stephen makes their lot sound very bleak, but the women she quotes sound decidedly more happy.  I visited her field site and did some field work myself to understand this.  It turned out that Stephen emphasizes the hardship which is indeed the lot of most Zapotec women, but the women she quoted in the book were a relatively more successful group who were generally more upbeat on their situation.  Also, Mexican women are taught to aguantar—bear uncomplainingly.  They don’t expect as much from life as an elite American academic does.


This shows the advantages of field-checking anything one reads, if one possibly can.  More:  it shows how much perspective and outlook matter, and how they can color analysis by even the best anthropologists.  Always double-check.  Always look for alternative views.  Always try to find someone else from a different perspective and training who can study your area and hopefully validate your work.



Thanks to many people, notably Russ Bernard, Nick Colby, Victor De Munck, Norie Huddle, Eugene Hunn, Dell Hymes, Michael Kearney, Tara McCoy, Evelyn Pinkerton, and above all David Kronenfeld for discussions that taught me what I know about these matters.





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—   1996.  The Professional Stranger:  An Informal Introduction to Ethnography.  2nd edn.  New York:  Academic Press.


Anderson, E. N., and Felix Medina Tzuc.  2005.  Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


Atleo, E. Richard.  2004.  Tsawalk:  A Nuu-Chah-Nulth Worldview.  Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press.


—  2011.  Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis.  Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press.


Aswani, Shankar, and Pam Weiant.  2004.  “Scientific Evaluation in Women’s Participatory Management:  Monitoring Marine Invertebrate Refugia in the Solomon Islands.”  Human Organization 63:301-319.


Bernard, H. Russell.  2006.  Research Methods in Anthropology.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira (Rowman and Littlefield).


Bernard, H. Russell (ed.).  2000.  Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology.  Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira.


Briggs, Charles.  1986.  Learning How to Ask.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.


Canfield, Michael (ed.).  2011.  Field Notes on Science and Nature.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.


Casagrande, Joseph (ed.).  1960.  In the Company of Man:  Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists.  New York:  Harper.


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Cruikshank, Julie.  1998.  The Social Life of Stories:  Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Cruikshank, Julie.  2005.  Do Glaciers Listen?  Local Knowledge, Colonial Encouinters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.


De Munck, Victor C.  2011.  “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Romantic Love:  Semantic, Cross-Cultural, and as a Process.”  In  A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer, eds.  Chichester, West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 513-530.


De Munck, Victor C., and Elisa J. Sobo (eds.).  1998.  Using Methods in the Field:  A Practical Introduction and Casebook. AltaMira.


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DeWalt, Kathleen, and Billie DeWalt.  2001.  Participant Observation:  A Guide for Fieldworkers.  Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira.


Frake, Charles.  1980.  Language and Cultural Description.  Ed. Anwar S. Dil.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.


Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.


Gladwin, Christina.  1989.  Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling. Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.


Griaule, Marcel.  1965.  Conversations with Ogotemmeli.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Hacking, Ian.  1999.  The Social Construction of What?  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Handwerker, W. Penn.  2011.  “How to Collect data that Warrant Analysis.” In  A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer, eds.  Chichester, West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 117-130. Holstein, J., and J. Gubrium.  1995.   The Active Interview.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.


Huff, Darrell.  1954.  How to Lie with Statistics.  New York:  Norton.


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Kitcher, Philip.  1993.  The Advancement of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.


Kuhn, Thomas.  1962.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.


Latour, Bruno.  2004.  Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy.  Tr. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Latour, Bruno.  2005.  Reassembling the Social:  An Introduction to Adctor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


LeCompte, Margaret, and Jean J. Schensul.  2010.  Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira.


Lowie, Robert.  1937.  The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Rinehart.


McAdams, Dan P.; Barry J. Hoffman; Elizabeth D. Mansfield; Rodney Day.  1996.  “Themes of Agency and Communion in Significant Autobiographical Scenes.”  (Can’t find ref; sent by a student.)


McAdams, Dan P.; Jeffrey Reynolds; Martha Lewis; Alison Patten; Phillip Bowman. 2001.  “When Bad Things Turn Good and Good Things Turn Bad: Sequences of Redemption and Contamination in Life Narrative and Their Relation to Psychosocial Adaptation in Midlife Adults and Students.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:474-485.


McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

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Robben, Antonius C.  2006.  Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader.  New York:  Wiley-Blackwell.


Rubin, Herbert, and Irene Rubin.  2005.  Qualitative Interviewing:  The Art of Hearing Data.  2nd edn.  Sage.


Sanjek, Roger.  1990.  Fieldnotes:  The Making of Anthropology.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press.


Shweder, Richard.  1991.  Thinking Through Cultures:  Explorations in Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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Stephen, Lynn.  1991.  Zapotec Women.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.


Vayda, Andrew P.  2008.  “Causal Explanations as a Research Goal:  A Pragmatic View.”  In Against the Grain:  The Vayda Tradition in Ecological Anthropology, Bradley Walker, Bonnie McCay, Paige West, and Susan Lees, eds.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Pp. 317-367.


Whiteford, Linda M., and Robert T. Trotter II.  2008.  Ethics for Anthropological Research and Practice. Long Grove, IL:  Waveland Press.


Wylie, Alison.  2002.  Thinking from Things:  Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology.  UC.  Essays; 514 pp.


Wylie, Alison.  2004.  “Why Standpoint Matters.”  In The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader:  Intellectual and Political Controversies, ed Sandra Harding. London:  Routledge.  Pp. 339-352.


Young, James Clay, and Linda Garro. l994.  Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  2nd edn. Boulder, CO:  Westview.


Bibliography of E. N. Anderson

December 13th, 2014




Just about an even 7200 pages as of 2014 (after bk 25, article 46, chap 50).




Books and Monographs


  1. 1970.  The Floating World of Castle Peak Bay. Washington, DC:  American Anthropological Association, Anthropological Studies Series, Vol. 3, 274 pages.


  1. 1972.  Essays on South China’s Boat People. Taipei: Orient Cultural Service.  146 pages.


  1. 1973.  Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  Mountains and Water. Taipei:  Orient Cultural Service.  179 pages.


  1. 1978.  Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  Fishing in Troubled Waters: Research on the Chinese Fishing Industry in West Malaysia.  346 pages. Taipei: Orient Cultural Service.


  1. 1978.  A Revised, Annotated Bibliography of the Chumash and Their Predecessors. Socorro, New Mexico:  Ballena Press.  82 pp.


  1. 1983. Coyote Space.  Shelter Cove, CA: Holmgangers Press.  26 pp.  (Poetry.)


  1. 1988. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press.  263 pp.


7a.  1997.  One chapter, “Traditional Medical Values of Food,” reprinted (from above) in a book of readings in nutritional anthropology: Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik (eds.): Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge.  Pp. 80-91.


  1. 1996. Ecologies of the Heart. New York: Oxford University Press.  xiii + 256 pp.


8a.  1999.  One chapter, “Chinese Nutritional Therapy” (pp. 29-54), reprinted in a book of readings in nutritional anthropology: Alan Goodman, Darna Dufour and Getel Pelto (eds.), Nutritional Anthropology:  Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition. Mountain View, CA:  Mayfield.  Pp. 198-211.


  1. 1996. Ed./introduction to:  Duff, Wilson: Bird of Paradox, the Unpublished Writings of Wilson Duff. Surrey, B.C.: Hancock House.  (Introductory material, pp. 1-117, and editorial matter, pp. 281-313, plus overall editing, of posthumous work by a leading Canadian anthropologist.)


  1. 1997. Coyote Way. Pleasant Hills, CA:  Small Poetry Press.  100 pp.  (Poetry.)


  1. 2000. A Soup for the Qan.  By Paul D. Buell and E. N. Anderson. London:  Kegan Paul International.  715 pp.  (Chinese text [ca. 160 pp.], translation, and book-length editorial matter, scholarly commentary, and annotations.)

Second edition, 2010.  Xviii, 662 pp.  Leiden:  Brill.


  1. 2003. Those Who Bring the Flowers:  Maya Ethnobotany in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  By E. N. Anderson with José Cauich Canul, Aurora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, and Pastor Valdez Chale.  Chetumal, Quintana Roo:  ECOSUR.  323 pp.

Spanish edition:  Las Plantas de los Mayas:  Etnobotánica en Quintana Roo, México.  Tr. Gerald Islebe and Odilón Sánchez Sánchez.  Chetumal:  Colegio de la Frontera Sur (successor to ECOSUR).


  1. 2004. Introduction to Cultural Ecology, by Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson. Walnut Creek:  AltaMira (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Xiii + 385 pp.

Second edition, 2009.

Third edition, 2013.


  1. 2004. Rights, Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.  Ed. by Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier. Westport, CT: Greenwood.


  1. 2005. Everyone Eats. New York: New York University Press.  Viii + 294 pp.

2nd edn., 2014.


  1. Chase-Dunn, Christopher, and E. N. Anderson, eds. 2005. The Historical Evolution of World-Systems.  New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.


  1. 2005. Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico, by E. N. Anderson and Felix Medina Tzuc. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Xviii + 251 pp.


  1. 2005. Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Xx + 275 pp.


  1. 2007. Floating World Lost:  A Hong Kong Fishing Community. New Orleans:  University Press of the South. Ix + 206 pp.


  1. 2008. Mayaland Cuisine: The Food of Maya Mexico.  St. Louis: Mira Publishing Co.

2nd edn., 2013, 213 pp.


  1. 2010. The Pursuit of Ecotopia:  Lessons from Indigeonous and Traditional Societies for the Human Ecology of Our Modern World.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Praeger (imprint of ABC-Clio).  Xiii + 251 pp.


  1. 2011 Ethnobiology, ed. by E. N. Anderson, Deborah M. Pearsall, Eugene S. Hunn, and Nancy J. Turner.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.  Viii + 399 pp.


  1. 2013 Warning Signs of Genocide, by Eugene N. Anderson and Barbara A. Anderson.  Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Xiii + 213 pp.


  1. 2014. Caring for Place.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.  305 pp.  (Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book for 2014; about 1/10 of books they review, and thus about 2.5% of all academic books, make this cut)


  1. 2014. Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press. 338 pp.



Refereed/Scholarly Journal Articles


  1. 1963    “Tahitian Bonito Fishing,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 28:87-113.


  1. 1964    “A Bibliography of the Chumash and Their Predecessors,” University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 61:25-74.


  1. 1967    “Prejudice and Ethnic Stereotypes in Rural Hong Kong,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 37:90-107.


  1. 1967    “The Folksongs of the Hong Kong Boat People,” Journal of American Folklore 80:285-296.  Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1968    “Changing Patterns of Land Use in Rural Hong Kong,” Pacific Viewpoint 9:1:33-50.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Folk Medicine in Rural Hong Kong.”  Ethnoiatria II:I.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Cantonese Ethnohoptology.”  Ethnos, pp. 107-117.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1969    “Sacred Fish,” Man 4:3:443-449.  Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1970    “The Boat People of South China,”  Anthropos 65:248-256. Reprinted in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972.


  1. 1970 “Traditional Aquaculture in Hong Kong,” Journal of Tropical Geography 30:11-16.


  1. 1970 “Reflexions sue la cuisine.”  L’Homme 10:2:122-124.


  1. 1970 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “The Social Context of a Local Lingo.”  Western Folklore XXXIX:153-165.


  1. 1971 “Beginnings of a Radical Ecology Movement.”  Biological Conservation 3:4:1-2.


  1. 1972 “Radical Ecology:  Notes on a Conservation Movement.”  Biological Conservation 4:4:285-291.


  1. 1972 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Penang Hokkien Ethnohoptology.”  Ethnos 1-4:134-147.


  1. 1972 “Some Chinese Methods of Dealing with Crowding.”  Urban Anthropology 1:2:141-150.  Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.


  1. 1972 “On the Folk Art of Landscaping”  Western Folklore  XXXI:3:179-188.


  1. 1973 “A Case Study in Conservation Politics: California’s Coastline Initiative.”   Biological Conservation 5:3:160-162.


  1. 1974 “On the Need for Studies of Food Consumption Ideas.”  Journal of the New Alchemists 2:128-132.


  1. 1975 “Songs of the Hong Kong Boat People.”  Chinoperl News 5:8-ll4.


  1. 1977 “The Changing Tastes of the Gods.” Asian Folklore 36:1:19-30.


  1. 1980 “’Heating’ and ‘Cooling’ Foods in Hong Kong and Taiwan.” Social Science Information 19:2:237-268.


  1. 1984 “`Heating’ and `Cooling’ Foods Re-examined.”  Social Science Information 23:4/5:755-773.


  1. 1985 “The Complex Causation of South Chinese Foodways.”  Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest, pp. 147-158.


  1. 1985 “Two Chinese Birds Among the Golden Mountains.”  Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest for 1984, pp. 257-259.


  1. 1987 “Why is Humoral Medicine So Popular?”  Social Science and Medicine, 25:4:331-337.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Chun-Hua Wang. “Changing Foodways of Chinese Immigrants in Southern California.”  In Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest, 1985-86, pp. 63-69.


  1. 1990 “Up Against Famine:  Chinese Diet in the Early Twentieth Century.”  Crossroads 1:1:11-24.


  1. 1991 “Chinese Folk Classification of Food Plants.”  Crossroads 1:2:51-67.


  1. 1992 “Chinese Fisher Families: Variations on Chinese Themes.”  Comparative Family Studies 23:2:231-247.


  1. 1992 “A Healing Place: Ethnographic Notes on a Treatment Center.”  Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 9:3/4:1-21.


  1. 1993 “Gardens in Tropical America and Tropical Asia.” Biotica n.e. 1:81-102.


  1. 1993 “Southeast Asian Gardens: Nutrition, Cash and Ethnicity.”  Biotica n.e. 1:1-12.


  1. 1998 Teresa Wang and E. N. Anderson.  “Ni Tsan and His ‘Cloud Forest Hall collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating.’”  Petits Propos Culinaires 60:24-41.


34a.  Reprinted with additions and corrections by Victor Mair and ENA:  Eugene N. Anderson, Teresa Wang, and Victor Mair.  2005.  “Ni Zan, Cloud Forest Hall Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating.”  In Victor Mair, Nancy Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin (eds.), Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.  Pp. 444-455.


  1. 1999 “Child-raising among Hong Kong Fisherfolk: Variations on Chinese Themes.”  Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 86:121-155.


  1. 2000 E. N. Anderson, Teik Aun Wong and Lynn Thomas.  “Good and Bad Persons: The Construction of Ethical Discourse in a Chinese Fishing Community.” Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 87:129-167.


  1. 2000 “Maya Knowledge and ‘Science Wars.’”  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:129-158.


  1. 2002 “Some Preliminary Observations on the California Black Walnut (Juglans californica).  Fremontia 30:12-19.  (Nonrefereed  scholarly journal of the California Native Plant Society).


  1. 2004 Barbara A. Anderson, E. N. Anderson, Tracy Franklin, and Aurora Dzib-Xihum de Cen.  “Pathways of Decision Making among Yucatan Mayan Traditional Birth Attendants.”  Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health 49:4:312-319.


  1. 2007 “Malaysian Foodways:  Confluence and Separation.”  Ecology of Food and Nutrition 46:205-220 (Special Issue:  Tribute to Christine S. Wilson (1919-2005), ed. by Barrett P. Brenton, Miriam Chaiken, and Leslie Sue Lieberman.)


  1. 2011 “Yucatec Maya Botany and the ‘Nature’ of Science.”  Journal of Ecological Anthropology 14:67-73.


  1. 2012 E. N. Anderson and Barbara Anderson: “Development and the Yucatec Maya in Quintana Roo: Some Successes and Failures.”  Journal of Political Ecology 18:51-65.


  1. 2012 “Anthropology of Religion and Environment: A Skeletal History to 1970.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 6:9-36.


  1. 2012 Hiroko Inoue, Alexis Alvarez, Kirk Lawrence, Anthony Roberts, E. N. Anderson and Christopher Chase-Dunn.  “Polity Scale Shifts in World-Systems Since the Bronze Age: A Comparative Inventory of Upsweeps and Collapses.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 53:210-229.  (I contributed only about 1% of this.)


  1. 2012 “Religion in Conservation and Management:  A Durkheimian View.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 6:398-420.


  1. 2013 “Conquest, Migration and Food in Mongol China: Yuan Food in Chinese Context.”  Journal of Chinese Dietary Culture 9:1-51.



Invited Book Chapters and Working Papers


  1. 1972 “The Life and Culture of Ecotopia,”  in Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. New York: Pantheon Press, pp. 264-283.  Reprinted in paperback, Vintage, 1973.


  1. 1975 “Chinese Fishermen in Hong Kong and Malaysia,” in Maritime Adaptations in the Pacific, edited by Richard Casteel and George I. Quimby, pp. 231-246.  Hague:          Mouton.  (In “World Anthropology” series.)


  1. 1975 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Folk Dietetics in Two Chinese Communities and its implications for the Study of Chinese Medicine.”  In Medicine in Chinese Cultures, edited by Arthur Kleinman, Peter Kunstadter, E. Russell   Alexander, and James E. Gale.  USHEW, pp. 143-176.


  1. 1977 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson.  “Modern China: South.”  In Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K.C. Chang, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 319-382.


  1. 1978 Eugene N. Anderson and Marja L. Anderson and John H.C. Ho.  “Environmental Background of Young Chinese Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Patients.”  In Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Etiology and Control, edited by G. Dethe and Y. Ito. Lyon, France:  WHO, International Agency for Research on Cancer.  Pp. 231-240.


  1. 1979 “Social History of Hong Kong Boat Folk Songs” in Legend, Lore and Religion in China: Essays in Honor of Wolfram Eberhard on His Seventieth Birthday,” edited by Sarah Allen and Alvin Cohen, CMC Asian Library Series No. 13. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, pp. 155-175.


  1. 1981 “The Changing Social Context of Hong Kong Fishermen’s Songs.”  Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa: China, Vol. I. Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico.  15 pp.


  1. 1982 “Cuisine,” invited article for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 382-390.

Reprinted with some revisions in the second edition of the encyclopedia, 1991, pp. 368-377.


  1. 1983 “A View from the Bottom: The Rise and Decline of a Malaysian Chinese Town.”  In The Chinese in Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, Peter Gosling and Linda Lim, eds., pp. 147-169. Singapore: Maruzen Asia.


  1. 1984 “Ecologies of the Heart.”  In Proceedings, International Chinese Conference, Michael W. Gandy, Mason Shen and Effram Korngold, eds., pp. 205-230. Oakland: Michael Gandy.


  1. 1985 “A Mosaic of Two Food Systems on Penang Island, Malaysia.”  In Food Energy in Tropical Systems, Dorothy Cattle and Karl Schwerin, eds.  Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology Series, Vol. l4, pp. 83-104. New York: Gordon and Breach.


  1. 1987 “A Malaysian Tragedy of the Commons.”  In The Question of the Commons, McCay, Bonnie, and James Acheson, eds. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Pp. 327-343.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Harry Lawton.  “Chinese Religion, Temples and Festivals in the San Bernardino Valley.  In Wong Ho Leun: An American Chinatown.  The Great Basin Foundation, editors. San Diego: The Great Basin Foundation.  Vol. 2, pp. 25-44.


  1. 1989 “The First Green Revolution:  Chinese Agriculture in the Han Dynasty.”  Food and Farm, Christina Gladwin and Kathleen Truman, eds. New York:  University Press of America and Society for Economic Anthropology, pp. 135-151.


  1. 1994 “Food and Health at the Mongol Court.”  In: Kaplan, Edward H., and Donald W. Whisenhunt (eds.): Opuscula Altaica: Essays Presented in Honor of Henry Schwarz. Bellingham: Western Washington University, pp. 17-43.


  1. 1994 “Fish as Gods and Kin.”  In: Dyer, Christopher, and James R. McGoodwin (eds.): Folk Management in the World’s Fisheries. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado,  pp. 139-160.


  1. 1994 “Food.”  In: Wu Dingbo and Patrick Murphy (eds.): Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 35-54.


  1. 1995 “Prinz Wen Huis Koch–Einfuhrung in die chinesische Nahrungs-Therapie.”  In: Keller, Frank Beat (ed.):  Krank Warum? Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz (for Swiss Ethnological Museum), pp. 3-22.


  1. 1995 “Natural Resource Use in a Maya Village.”  In: Fedick, Scott, and Karl Taube (eds.): The View from Yalahau. Riverside: Latin American Studies Program Field Report Series #2.  Pp. 139-148.


  1. 1996 “Gardens of Chunhuhub.”  In: Hostetler, Ueli (ed.): Los Mayas de Quintana Roo: Investigaciones antropologicas recientes.  Universitat Bern, Institut fur Ethnologie, Arbeitsblatter, #14.  Pp. 64-76.

20a.  1998.  Republished in slightly different form in Tercer Congreso Internacional de Mayistas, Memoria. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México and Universidad de Quintana Roo.  Pp. 291-310.


  1. 2001 “Flowering Apricot:  Environmental Practice, Folk Religion, and Daoism.”  In: N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan (eds.):  Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.  Pp. 157-184.

Translated into Chinese for Chinese edition of this book, Beijing, 2008.


  1. 2001 “Comments.”  In: Richard Ford (ed.), Ethnobiology at the Millennium. Ann Arbor, MI: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.  Anthropological papers No. 91.  Pp. 175-186.  (Comments on a series of papers from the Society of Ethnobiology annual conference, 2000, published here in book form.)


  1. 2002 “Biodiversity Conservation: A New View from Mexico.”   In:  John R. Stepp, Felice S. Wyndham, and Rebecca K. Zarger (eds.):  Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity. Athens, GA:   University of Georgia Press.   Pp. 113-122.


  1. 2003 “Traditional Knowledge of Plant Resources.”  In:  A. Gomez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, Scott Fedick, and Juan J. Jimenez-Osornio (eds.): The Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface. New York: Haworth Press.  Pp. 533-550.


  1. 2003 “Caffeine and Culture.”  In:  William Jankowiak and Daniel Bradburd (eds.):  Drugs, Labor, and Colonial Expansion. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  Pp. 159-176.


  1. 2003 “China,” subentries “Ancient and Dynastic China,” “Beijing (Peking) Cuisine,” “Guangzhou (Canton) Cuisine,” “Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine,” “Zhejiang (Chekiang) Cuisine,” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, ed. by Solomon Katz and William Woys Weaver. New York:  Charles Scribners’ Sons.  Pp. 379–396.


  1. 2003 “Ess- und Trinkkultur.”  Das Grosse China-Lexikon, ed. by Brunhild Staiger, Stefan Friedrich und Hans-Wilm Schütte. Darmstadt, Germany:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.  Pp. 194-197.  (Encyclopedia entry.)


  1. 2004  E. N. Anderson, Betty B. Faust, John G. Frazier.  “Introduction:  An Environmental and Cultural History of Maya Communities in the Yucatan Peninsula.”  In:  Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier (eds.):  Rights Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.   Westport, CT:  Praeger.  Pp. 1-30.


  1. 2004  “Valuing the Maya Forests.”  In:  Betty B. Faust, E. N. Anderson, and John G. Frazier (eds.):  Rights Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya.   Westport, CT:  Praeger.  Pp.  117-130.


  1. 2004  “Heating and Cooling Qi and Modern American Dietary Guidelines:  Personal Thoughts on Cultural Convergence.”  In Jacqueline Newman and Roberta Halperin (eds.):  Chinese Cuisine, American Palate. New York:  Center for Thanatology Research and Education, Inc.  Pp. 26-33.


  1. 2004 Barbara Anderson, E. N. Anderson, and Roseanne Rushing:  “Violence:  Assault on Personhood.”  In Barbara A. Anderson:  Reproductive Health:  Women and Men’s Shared Responsibility. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.  Pp. 163-204.


  1. 2005 E. N. Anderson and Christopher Chase-Dunn: “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.”  In Christopher Chase-Dunn and E. N. Anderson (eds.):  The Historical Evolution of World-Systems. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.  Pp. 1-19.


  1. 2005 “Lamb, Rice, and Hegemonic Decline:  The Mongol Empire in the Fourteenth Century.”  In Christopher Chase-Dunn and E. N. Anderson (eds.):  The Historical Evolution of World-Systems. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.  Pp. 113-121.


  1. 2007 E. N. Anderson and Lisa Raphals: “Taoism and Animals.”  In Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (eds.):  A Communion of Subjects:  Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.  Pp. 275-290.


  1. 2009 “Northwest Chinese Cuisine and the Central Asian Connection.”  In David Holm (ed.), Regionalism and Globalism in Chinese Culinary Culture.  Taipei:  Foundation of Chinese Dietary Culture.  Pp. 49-78.


  1. 2009 “Cuisines” and “Health, Nutrition, and Food,” Berkshire Encyclopedia of China (online), pp. 529-535 and 1010-1012.


  1. 2009 “Indigenous Traditions:  Asia.”  Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, vol. 1, The Spirit of Sustainability.  Pp. 216-221.


  1. 2010 “Food and Feasting in the Zona Maya of Quintana Roo.”  In John Staller and Michael Carrasco (eds.), Pre-Columbian Foodways:  Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica.  New York:  Springer.  Pp. 441-465.


  1. 2010  “Managing Maya Landscapes:  Quintana Roo, Mexico.”  In Leslie Main Johnson and Eugene S. Hunn (eds.), Landscape Ethnoecology:  Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space.  New York:  Berghahn.  Pp. 255-276.


  1. 2010 “Food Cultures:  Linking People to Landscapes.”  In Sarah Pilgrim and Jules Pretty (eds.),  Nature and Culture: Rebuilding Lost Connections.  London:  Earthscan.  Pp. 185-196.


  1. 2011 “Emotions, Motivation, and Behavior in Cognitive Anthropology.”  In David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor C. de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer (eds.), A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology.  New York: Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 331-354.


  1. 2011 “Introduction.”  In E. N. Anderson, Deborah Pearsall, Eugene Hunn and Nancy Turner (eds.),  Ethnobiology.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 1-14.


  1. 2011 “Ethnobiology and Agroecology.” In E. N. Anderson, Deborah Pearsall, Eugene Hunn and Nancy Turner (eds.),  Ethnobiology.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 305-318.


  1. 2011 “Drawing from Traditional and ‘Indigenous’ Socioecological Theories.”  In Helen Kopnina and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet, Environmental Anthropology Today.  London:  Routledge.  Pp. 56-74.


  1. 2011 “War, Migration, and Food in Mongol China:  Yuan Dynasty Food and Medicine.”  In Proceedings of the 12th Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture.  Taiwan:  Foundation for Chinese Dietary Culture.  Pp. 1-32.


  1. 2011 “China.”  In Food Cultures of the World:  Encyclopedia.  Vol.:  Asia, Ken Albala, ed.  Santa Barbara, CA:  ABC-Clio.  Pp. 61-72.

Access electronically: User B5342E, password abccomp.


  1. 2013 “Culture and the Wild.”  In The Rediscovery of the Wild, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Patricia H. Hasbach, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.  Pp. 157-180.


  1. 2013  “What Shapes Cognition?  Traditional Sciences and Modern International Science.”  In Explorations in Ethnobiology: The Legacy of Amadeo Rea, Marsha Wquinland and Dana Lepofsky, eds.  Denton, TX:  Society of Ethnobiology.  Pp. 47-77.


  1. 2013  “Learning Is Like Chicken Feet: Assembling the Chinese Food System.”  In International Conference onn Foodways and Heritage, Conference Proceedings, Sidney C. H. Cheung and Chau Hing-wah, eds.  Hong Kong: Government of Hong Kong, Leisure and Cultural Services Dept.  Pp. 3-20.


  1. 2013 Stand Straight and Never Bend:  How China Fed Millions of People for Thousands of Years.  Working Paper #1, Dept. of Anthropology, Sun Yat-sen University [Zhongshan University], Guangdong, China.  24 pp.


  1. 2014 “China.”  In Food in Time and Place:The American HistoricalAssociation Companion to Food History.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  Pp. 41-67.


Electronic publications


  1. 1998  “Managing Maya Commons: Chunhuhub, Quintana Roo.”  Proceedings of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, annual conference, Vancouver, Canada.  One of several papers selected by the organizers of the conference for electronic publication.   (Book chapter 35 above is a greatly expanded and rewritten version.)


  1. 2008 Mayaland Cuisine.  Cookbook of south Mexican folk foods, made available online and for publication on demand.  195 pp.





  1. 1966 “Coyote Song,” Coyote’s Journal, #4.  (Refereed, poem)


  1. 1966 “Bird Selling in San Hui,” Hong Kong Bird Report, 1965 pp. 49-51.


  1. 1968 “The Chumash Indians of Southern California,” Malki Museum Brochure #4. Malki Museum Press.  (Popular writing) Reprinted 1975.


  1. 1969 “The Kingfishers” and “The Duck Farm,” In Transit: The Gary Snyder Issue, pp. 24-25.  (Two poems)


  1. 1969 “The Social Factors Have Been Ignored,” Harvard Educational Review, 39:3:581-585.  (Commentary, unrefereed, in major journal.)


  1. 1969 “Caucasian Genes in American Negroes,” in Science, 166:3911:1353.  Reprinted in Human Population, Genetic Variation and Evolution, by Laura Newell Morris.  1971, pp. 446-447.  (Letter, reprinted in reader on human genetics.)


  1. 1970 “Lineage Atrophy in Chinese Society,” American Anthropologist 72:363-365.   Reprinted in Mountains and Water, 1973.  (Unrefereed research note in major journal)


  1. 1970 Invited Comment on: “Mannerism and Cultural Change: An Ethnomusicological Example,” by Ruth Katz, Current Anthropology, XI:469.  (Note)


  1. 1970 “Hoklo Boat People,” Urgent Anthropology, Current Anthropology, XI:I:82-83.  (Brief comment in major journal.)


  1. 1970 “Toward a Planner’s Guide to Ecology,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:6-11.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1970 “Notes for the Biosphere,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:2-5.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1971 “A Food Tract,” Ecology: The Journal of Cultural Transformation, 1:3:5-18 and 1:4:6-13.  (Popular writing)


  1. 1971 “A Design for the Tropical Center,” The New Alchemy Institute Spring Bulletin, pp. 16-20.  (Scholarly but unrefereed journal.)


  1. 1971 “A Design for the Tropical Center” (in Spanish).  Leaflet distributed by The New Alchemy Institute.  6 pages.  (Largely a translation of the previous item.)


  1. 1972 Western Riverside County: A Natural History Guide, E. N. Anderson, Riverside.  33 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 Man on the Santa Ana.  Tri-County Conservation League Riverside.  10 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 The Living Santa Ana River.  Edited and majority written by E.N. Anderson.  Tri-County Conservation League, Riverside.  3l pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1972 Herbs.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  32 pages. (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1973 The Edible Forest.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside. 26 pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1973 Vegetables.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  26   pages.  (Popular writing, booklet)


  1. 1977 Comment on Marvin Harris’ “Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle.”  Current Anthropology 18:3:552.


  1. 1977 Comment on R. Winzeler.  Current Anthropology 18:3:552.


  1. 1977 Will Staple, Gene Anderson, Lowell Levant.  Coyote Run: Poems by Will Staple, Gene Anderson, Lowell Levant. Anderson Publications, Riverside.  (Book; my poems, pp. 27-56)


  1. 1978 “Sea Birds Off Tahiti” Western Tanager.  Journal of Los Angeles Audubon Soceity, p. 6.  (Popular.)


  1. 1978 Invited Comment on Paul Diener and Eugene Robkin, “Ecology, Evolution, and the Search for Cultural Origins: The Question of Islamic Pig Prohibition.” Current Anthropology 19:3:509.


  1. 1979 “Chinese Food: First Million Years.”  Wok Talk III:5:1, 8.  (Popular.)


  1. 1979 “Beijing and Delhi.”  Western Tanager 45:10:6.  (Popular.  Reprinted in Bird Watcher’s Digest.)


  1. 1980 Invited comment on Paul Diener, “Quantum Adjustment, Macroevolution, and the Social Field: Some Comments on Evolution and Culture.”  Cultural Anthropology 21:4:431-432.


  1. 1980 Comment on Daniel E. Moerman, “On the Anthropology of Symbolic Healing.”  Current Anthropology 22:1:107.


  1. 1980 “Food and Philosophy in Ancient China.”  Wok Talk IV:3:1-7.  (Popular.)


  1. 1980 “A Closer Look at Hakka Cooking.”  Wok Talk IV:5:1-7. (Popular.)


  1. 1980 “Teochiu Cuisine.”  Wok Talk IV:4:1 and 8.  (Popular.)


  1. 1980 Eugene N. Anderson and Dexter Kelley.  “Birding in Nearer Baja.”  Western Tanager 47:4:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1981 “On Preserving Seafood.”  Wok Talk V:3:2-7.  (Popular.)


  1. 1981 “The Foods of China’s Golden Age.”  Wok Talk VI:1:9-10.  (Popular.)


  1. 1982 “Wisdom Literature as Prayers to Coyote.”  Coyote’s Journal, P. 64.  (Poem; major journal of poetry and literature)


  1. 1983 The Inland Empire: A Natural History Guide.  Jurupa Cultural Center, Riverside.  (Booklet, 62 quarto pp.)


  1. 1983 Nunez, Christina; Michael Hogan; E. N. Anderson.  Food Banks and the Anthropology of Voluntary Organizations. California Anthropology 13:2:23-39.  (Minor unrefereed journal.  I was responsible for about 1/3 of this article.  The other two authors were students here.  Item missing from previous files, because the senior author published it without telling me.)


  1. 1984 “Plant Communities and Bird Habitats in Southern California, Part II: The Chaparral.”  Western Tanager 52:3:1-4.  (Popular.)


  1. 1985 Three poems in Reflections, Iain Prattis, ed. Washington: American Anthropological Association.  (Collection of poetry by anthropologists about anthropological themes) pp. 211-217.


  1. 1985 Invited comment on Cecil Brown, “Mode of Subsistence and Folk Biological Taxonomy.”  Current Anthropology 26:1:53-54.


  1. 1986 Invited comment on Cecil Brown, “The Growth of Ethnobiological Nomenclature.”  Current Anthropology 27:1:11-12.


  1. 1986 Comment on “The Social Context of Early Food Production”  Current Anthropology 27:3:262-263.


  1. 1988 Jean Gilbert, Claudia Fishman, Neil Tashima and Barbara Pillsbury, Fred Hess, Elvin Hatch, Barbara Frankel and Gene Anderson.  “National Association of Practicing Anthropologists’ Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners.”  American Anthropological Association Newsletter 29:8:8-9.


  1. 1992 Invited comment “On Training and Certification,” CommuNiCator (Newsletter of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology), 16:1:1-2.


  1. 1992 “Can Ancient Maya Wisdom Save Our Favorite Birds from the Cows?”  Western Tanager March 1992, pp. 1-4.  (Popular.)


  1. 1992 “Four Fields in Ecological Anthropology,” long contribution to ongoing debate on the “Four Fields in Anthropology,” Anthropology Newsletter (official newsletter of the American Anthropological Assn.), Nov. 1992, p. 3.


  1. 1993 “Teaching Philosophy,” statement to accompany Honorable Mention for Distinguished Teaching award from National Association of Student Anthropologists, Anthropology Newsletter, Feb. 1993, p. 18.


  1. 1993 “A ‘Blue-Headed’ Solitary Vireo from Baja California,” The Euphonia 2:1:22.  (Brief note)


  1. 1993 “How Much Should We Privilege ‘Native’ Accounts?”  American Anthropologist 95:706-707.  (Commentary, unrefereed, in major journal.)


  1. 1994 “Caught in the Flood of Urbanization.”  Western Tanager 61:4:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1995 “After the Fire: Bird Use of a New Burn.”  Western Tanager 61:7:1-3.  (Popular.)


  1. 1995 “On Objectivity vs. Militancy.”  Current Anthropology 36:820-821.  (Commentary.)


  1. 1997 “Vegetables, Roots, and Wisdom in Old China.”  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:1:147-148 (Short Communication).


  1. 2000 “On an Antiessential Political Ecology.”  Current Anthropology 41:105-106.


  1. 2000 “On ‘Are East African Pastoralists Truly Conservationists?’”  Current Anthropology 41:626-627.


  1. 2000 “Brief Notes on Observations in Spain.”  Anthropology Newsletter 41:9:41-42.


  1. 2001 Folk song text (collected and translated by myself), five photographs I took, and summary of my research writings on Hong Kong, published in Elizabeth Johnson:  Recording a Rich Heritage: Research on Hong Kong’s ‘New Territories.’ Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Hong Kong.  Pp. 82-88.


  1. 2001 “Psychology and a Sustainable Future.”  American Psychologist 56:5:457-458.  (Comment on a series of articles on psychology and the environment.)


  1. 2001 “Tropical Forest Game Conservation.”  Conservation Biology 15:791-792.  (Edited comment; major journal.)


  1. 2002 Comment on “Maya Medicine in the Biomedical Gaze” by Ronald Nigh.  Current Anthropology 43:789-790.


  1. 2003 “Tropical Multiple Use.”  Journal of Conservation Ecology 7:14.  (Comment on earlier article:  Victor Toledo, B. Ortiz-Espejel, L. Cortes, P. Moguel, M. D. J. Ordonez, 2003, “The Multiple Use of Torpical Forests by Indigenous Peoples in Mexico:  A Case of Adaptive Management,” Journal of Conservation Ecology 7:article 9 online.)


  1. 2008 Comment on “Reason and Reenchantment in Cultural Change:  Sustainability in Higher Education” by Peggy Barlett (Current Anthropology 49:1077-1098).  Current Anthropology 49:1090.


  1. 2009 Comment on “Cultural Relativity 2.0” by Michael Brown (Current Anthropology 49:363-383).  Current Anthropology 50:251.


  1. 2010 Comment on “Attachment and Cooperation in Religious Groups” by Carol Popp Weingarten and James S. Chisholm.  Current Anthropology 51:421-422.


  1. 2010 “Ancient and Modern Foods from the Tarim Basin.”  Expedition 52:3:5-6.


  1. 2011 “AAA Long-Range Plan.”  (Letter.)  Anthropology News, Feb., p. 3.


  1. 2011 “Salt Water Songs of Hong Kong.”   In The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender (eds.).  New York:  Columbia University Press.  Pp. 145-147.


  1. 2012 “Cooking with Kublai Khan.”  Flavor and Fortune 19:4:13-14.


  1. 2013 “Folk Nutritional Therapy in Modern China.”  In Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History, TJ Hinrichs and Linda Barnes, eds.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.  Pp. 259-260.


  1. 2013 “Are Minds Modular?”  (Letter, with answer by Michael Shermer and comment by Steven Pinker.)  Scientific American, May, 8-9.


  1. 2-13 “Happiness Now or Later.”  (Letter, with answer by editors.)  Scientific American Mind, July/August, p. 4.


  1. 2013 “Foreword.”  In Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia:  Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veteto, eds.  New York:  Berghahn.  Pp. xi-xviii.


  1. 2013. Preface and two poems, “Desert in Fall” and “Nocturne.”  In A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and for Lowell Levant, Ronald Levant, Carol Slatter and Caren Levant, eds.  Copley, OH:  Truck Stop Press.




  1. 1967    “The Ethnoichthyology of the Hong Kong Boat People,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. Printed in Essays on South China’s Boat People, 1972. 105 pp.


  1. 1987 Eugene N. Anderson and Evelyn Pinkerton.  “The Kakawis Experience.”  Kakawis Family Development Centre, 68 pp. + appendices.  (Contracted technical study and report to Kakawis Family Development Centre.)


  1. 2007 Sun Simiao.  Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold:  The Food Sections.  Tr. Sumei Yi, ed. E. N. Anderson.  Ms circulated electronically.  56 pp.


  1. 2007 The Tropical Food Security Garden.  On website,




Review Articles


  1. 1977 The Chinese by C. Osgood.  Reviews in Anthropology 4:1:17-24.


  1. 1981 Review article of Arthur Kleinman: Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine and Psychiatry, and Margaret Lock, East Asian Medicine in Urban Japan.  Reviews in Anthropology 8:1:45-58.


  1. 1984 Cooking, Cuisine and Class by Jack Goody.  Reviews in Anthropology 10:2:89-95.


  1. 1994 Islands, Plants and Polynesians ed. by Paul Alan Cox and Sandra Anne Banack, and Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use by Harriet Kuhnlein and Nancy J. Turner. Reviews in Anthropology 23:97-104.


  1. 1995 Human Ecology as Human Behavior by John Bennett, and Radical Ecology by Carolyn Merchant.  Reviews in Anthropology 24:113-122.


  1. 1999 “Native American Cultural Representations of Flora and Fauna.”   Ethnohistory 46:373-382


  1. 2000 The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:37-42.


  1. 2002 “ New Textbooks Show Ecological Anthropology Is Flourishing.”  Reviews in Anthropology 33:231-242.


  1. 2007 Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture, ed. by Douglas Kennett and Bruce Winterhalder.  Journal of Ethnobiology 27:277-280.


  1. 2009 Trying Leviathan:  The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, by D. Graham Burnett.  Journal of Ethnobiology 29:362-365.


  1. 2014 E. N. Anderson and Seth Abrutyn:  “Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution.”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 8:111-127.



Short Reviews

(Probably not a complete list, since I think I have missed some announcements from Choice that my short reviews for them were published)


  1. 1966    “La peche au grand filet a Tahiti,” by Paul Ottino. Journal of Polynesian Society 75:1:130-131.


  1. 1967    The Sea Nomads, by David E. Sopher. Oceania 37:4:313-314.


  1. 1974    Tai Yu Shan: Traditional Ecological Adaptation in a South Chinese Island, by Armando de Silva and The Men and Women of Chung Ho Ch’ang, by Mary B. Treudley.  American Anthropologist 76:3:610-611.


  1. 1975    December’s Child, by Thomas Blackburn.  Journal of California Anthropology 2:2:241-244.


  1. 1975    Chinese Symbols and Superstitions by H. T. Morgan, Journal of American Folklore.  Spring 1975.


  1. 1976    California: Five Centuries of Cultural Contrasts by J. Nava and B. Barger.  Journal of California Anthropology 3:3:100-102.


  1. 1977    The Eye of the Flute by T. Hudson et al. Journal of California Anthropology 4:1:1-141-142.


  1. 1977    Migrants of the Mountains by W.R. Geddes  Ethnopharmacology Society Newsletter 1:1:5-6.


  1. 1977    Fig Tree John: An Indian in Fact and Fiction by P. Beidler, Journal of California Anthropology 4:2:322.


  1. 1978 Food in Chinese Culture by Charles W. Hayford, Journal of Asian Studies XXXVII:4:738-40.


  1. 1978 Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Clarke, Journal of California Anthropology 5:1:139-140.


  1. 1981 Chinese Village Politics in the Malaysian State by Judith Strauch, Newsletter of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology 5:3:17-19.


  1. 1981 Manna: An Historical Geography by R.A. Donkin, Journal of Historical Geography 7:3:329-330.


  1. 1983 “Cities in China” film series (three films: “Xian,” “Suzhou,” Biejing”).  American Anthropologist 85:2:491-492.


  1. 1984 Shenfan by William Hinton, American Anthropologist 1986:1002.


  1. 1984 Nourishment of Life by Linda Koo, Social Science and Medicine 20:3:350-354.


  1. 1985 Living the Fishing by Paul Thompson, et al, Urban Life 14:3:350-354.


  1. 1987 Wives and Midwives by Carol Laderman, Medical Anthropology Newsletter.


  1. 1987 Man and Land in Chinese History by Kang Chao, American Asian Review V:3:105-107.


  1. 1987 Medicine in China History, Vol. 1: A History of Ideas.  Vol. 2: A History of Pharmaceutics.  Vol. 3: Nan-Ching: The Classic of Difficult Issues by Paul Unschuld, American Asian Review V:3:115-118.


  1. 1988 The Cambridge History of China, vol. I: The Ch’in and Han Empires, ed. by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, American Asian Review VI:1:78-82.


  1. 1990 Disputers of the Tao by A. C. Graham.  American Asian Review 8:4:135-139.


  1. 1991 Cannibalism in China by Key Ray Chong.  American Asian Review 9:2:109-112.


  1. 1991 Native North American Interaction Patterns by Regna Darnell and Michael K. Foster, eds.  Culture: Journal of the Canadian Anthropological Society, pp. 92-94.


  1. 1991 Nch’i Wana: The Big River by Eugene Hunn.  American Anthropologist 93:4:1002-1003.


  1. 1991 With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It by Timothy Johns.  Journal of Ethnobiology 11:2:184-186.


  1. 1992 Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life by Richard S. MacNeish.  Journal of Ethnobiology 12:198-26.


  1. 1993 Coyote Stories and A Salishan Autobiography by Mourning Dove.  Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 18:2:84-85.


  1. 1993 Tangweera by C. Napier Bell.  Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 18:2:85-86.


  1. 1994 The Flowering of Man by Dennis Breedlove and Robert Laughlin.  Economic Botany 48:1:101-102.


  1. 1995 The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba ed. by Dennis Helly.  Journal of Caribbean Studies 10:99-101.


  1. 1995 Chumash Healing by Phillip L. Walker and Travis Hudson.  Journal of Ethnobiology 14:184.


  1. 1995 Environmental Values in American Culture by Willett Kempton, James S. Boster, and Jennifer A. Hartley.  Choice 33.2.


  1. 1995 Prophets of Agroforestry:  Guaraní Communities and Commercial Gathering by Richard K. Reed.  Choice 33:3.


  1. 1995 Memoirs of an Indo Woman: Twentieth-Century Life in the East Indies and Abroad by Marguerite Schenkhuizen, ed. and trans. by Lizelot Stout van Balgooy.  Anthropology and Humanism 20:172-173.


  1. 1996 Earth’s Insights by J. Baird Callicott.  Journal of Ethnobiology 16:130-131.


  1. 1996 Eat Not This Flesh (2nd edn.) by Frederick Simoons.  Journal of Ethnobiology 16:128-130.


  1. 1996 Guest People: Hakka Identity in China and Abroad ed. by Nicole Constable.  Choice 34:4.


  1. 1997 Green Guerrillas ed. by Helen Collinson.  Choice 34:6.


  1. 1997 Humanity’s Descent by Rick Potts.  Choice 35:1.


  1. 1997 Hunting the Wren by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:67-68.


  1. 1997 The Animal World of the Pharaohs by Patrick F. Houlihan.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:135-136.


  1. 1997 Wild Men in the Looking Glass and The Artificial Savage by Roger Bartra.  Journal of Ethnobiology 17:136-138.


  1. 1997 Eco Homo by Noel T. Boaz.  Choice 35:4.


  1. 1997 Greenlanders, Whales, and Whaling by Richard Caulfield.  Choice 35:4.


  1. 1998 Shamanic Songs and Myths of Tuva by Mihaly Hoppal.  Choice 35:5.


  1. 1998 Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods ed. by Christian Schicklgruber and Francoise Pommaret. Choice 35:7.


  1. 1998 Uncommon Ground by Victoria Strang.  Choice 35:7.


  1. 1998 Knowledges: Culture, Counterculture, Subculture by Peter Worsley.  Choice 35:10.


  1. 1998 Contested Arctic ed. by Eric Alden Smith and Joan McCarter.  Choice 35:10.


  1. 1998 Natural Premises:  Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalaya, 1800-1950 by Chetan Singh.  Choice 36:5.


  1. 1998 Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, by Meredith Small.  Choice 36:2.


  1. 1999 Golden Arches East:  McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by James L. Watson.  Anth rpos 94:307-310.


  1. 1999 Wisdom from a Rainforest, by Stuart Schlegel.  Choice 36:8.


  1. 1999 Siren Feasts, by Andrew Dalby.  Journal of Ethnobiology 18:2:188.


  1. 1999 Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, ed. by Alan Goodman and Thomas Leatherman.  Choice 36:10.


  1. 1999 Rebuilding the Local Landscape:  Environmental Management in Burkina Faso,

by Chris Howorth.  Choice 37:3.


  1. 2000 That Complex Whole:  Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior, by Lee Cronk.  Choice 37:5.


  1. 2000 Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Scarcity by Johan Pottier.  Anthropos 95:1:296-298.


  1. 2000 Plants for Food and Medicine  ed. by H. D. V. Prendergast, N. L. Etkin, D. R. Harris, and P. J. Houghton.  American Anthropologist 102:50-51.


  1. 2000 Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands by Mark J. Hudson.  Choice 37:7.


  1. 2000 Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit by Thomas Davis.  Choice 37:10.


  1. 2000 Las Plantas de la Milpa entre los Maya by Silvia Teran and Christian Rasmussen.  Journal of Ethnobiology 19:219-220.


  1. 2000 The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, by Georgius Everhardus Rumphius.   Journal of Ethnobiology 19:258-259.


  1. 2000 The Great Maya Droughts, by Richardson Gill.  Choice 38:3.


  1. 2001 In One’s Own Shadow: An Ethnographic Account of the Condition of Post-Reform Rural China, by Xin Liu.  Choice 38:3.


  1. 2001 Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Trasnformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives, ed. by Roy Ellen, Peter Parkes, and Alan Bicker.  Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Portraits of “Primitives”:  Ordering Human Kinds in the Chinese Nation, by Susan Blum. Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Between Mecca and Beijing:  Modernization and Consumption among Urban Chinese Muslims, by Maris Boyd Gillette.  Choice 38:10.


  1. 2001 Feeding the World, by Vaclav Smil.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:217-221.


  1. 2001 El Bosque Mediterráneo en el Norte de África, by Jesús Charco.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:237-238.


  1. 2001 The Age of Wild Ghosts:  Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China, by Erik Mueggler. Choice 39:02.


  1. 2001 Environmental Anthropology:  From Pigs to Politics, by Patricia Townsend.  Choice 39:1.


  1. 2001 New Directions in Anthropology and Environment: Intersections, ed. by Carole Crumley.  Choice 39:4.


  1. 2001 Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas, ed. by David Lentz.  Journal of Ethnobiology 21:53-55.


  1. 2001 The Ecological Indian:  Myth and Reality, by Shepard Krech III.  Journal of Ethnobiology 20:37-42.


76a.        2002  A Society without Fathers or Husbands, by Hua Cai.  Choice 39:5.


  1. 2002 The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary, by Nicholas Tapp.  Choice 39:5.


  1. 2002 Cocina indigena y popular, by CONACULTA.  Petits Propos Culinaires 69:124-125.


  1. 2002 Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, by Sachiko Murata.  Philosophy East and West 52:257-260.


  1. 2002 Hosts and Guests Revisited: Tourism Issues of the 21st Century, ed. by Valene Smith and Maryann Brent.   Choice 39:08.


  1. 2002 Black Rice, by Judith A. Carney.  Journal of Ethnobiology 21:53-54.


  1. 2002 Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, ed. by David Wu and Tan Chee-Beng.  Journal of Asian Studies 61:2:689-691.


  1. 2002 Mayo Ethnobotany, by David Yetman and Thomas VanDevender.  Choice 39:11.


  1. 2002 Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, ed. by Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden.  Anthropos 97:573-574.


  1. 2002 The Cambridge World History of Food, ed. by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Ornelas.  Journal of Ethnobiology 22:163-164.


  1. 2002 Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China by Stevan Harrell.  Choice 40:03.


  1. 2002 Culture, Environment, and Conservation in the Appalachian South, ed. by Benita J. Howell.  Choice 40:3.


  1. 2002 Appetites:  Food and Sex in Postsocialist China, by Judith Farquhar.  Choice 40:04.


  1. 2003 When Culture and Biology Collide, by E. O. Smith.  Choice 40:3479.


  1. 2003 The World and the Wild, ed. by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus.  Pacific Affairs 75:4:588.


  1. 2003 China to Chinatown:  Chinese Food in the West, by J. A. G. Roberts.  Journal of Asian Studies 62:569-571.


  1. 2003 Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, ed. by David Wu and Tan Chee-beng.  Anthropos 98:620-622.


  1. 2003 Crafting Tradition, by Michael Chibnik.  Choice 41-1618.


  1. 2003 New Year Celebrations in Central China in Late Imperial Times, by Goran Aijmer.  Choice 41-2554.


  1. 2004 Moral Politics in a South Chinese Village:  Responsibility, Reciprocity and Resistance, by Hok-Bun Ku.  Choice 41-5442.


  1.      2004 Indus Ethnobiology, ed. by Steven A Weber and William R. Belcher.  Choice 41-5993.


  1. 2004  Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, by Andrew Dalby.  Journal of Ethnobiology 24:163-164.


  1.      2004  Political Ecology:  An Integrative Approach to Geography and Evnironment-Development Studies, ed. by Karl Zimmerer and Thomas J. Bassett.  Choice 41-6682.


  1.       2004  Social History and African Environments, ed. by William Beinart and JoAnn McGregor.  Choice 41-6689.


  1. 2004 The Nehalem Tillamook:  An Ethnography, by Elizabeth Derr Jacobs.  Choice 41-1026.


  1. 2004  The Retreat of the Elephants, by Mark Elvin.  Journal of Ethnobiology 24:352-354.


  1. 2004 Anthropology of the Performing Arts, by Anya Royce.  Choice 42:3518.


  1. 2004 Miniature Crafts and Their Makers:  Palm Weaving in a Mexican Town.  Choice 42:6669.


  1. 2005 Political Ecology, by Paul Robbins.  Choice 42-5341.


  1. 2005 Miniature Crafts and Their Makers:  Palm Weaving in a Mexican Town, by Katrin S. Flechsig.  Choice 2004:10393.


  1. 2005  Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond.  Journal of Ethnobiology 25:143-145.


  1. 2005 The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson.  Choice 43:1027.


  1. 2005 Facing the Wild:  Ecotourism, Conservation and Animal Encounters, by Chilla Bulbeck.  Choice 43:1641.


  1. 2005 Intelligence in Nature:  An Inquiry in Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby.  Choice 43:2765.


  1. 2006 Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of Calfornia’s Natural Resources, by Kat Anderson.  Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 25:255-258.


  1. 2006 Survival Skills of Native California, by Paul D. Campbell.  Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 25:262-263.


  1. 2006 Food Plants of China, by Hu Shiu-Ying.  Journal of Ethnobiology 26:165-167.


  1. 2006. Where Rivers and Mountains Sing:  Sound, Music and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, by Theodore Levin.  Choice 44:0226.


  1. 2006 Miraculous Response:  Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China, by Adam Yuet Chau.  Choice 44-0394.


  1. 2006  People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations, by Emilio Moran.  Choice 44:2770.


  1. 2006 As Days Go By:  Our History, Our Land, and Our People—The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, ed. by Jennifer Karson.  Choice 45-1077


  1. 2007 Be of Good Mind:  Essays on the Coast Salish, ed. by Bruce Granville Miller.  Choice 45:2204.


  1. 2007 The Earth Only Endures:  On Reconnecting with Nature and Our Place in It, by Jules Pretty.  Choice 45:4461.


  1. 2007 Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management, ed. by Charles R. Menzies.  American Anthropologist 109:571-572.


  1. 2008 “An Anthropology of Chocolate.”  Review article on Chocolate in Mesoamerica:  A Cultural History of Cacao, ed. by Cameron McNeil.  American Anthropologist 110:71-73.


  1. 2008 Chumash Ethnobotany:  Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California, by Jan Timbrook.  Choice 45-6271.


  1. 2008 Chumash Ethnobotany:  Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California, by Jan Timbrook.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28:136-138.


  1. 2008 Animals the Ancestors Hunted:  An Account of the Wil Mammals of the Kalam Area, Papua-new Guinea, by Ian Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28j:134-136.


  1. 2008 Wild Harvest in the Heartland:  Ethnobotany in Missouri’s Little Dixie, by Justin Nolan.   Journal of Ethnobiology 28:139-140.


  1. 2008  Life in a Kam Village in Southwest China, 1930-1949, by Ou Chaoquan, tr. by D. Norman Geary.  Brill, 2007.


  1. 2008 Kinship and Food in South East Asia, ed. by Monica Janowski and Fiona Kerlogue. Copenhagen:  NIAS press, 2007.  Anthropos 103:2:598-599.


  1. 2008 The Nature of an Ancient Maya City:  Resources, Interaction and Power at Blue Creek, Belize, by Thomas Guderjan.  Choice 46-1659.


  1. 2008 Environmental Anthropology: a historical reader, ed. by Michael R. Dove and Carol Carpenter.  Choice 46-1566.


  1. 2008 Koekboya (and) Nomads in Anatolia, by Harald Bőhmer.  Journal of Ethnobiology 28:318-319.


  1. 2009  The Fishermen’s Frontier:  People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska, by David F. Arnold.  Choice 46-4615.


  1. 2009 State and Ethnicity in China’s Southwest, by Xiaolin Guo.  Choice 46-5188.


  1. 2009 Christmas Island:  An Anthropological Study, by Simone Dennis.  Choice 46-6282.


  1. 2009 Against the Grain, ed. by Bradley Walters, Bonnie J. McCay, Paige West and Susan Lees.  Journal of Ethnobiology 29:360-362.


  1. 2010 Spirits of the Air:  Birds and American Indians in the South, by Shepard Krech.  Choice 47-3251.


  1. 2010  California Indians and the Environment:  An Introduction (2nd edn.), by Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish.  Choice 47-3252.


  1. 2010 Biocultural diversity and indigenous ways of knowing: human ecology in the Arctic, by Karim-Aly Kassam.  University of Calgary Press,  2009.  Choice 47-5105.


  1. 2010 Terres de Vanoise:  Agriculture en Montagne Savoyarde, by Brien Meilleur.  Journal of Ethnobiology 30:173-174.


  1. 2010 Material Choices:  Refashioning Bast and Leaf Fibres in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, edited by Roy Hamilton and Lynne Milgram.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:3.


  1. 2010 Trying Leviathan, by D. Graham Burnett.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:4-6.


  1. 2010 Grass Roots:  African Origins of an American Art, edited by Dale Rosengarten, Theodore Rosengarten, and Enid Schildkrout.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:7-8.


  1. 2010. Spirits of the Air:  Birds and American Indians in the South, by Shepard Krech III.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:16-17.


  1. 2010. Naming Nature:  The Clash between Instinct and Science, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.  Ethnobiology Letters 1:30-32.


  1. 2010 After the first full moon in April: a sourcebook of herbal medicine from a California Indian elder, by Josephine Grant Peters and Beverly R. Ortiz.  Choice 48-1558.


  1. 2010 Jungle laboratories: Mexican peasants, national projects, and the making of the pill, by Gabriela Soto Laveaga.  Choice 48-2255.


  1. 2011 Different truths: ethnomedicine in early postcards, by Peter A. G. M. de Smet.  Kit Publishers, 2010.  Choice 48-2759.


  1. 2011 Biocultural diversity conservation: a global sourcebook, by Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley.    Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2010.  Choice 48-2767.


  1. 2011 Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, by Raymond Pierotti.  Ethnobiology Letters 2:3-5.


  1. 2011 Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit:  Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food, ed. by Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest.  Ethnobiology Letters 2:45.


  1. 2011 Dark Green Religion, by Bron Taylor.  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Cultue 5:2:244-245.


  1. 2012 The Banana Tree at the Gate, by Michael Dove.  Ethnobiology Letters 3:13.


  1. 2012 From the Hands of the Weaver, ed. by Jacilee Wray.  Choice 50-2152


  1. 2013 Spiritual Ecology, by Leslie Sponsel.  Current Anthropology 54:245-247.


  1. 2014 Environmental Winds, by Michael Hathaway.  Choice 51-2805.


  1. 2014. How Forests Think, by Eduardo Kohn.  Choice 51-2744.


  1. 2014 Uses of Plants by the Hidatsas of the Northern Plains, by Gilbert Wilson.  Choice 52-2068.

scientific name usage

December 6th, 2014

Scientific Name Usage


Non-biologists, including highly trained scientists in other fields, often get confused by scientific names and their usage.  This posting is intended to help.

Take a familiar plant, the tomato.  The name you usually see is Lycopersicon esculentum Miller.  This means that the genus—the general category of similar, very closely related plants, is Lycopersicon, which means “wolf peach,” probably in honor of the once-believed toxic qualities of the plant.  The species name, esculentum, means “good to eat.”  Miller was the guy who gave it that name.

You may also see it as Lycopersicon lycopersicum (L.) Karsten ex Farwell.  This is a synonym, abbreviated syn.  The L. stands for Linnaeus—everybody knows about him so nobody spells his name out.  But he put the plant in a different genus (Solanum, I think) and Karsten, with Farwell, gave it the new genus name.  Then at some point people found something wrong with this name—I don’t know what—and Miller renamed it.  But some people still use the old name, so the synonymy must be recorded.

Zoologists never cite the authorities (the name authors) unless they are doing formal taxonomic writing, but botanists usually cite them.  Trained more in zoology, I find it maddening to have to worry about the authorities, so I just leave them out.

Some species may have subspecies: very slightly different forms that can still all breed with each other and produce perfectly viable offspring.  One of these, the source subspecies of the first individual to be scientifically described, gets the species name doubled:  Passerella iliaca iliaca, eastern fox sparrow.  Others get different names: Passerella iliaca megarhyncha, large-billed (or Sierra Nevada) fox sparrow.  This can be abbreviated P. i. megarhyncha if you are talking about fox sparrows already, and have given the full name.

Varieties are abbreviated var., as in Beta vulgaris var. cicla L, Swiss chard, and Beta vulgaris var. rapa Dumont, sugar beet.  (Since these are plants, I have to cite the authorities.)  Hybrids are designated by x: Triticum x aestivum L., bread wheat, usually without the x but is a known hybrid of several species.  If you know the species you can have Calypte costae x Calypte anna for the hybrid Costa’s with Anna’s hummingbird that we sometimes see in California.

The actual scientific name is always italicized, but the authorities are not.  The authorities are not part of the actual name, and thus have to be in ordinary type font.  The genus name is always capitalized, even in the middle of a sentence.  The species name is never capitalized in zoology, but in botany the species name is capitalized if it’s derived from the name of a person or of a specific place.  Very general place names like americanum are not capitalized.

Scientific names have to be in Latin, or Latinized versions of words in other languages—Lycopersicon is actually Greek but Latin borrowed Greek words all the time, so no one cares.  Much more exotic names get into usage—many Native American, Australian aboriginal, and other  plant and animal names have been Latinized, as in Puma concolor (“puma” is Quechua) or Felis yaguaroundi for the jaguarundi (a Tupi-Guarani name).  And then there is the recent Confuciusornis for a genus of fossil birds from China….

Originally, scientific descriptions had to be in Latin too, and a plant, animal or fungus was not recognized by international science till a Latin description was published.  Some nostalgic scientists still publish in Latin, but English and other international languages are now accepted.

The modern scientific naming system was developed by Linnaeus in the 18th century, but he consciously followed a long line of forebears, from the great ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus (4th century BCE) down to John Ray and others in the 17th century.  Linnaeus sensibly conserved the old names whenever he could; many go right back to Theophrastus, who was an excellent botanist.  Linnaeus set up the formal binomial system described above, and the hierarchy of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species—note the way it follows the “Old Regime” social system!  (There are also suborders, superfamilies, subgenera, etc., etc.)  Traditional naming systems—including the ancient Greek one Theophrastus used—tend to fall into a very similar pattern: a folk genus with folk species and sometimes folk subspecies and varieties, subsumed under broader categories like “bird” and “snake.”

Humans are Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Cordata (animals with spinal cords), Class Mammalia, Order Primates, Family Hominidae, Genus Homo, species sapiens.  Modern humans should probably be subspecies H. s. sapiens, with Neanderthals and other extinct forms as other subspecies, but many writers keep these various forms as separate species.  There is a huge controversy about just what a “species” is when you’re talking about fossil forms.  Some, “splitters,” would give new names to every vaguely-different-looking skull.  Others, “lumpers,” infer relationships from basic similarities, and use names much more widely.  Even in living species there is constant disagreement about exact species boundaries, usually when two populations hybridize a bit but not regularly.  Splitters then separate them, lumpers lump them into one species.  Splitting and lumping tend to run in cycles; the Baltimore oriole has been lumped with the Bullock’s oriole about half my life, and split the other half (when I was young and again when I got old).  This is a pretty common story.

Modern genetics, especially population genetics and genomics, has tremendously improved our understanding of species, genus, and higher-level boundaries!  This (with some old-fashioned anatomical study) explains the many changes in scientific names that you will have seen if you work with such materials. Plant lovers in particular have had to deal with this.  For one example, the old lily family has been broken up into many small families—the plants in the new families look sort of alike but are quite different genetically.  Onions and garlic, for instance, were formerly lilies, but now have a family of their own, distinguished by the chemicals that give them their scent.  Much remains to be done as more genomic information comes out.

Sometimes, habit is so strong that an invalid scientific name persists.  The dog is usually still Canis familiaris (as named by Linnaeus), but it is really just a domesticated wolf, and thus is really Canis lupus.  Maybe it should be “var. familiaris.


The plural of “genus” is “genera.”  The singular and plural of “species” are both “species.”  (“Specie” is an unrelated word; it means money.)  Both of these plurals are quite unusual forms for Latin, which causes yet more confusion.  It may be useful to know that the usual Latin masculine ending is –us, feminine –a, neuter –um; corresponding Greek endings are –os, -a, -on; plural of the neuter in both languages is –a (as in genera), which can be confusing.  Tree species names are usually in the feminine, because the Latins believed trees had female spirits living in them.  So, e.g., Pinus ponderosa, though Pinus has the masculine ending.


Scientific names follow a rule of priority: the name given when the species was first described must be used forever.  There are very few exceptions.  These occur mostly when the description was too poor to be regarded as adequate, and no type specimen was saved.  Even the sacred Linnaeus was prone to this—his name Achras sapota for the chicozapote was considered so bad that it was renamed (with a new, split genus) Manilkara achras (Mill) Fosberg.  However, most botanists are enough in awe of Linnaeus to keep calling it Manilkara sapota (L.) Van Royen.   Note, again, Linnaeus’ and others’ fondness for local names; sapota is from Nahuatl tzapotl, meaning any soft fruit.

If the original description was so bad that nobody can figure out what it applied to, the name can become a nomen nudum—a “naked name,” without a real application.  Usually, though, there is another name available for the species in question.  Sometimes a very obscure earlier name and description are discovered in some old tome.  This should mean that the long-established name should be killed, but the international nomenclature commissions can be charitable, and spare a long-established name.


For every scientific name, there has to be a “type specimen”: An actual example of the species (or genus or subspecies), preserved in a museum, herbarium, or similar archive.  This should, and almost always is, be the individual on which the original Latin description was based.  This applies to fossils as well as to living species.  This allows checking back.  If geneticists determine that a species has to be split into two or three, for instance, you want to know which of those two or three the original type was, so you go back and look at it.  I’m not sure what the type specimen for Homo sapiens is!  If there is no surviving type specimen (as there usually is not for those 18th-century names), a type specimen will have been picked out “by subsequent designation,” as we say in the trade.

Ideally, type specimens, and all other specimens for that matter, are filed away in their storage cases with labels that provide the exact location of collection, with information such as what kind of vegetation was around, what date the item was collected, and other useful data.  We ethnobiologists pray for some indication of how the plant or animal was used!  Some labels do have that!  Always remember to put as much data on a label as you can fit on it, and keep a backup record with even more data (labels do get lost).  If you are doing field work in zoology you probably aren’t collecting much, but if you’re studying ethnobotany, or ethnoentomology or ethnomycology, you have to collect specimens and get them properly identified and archived at local institutions.


Old-fashioned drug names were in Latin too, and can look confusingly like scientific names, e.g. oleum olivarum, olive oil.  The Chinese have most unfortunately revived this custom and given Chinese drugs modern Latin names, e.g. fructus Lycii for goji berries (the fruit of Lycium chinense or L. barbarum).  People, especially Chinese writers, now confuse these with scientific names, creating total chaos, e.g. by mixing up the usage of  fructus Lycii and Lycium chinense as if they were somehow the same thing.  I wish these Chinese drugs had kept their Chinese names.


Cool quotations

November 18th, 2014

Cool stuff


“Cool” is remarkably enduring as a word.  It comes from the West African concept, according to Robert Faris Thompson (Jessica Ogilvie, “You Know It,” LAT, Nov. 10, 2012, p.E7)


Traveling light….


The train done gone and the Greyhound bus don’t run

But walkin’ ain’t crowded and I won’t be here long.

Traditional blues verse


Got the key to the highway, I’m booked out and bound to go,

Gone to leave here runnin’ cause walkin’ is mo’ slow

Traditional blues verse




The absolute basics:


Nyach gava yuk vayuk yabek yak hak wak vak wak yuka!

(When you see people needing help, help them!)  Paul Talieje, Walapai elder


Look upon all living beings, thinking them as it were Buddhas; join palms and worship them, as if venerating the World-Honored One; also look upon all living beings, thinking them all as it were great bodhisattvas and good acquaintances.

Huisi, 6th C AD


Lord, grant me the patience to bear the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

St. Francis of Assisi (attrib.).  Still the best advice; the wisdom part is, alas, the rarest.


Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

John Wesley



Almost as important:


The most important time in your life is NOW; the most important person in your life is WHOEVER YOU’RE WITH; the most important thing to do in your life is BE GOOD TO THEM

Tolstoi, from the ending of the short story “The Three Questions,” in Fables and Fairy Tales, pp. 82-88; the whole story is worth looking up


Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; life is about learning to dance in the rain.

Vivian Greene



In the coming world, they will not ask me:  “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me:  “Why were you not Zurya?”

Rabbi Zurya of Annopol (quoted by Martin Buber)


Take what you want, then pay for it, says God.

Mediterranean proverb

God gives the pretext for buying but does not say how much it costs.

Persian variant, cited by Evliya Çelebi, p 261


When dooomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand, then he should plant it.

Muhammad (Foltz 2003:254)


You cannot prevent the bird of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent him from nesting in your hair.

Arab proverb


Live as though you would live forever, and as though you would die tomorrow.



Quotes from Edmund Burke:

No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.  [This one has been probably the most valuable piece of advice I ever got.]

Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.  [Close second.  Maybe first.]

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than to be ruined by too confident security.  (Reflections, p. 9)

Society cannot exist unless a controlling power on will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.


Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 (the pinnacle of defiant courage in faith)


“And when he [Jesus] was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  neither shall they say, Lo here! Or lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:20-21.


I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

Jesus (John 12:47)


Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.

John Lennon


A long-lost New Yorker cartoon that captures much, if not all, that I have learned about life.  It showed a baseball box score; each of the nine innings had the score Realists 1, Idealists 0.  The final score of the game was Realists 0, Idealists 1.


“There are people who do not live their present life; it is as if they were preparing themselves, with all their zeal, to live some other life, but not this one.  And while they do this, time goes by and is lost.  We cannot put life back into play, as if we were casting another roll of the dice.”

Antiphon the Sophist (quoted Pierre Hadot 2002:188)


Your talent is your gift from God; how you use it is your gift to Him.

Traditional American


We cannot be sure of life for one moment;

We can, by force and self-discipline, by many refusals and a few assertions, in the teeth of fortune assure ourselves

Freedom and integrity in life or integrity in death.  And we know that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things

Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without grief or fear knowing it survives us.

Robinson Jeffers (poem, “Nova,” worth looking up)


The wise learn from the mistakes of others, but fools learn only from their own.

Proverb quoted by a student in a class paper; I wish I knew the source


“Let us now praise famous men….

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten….

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.”

Ecclesiasticus 44:1, 8-13


The noble nature devotes itself to wisdom and love, of which the first is a mortal god, the second immortal.

Epicurus (Sent. Vat. LXXVIII, quoted McEvilley 2002:621).  Epicurus—who lived around 300 BC—got the idea of brotherly love from contemporary cynics.  His was a missionary philosophy, active till 4th C AD.  Relationships to Buddhism are many and close.  Fairly atheistic about the gods, he recognized a First Principle.


Variations on a theme:

No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace.  (“The only real failure is not trying.”  Literally, “there is no worse struggle than the one not done.”  “Struggle,” though, gives the wrong tone in English.)

There are no stupid questions; the only stupid thing is not asking.


“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  -Shakespeare


If you want to travel fast, go alone; if you want to travel far, go together.

African proverb


Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the point of view of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Niebuhr (2008 The Irony of American History.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press)


Courtesy costs so little and is worth so much that I’m surprised it is not more popular; but courtesy with encouragement is manna from heaven.  Courtesy not only uplifts the promising, but inhibits the truly dreadful—much more effectively than abuse.  The arrogant actually love abuse and feel obliged to return it with knobs on.  Editors need to know this.

Martin Carver (“Editorial,” Antiquity, 334:967-972, p. 967)


Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Traditional; the most practical advice of all time.


Cyrus cylinder:  Propaganda by Cyrus the Great after conquering Mesopotamia, but states very clearly his religious and ethnic tolerance policies, shown by his treatment of the Jews and other religions.  See British Museum translation online.  The first known statement of religious tolerance in the world.


When you sit with good company, sit long, for God does not count against your lifespan the time spent eating in good company.

Ja’far ibn Muhammad.  (This is not only a wonderful quote, it is literally true.  There is an excellent correlation between longevity and time spent relaxing with friends.)


Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau


The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?’

Alice Walker (q by Goff et al, psych file, p. 526)


We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen.

Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (NY: MacMillan, 1947, p. 36)


The great Jewish theologian Dov Baer once said:  “I went to my teacher not to hear him explain the Torah, but to see how he tied his shoes.”  When called on this rather cryptic remark, he explained:  “Anyone can talk about the Torah.  With him, his slightest act was the Torah.”  Retold from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim  (I forget the name of the teacher…because somehow this says something about the teacher, but much more about Dov Baer.)


When the great Hasid, Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, had a problem, it was his custom to go to a certain part of the forest.  There he would light a fire and say a certain prayer, and find wisdom.  A generation later, a son of one of his disciples was in the same position.  He went to that same place in the forest and lit the fire, but he could not remember the prayer.  But he asked for wisdom and it was sufficient.  He found what he needed.  A generation after that, his son had a problem like the others.  He also went to the forest, but he could not even light the fire.  “Lord of the Universe,” he prayed, “I could not remember the prayer and I cannot get the fire started.  But I am in the forest.  That will have to be sufficient.”  And it was.  Now, Rabbi Ben Levi sits in his study in Chicago with his head in his hand.  “Lord of the Universe,” he prays, “look at us now.  We have forgotten the prayer.  The fire is out.  We can’t find our way back to the place in the forest.  We can only remember that there was a fire, a prayer, a place in the forest.  So, Lord, now that must be sufficient.”   (Story told by Shmuel the Tailor, quoted Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days, 1978, p. 112; this is the most consoling story I know)


Some lines from the Baal Shem Tov himself:  “What does it mean, when people say that Truth goes all over the world?  It means that Truth is driven out of one place after another, and must wander on and on.”  And:  “Alas!  The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand.”  (Quoted from Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mezhizh, the “Baal Shem Tov,” by Martin Buber)


Remember that life…is often the choice among lousy alternatives.  The key to functioning, to wisdom and to life itself is often to choose the least lousy alternative that is practicably attainable.  (Edwin Shneidman 1981:153; the most trenchant statement of the world’s leading expert on suicide, on how to view life to keep you from suiciding)


And if, amid the cataclysms that clamour round us everywhere nowadays, you declare that all this babble about beauty and flowers is a vain impertinence, then I must tell you that you err, and that your perspectives are false.  Mortal dooms and dynasties are brief things, but beauty is indestructible and eternal, if its tabernacle be only in a petal that is shed tomorrow.

Reginald Farrer, plant explorer and botanist (from Rainbow Bridge, written not long before he died in the remote mountains of Tibet on a plant expedition)


Savoir pour prévoir, prévoir pour pouvoir.  (Know in order to predict, predict in order to be able to do something.)   —Auguste Comte (19th century) on the goals of sociology.


A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

James Madison, in letter, 1822 (quoted Ross, oil, p. 245).


Don’t mourn. Organize!  Organize!

Last words (according to legend) of the great labor union organizer Joe Hill


He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;

But Love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle and took him in.

Edwin Markham


We have careful thoughts for the stranger,

And smiles for the sometime guest,

But how oft for our own the bitter tone,

Though we love our own the best.

Margaret E. Sangster (1838-1912; often quoted now as “We have kind words…” or “We have pleasant words…”)


One can always manage straw for the cow, a leaf for God, food for the hungry, and kind words for all.

Proverb, India


Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Browning (from “Andrea del Sarto,” an otherwise forgettable poem, 1855)


One Ainu phrase for death is “to have space for thought” (Batchelor 1901:548)


If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own.

Graffito on a Berkeley newspaper rack, ca. 1968


Only dead fish go with the flow.

American saying


The Value of Money

With money, we can buy:

A bed but not a dream

Books but not intelligence

Food but not appetite

Adornments but not beauty

A house but not a home

Medicines but not health

Luxuries but not joy

Illusions but not happiness

A crucifix but not a Savior

A church but not belief.

Mexican folk wisdom (my translation, from a sign in a Mexican restaurant in Redding, CA).

There’s more (shared by Adolfo Tovar Verduzco online, my trans again):

A position but not respect

A watch but not time

Blood but not life

Sex but not love


I am traveling, I,

I go round the world.

I cause the mist.

When I climb the mountaintops

I cause clouds, I cause the rain.

Long live Coyote!  He will always be.

This song cures sadness and relieves bad times.  Life is a dream, and the world is a banquet.

Old Man Coyote, from the Chumash of Fernando Librado (T. Blackburn, December’s Child, pp. 226-227)


The Scythian nomad Anacharsis found himself in Greece, where he had a conversation with the super-rich Lydian king Croesus.  Croesus launched a discussion among the court sages as to who was the bravest of beings.  Anacharsis said:  “The wildest animals, for they alone would willingly die in order to maintain their freedom.”  The conversation turned to the most just, and Anacharsis said “The wildest animals, for they alone live in accordance with nature, not in accordance with laws.  Since nature is a work of God, while law is a ordinance of man, and it is more just to follow the institutions of God than those of men.”  Croesus rather sarcastically asked if the beasts were also the wisest, to which Anacharsis replied that they were, because “wisdom consists in showing a greater respect to the truth than to the ordinance of the law.”

Diodoros, via Knauer 1998:14


Jai yen yen:  “Cool heart,” a Thai ideal


We are all kernels on the same corncob

Tewa proverb (quoted Cajete 1994:165)

One thing you can’t recycle is wasted time.



Every fire is the same size when it begins.

Seneca proverb


It’s not where you’re bred but where you’re fed.  (Doğduğu yerde değil, doyduğu yerde.)

Turkish proverb


A table without vegetables is like an old man devoid of wisdom.

Medieval Arab proverb, quoted Ahsan 1979:13


The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman; widely quoted


Angels never fight at all; people quarrel but reconcile without delay; demons fight and remain unreconciled all day or more.

Ancient Greek (see Dawes and Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints, p. 225)


“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.  When change is absolute there remains no being to improve, and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, from The Life of Reason (NY 1905), vol. 1, p. 284.

“He who does not forget the past is master of the future.  This is why the man of superior attainments (chun-tzu), when he handles the state, observes it in the light of antiquity.”

Jia Yi, ca 170 BCE, quoted Bodde, p. 87.

“Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it, but those who DO know history are condemned to stand  by helplessly while the others repeat it.”

New Yorker cartoon, 2013


Advice by the Iroquois to a missionary (in 1634) who became ill:  Look on nature, for “Thou wilt become cheerful, and if thou art cheerful thou wilt recover”

Missionary friar Le Jeune, 1634, as quoted by Eleanor Leacock, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6, p. 193.


Never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Attrib. Margaret Mead; not in her published works but so typical of her thought that it is accepted as something she said.  It also appears to be literally true, as least of beneficial changes.


Get it!  Get it better, or get it worse!  No middle ground or compromise.

Thomas Eakins (the great artist) to his student Henry Tanner, the first great academically-trained African-American artist, when Tanner was discouraged by the racism he encountered in the art world; Eakins had no patience with racism or with the possibility of Tanner giving up because of it.  Tanner eventually moved to France because of racism in the US, and, tragically, his work is still extremely undervalued, with racism as one pretty obvious reason.


Nor can it be but touch of arrogant ignorance, to hold this or that Nation Barbarous, these or those times grosse, considering how this manifolde creature man, wheresoever hee stand in the world, hath alwayes some disposition of woorth….

So that it is but the clouds gathered about our own judgement that makes us think all other ages wrapt up in mists, and the great distance betwixt us, that causes us to imagine men so farre off to be so little in respect of our selves.  Wee must not look upon the immense course of times past as men overlook spacious and wide countreys, from off high mountains and are never the neere to judge of the true nature of the soile, or the particular sight and face of those territories they see…. the best measure of man is to be taken by his owne foot.

Samuel Daniel, 1603 (A Defense of Ryme, from Daniel’s Poems and a Defence of Ryme, ed. Arthur Sprague.  New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.  Vol. 4, pp. 49, 51-52)


Man proposes, God disposes.

Age-old, with Biblical, Greek and Latin ancestry


There’s no failure in life until you try to be something you’re not.

Modern Native American saying, as related by Luke Madrigal


Advice by a famous ancient Greek sculptor, asked for the secret of his success: “Make the nose too big and the eyes too small.”

(Working with marble, you can make the nose smaller but not bigger, and the eyes bigger but not smaller.  In other words, make your mistakes in the direction you can fix.  A modern equivalent would be:  Know when to make Type I vs Type II errors.)

Another (originally) ancient Greek line about sculpture:  “The bear was in the stone already; I merely set him free.”   A version of the line is found in pseudo-Diogenes the Areopagite, p. 195.  Recently recycled, with claims it was said by Inuit and other Native American carvers.


…It was not in nature’s plan for us her chosen children to be creatures base and ignoble—no, she brought us into life, and into the whole universe, as into some great field of contest, that we should be at once spectators and ambitious rivals of her mighty deeds, and from the first implanted in our souls an invincible yearning for all that is great, all that is diviner than ourselves.  Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space….  And this why nature prompts us to admire, not [only] the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Etna…”

Longinus (Havell 1890:68)


If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract easoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

David Hume (Selections, ed. by Charles Hendel, Scribners’ 1927, p. 193)




Once, when I was not yet born, how could I know life’s delight?  Now I have not yet died; how can I know that death is not delightful?

Last words of an ancient Chinese philosopher (from Zhuangzi—I think)


A way of looking is also a way of not looking.

Chinese Taoist saying (ascribed—I can’t find the source; it seems to be a free translation; at any rate, it’s a thoroughly Taoist idea).


When people bring up your flaws, you resent them for it; but when a mirror reflects your ugliness, you consider it a good mirror.

Huai Nan Tzu (“The Tao of Politics,” p. 75)


Even the greatest fool is right once in a hundred times; even the wisest sage is wrong once in a hundred times.

Chinese proverb, going back to Confucius or his time.   (For the rest of us, that last part is more like one in five.)


One adept at learning is like the king of Qi who, when eating chicken, was satisfied only after he had eaten a thousand feet: if he were still unsatisfied, there would always be another chicken foot to eat.

Lü Buwei.  2000.  The Annals of Lü Buwei.  Tr. John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.  P. 129.


There are no thousand-year-old states, no hundred-year-old households, and no ten-year-old abilities.

Mu He, a tomb text from 168 BCE (Shaughnessy, I Ching, p. 247, retranslated).  Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but the message is clear: your talents, and you, are not long for this world; do what you can while you can.


We have not followed a path made by a single footprint, nor taken advice from only one viewpoint, or allowed ourselves to be trapped or bound by things; thus we have not advanced or shifted with the age.

Good advice from the authors of the Huainanzi, proudly summing up their accomplishment; tr. Major et al, slightly revised


Whenever people don’t live out their lives or their life is cut short, it is always caused by not loving or cherishing themselves, they exhaust their emotions, push their sense of purpose to the extreme, pursue fame and profit, collect poisons and damage their spirit, internally damaging the bone and marrow and externally spoiling the sinews and flesh.  Qi and blood perish, the channels and network vessels become congested….

Sun Simiao, tr. Sabine Wilms


One day Master Huai-jang asked Ma-tsu, “why are you practicing meditation?”  And Ma-tsu answered, “I’m trying to become a buddha.” Huai-jang picked up a brick next to Ma-tsu’s hut and started to grind it on a rock.  When Ma-tsu asked what he was doing, Huai-jang replied, “I’m trying to make a mirror.”  Ma-tsu said, “But how can you make a mirror by grinding a brick?”  Huai-jang answered, “And how can you become a buddha by practicing meditation?”

Red Pine (Han-Shan p. 102), from the Chuantenglu.  The expression “No matter you much you polish a brick, you can’t make a mirror” has become proverbial in Chinese, like “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” in English, specifically in regard to people—you can’t change a fool.


The superior person, in treating others, would rather emphasize the positive than insist on perfection.

Ouyang Xiu (Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, p. 273, tr. Richard Davis, slightly corrected)


“If he does not recite and chant (=study) as a child, does not analyze and discuss as a youth, and does not instruct and admonish as an elder, then it can also be said he has become a person without a legacy.”  Da Dai Liji


“When someone in antiquity who was gripped by an obsession for flowers heard speak of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go to it.  Even in the freezing cold and the blazing heat, even if his skin were cracked and peeling or caked with mud and sweat, he would be oblivious.  When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would go from budding to blooming to fading.  Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave…. This is what is called a genuine love of flowers….”  Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610), tr. Judith Zeitlin, in “The Petrified Heart: Obsession in Chinese Literature,” Late Imperial China 12:1-26, 1991, p. 3.


A Chinese painter stopped at an inn for one night.  He planted bamboos.  Someone asked:  “You are staying here only one night.  Why are you planting bamboos?”  The painter turned to the bamboos and said:  “What is the use of talking to such a person?”

Chinese folktale


When I was in China in 1978, I noticed that almost every hotel had a large painting of a pine in the reception area, labeled “welcoming-guests pine.”  I realized there must be a story, so I asked about this.  I learned that, according to folklore, there was an artist who was so poor that he could not afford a servant, but so absorbed in his painting that he often missed a knock on the door.  He thus painted a pine (symbol of integrity, evergreen against the storm) and labeled it “welcoming-guests pine” to serve the function.  This started a tradition.


“If I am stabbed with a knife yet remain woodenlike, it must be because I am dead.  So it is if people are dying from deprivation yet I just stand by like a block of wood.  Doing good is like drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry….. There are two roads: to be humane, the road to life; and to be inhumane, the road to death.”

Gao Panlong, ca. 1593; tr. Joanna Handlin Smith (2009:60)


Two variants of a Chinese traditional formula for happiness (both from folklore):

If you would be happy for three hours, get drunk.

If you would be happy for three days, kill a pig and eat it.

If you would be happy for three months, get married.

If you would be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.


If you would be happy for an hour, take a nap.

If you would be happy for a day, go fishing.

If you would be happy for a month, get married.

If you would be happy for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you would be happy for a lifetime, help others.


The longest journey begins with a single step.  –Chinese proverb


Highest loyalty and considerateness is like the earth: it creates all things and makes no boast of it.  Highest honor is like the seasons: they change all things without any obligation to do it.  The loyal person does not lie.  The honest person does not weasel out.  The good person is like this: not forgetting the living or turning his/her on the dead.

From a text found in a tomb at Guodian, dated ca 300 BC; my translation, after Scott Cook’s superb workup in The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, Cornell UP, 2012, vol. 1, p. 577.  The whole text is short but extremely powerful.


Chinese proverbs (Rohsenow 2002):

He doesn’t blame his household’s short rope, he blames the community for having a deep well (B128)

Don’t value a foot of  jade, but value an inch of time (B131; to understand this you have to realize the Chinese used sundials—the shadow advanced about an inch an hour).

Mend the roof in fine weather, and when not thirsty start digging a well (B150)

This one led to a medical saying:  “Waiting for an illness to appear before taking medicine is like waiting until you’re thirsty to dig a well.”  (Red Pine tr., Han-Shan p. 102, from the Suwen Ssuchi Tiaoshan Taolun.)

Don’t fear being slow, just fear stopping (B162; bu pa man, jiou pa zhan)

A man once cheated by a candy seller will not trust a sweet mouth again (C24; that would go great in Southern dialect, double meaning and all: I got took by the candy man and I ain’t trustin’ no sweet mouth no more.)

Lighting up a seven-storey pagoda is not as good as lighting an ordinary lamp in a dark place. (D151)

East gate, carrying-pole lost; west gate says there’s a revolution!.  (By the time the story travels that far, it’s grown that much.  Dongmen shi tiao biandan, ximen shuoshi zaofan.) (D179)

Freezing to death, stand straight and face the wind; starving to death, never bend.  (D183; Chinese history in 10 words.)

Do more, more mistakes; do less, fewer mistakes; do nothing, no mistakes! (D 222)  (Teddy Roosevelt said this even better:  “To avoid all criticism be like the oyster: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”)

Feng sheng feng, long sheng long, laoshu sheng de hui da dong.  (The world’s greatest poem.  Lit. Phoenixes bear phoenixes, dragons bear dragons, rats bear ones that can dig holes.  F49)

A white-washed crow isn’t white for long.

In a melon patch don’t tie your shoes; under a plum tree don’t adjust your hat. (G167.  Don’t do things that will obviously arouse suspicion.)

Guan fang lou, guan ma shou, guang zhong tangwu ji shi chou.  The public hall leaks, the public horse is thin, and in the public hall the chicken shit stinks.  (G124; a typical bit of wry Chinese folk poetry.)

The face is easy to wash, the heart more difficult (L96)

Sharp knives cut, the wounds may heal; evil words hurt, the hatred never dies.  (L99)

When hunters enter the mountains they see only game; when herb gatherers enter the mountains, they see only medicinal herbs (L103)

Whole life without slander, no competence. (L123)  (The only people who go through their whole lives without slander are those who can’t do anything.)

Running water is never stale and door hinges are never worm-eaten. (L133; a classic Daoist line)

Dragons many, no water control; hens many, no laying eggs. (L140; dragons control water.  Too many cooks spoil the broth.)

Better one mouthful of heavenly peach than a whole basket of rotten apricots.  (N50)

Better a dog in time of peace than a human in time of war. (N77; this is the nearest real Chinese proverb to Jose Luis Borges’ wonderful “Chinese curse,” “May you live in interesting times.”)

A fur robe worth a thousand gold is not made from a fox’s armpit. (Q40)

When people hit bad luck, a mouthful of cool water will get stuck in their teeth. (R31)

People when many can eat a wolf, wolves when many can eat people. (R47)

When people have pure hearts, dogs won’t eat shit.  (R223; or, just as cynical, “When the millennium comes, dogs will still eat shit and wolves will still eat people.”)

A snake may enter a bamboo tube, but in its heart is wriggling.  (S178)

The river may rise, but it won’t rise over the little ducks. (S329; ordinary people survive all!)

Low people talk and don’t do, middling people talk and do, top quality people do and then talk. (X3; variant of ending, “…and say nothing.”)

If the country has no muddy legs, in the city starvation kills the oily mouths. (S35; an answer to those who look down on farmers for being dirty)

In the shallows you can catch shrimp and fish, but enter the deep water and you can catch flood dragons. (X99)

Students like cow hairs, successes like unicorn horns.  (X196; reference is to the relative numbers; certainly true in my experience as a teacher.)

One day no work, one day no food.  (Y254; a classic Zen line, to counter the idea that Buddhist monks should not work.  I posted it on the refrigerator when my kids were young.)

Lots more good ones—see the book.





If anything can go wrong, it will.

Traditional; Murphy’s Law


An orphan has to cut his own umbilical cord.  [If you’re alone without help, you have to get used to doing everything for yourself.]

Turkish proverb (Levi and Sela p. 256)


“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, p. 462.


“Were one to go round the world with the intention of giving a good supper to the righteous and a sound drubbing to the wicked, he would frequently be embarrassed in his choice, and would find that the merits of most men [and women] scarcely amount to the value of either.”

David Hume, “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” in Writings on Religion, Anthony Flew, ed., pp. 29-38; quote on p. 34,.  Chicago and La Salle, IL:  Open Court.)

“I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete objectivity is impossible in these matters (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose.  As Robert Solow has remarked, that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”

Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Chapter 1, page 30
Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely:  all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.

Moby Dick, chapter 41, p. 202 of Penguin 2001 edn.


Man’s greatest good…is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and support, gazaing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries of their breasts.

Attrib to Genghis Khan (by folklore; from “Collected Chronicles,” quoted by Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, p. 153)


“Cleopatra’s nose:  Had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.”  (Modern readers may need this explained.  Short noses were considered ugly in Pascal’s time.  If Cleopatra had been ugly, she would not have seduced Caesar and Mark Antony; the Roman republic might have survived, and thus Rome never fallen; we might all be speaking Latin now….  This is Pascal being sarcastic about conjectural history.)

Pascal (tr. Roger Ariew; 2005:6)


We run carelessly over the precipice after covering our eyes to prevent our seeing it.

Pascal (ibid. 52 but reworded)


We are so presumptuous that we would like to be known throughout the world, even by people who will come when we are no more.  And we are so vain that the esteem of five or six people close to us pleases and satisfies us.

Pascal (ibid. 33)


The purest and most ritually careful imam in town had spent hours dressing and purifying himself for the Friday service.  Just as he came to the mosque, a filthy, unclean, impure street dog came rushing past and ran right into him.  He closed his eyes, turned his face toward heaven, and slowly said: “If Allah wills…it was a cat.”

Near Eastern folktale


Mi ddarllenais ddod yn rhywfodd

I’r byd hwn wyth ran ymadrodd,

Ac i’r gwrangedd, mawr lles iddynt,

Fynd a saith o’r wythran rhyngddynt.

(tr:)  They say there are eight parts of speech, and they say the women, God bless them, went off with seven of them.

Welsh folk rhyme (from A People’s Poetry, Hen Benillion, Glyn Jones, p. 108)


“The only thing anyone ever learned from the study of history is that no one ever learned anything from the study of history.”  G. W. Hegel (as quoted by Hayden White, 1987:82)


“The tree of humanity forgets the labour of the silent gardeners who sheltered it from the cold, watered it in time of drought, shielded it against wild animals; but it preserves faithfully the names mercilessly cut into its bark.”  Heinrich Heine, 1833 (as quoted in Gross 1983:323)


If you find that the Bullock can toss you, or the heavy-browned Sambhur can gore,

Ye need not stop work to inform us: we knew it ten seasons before.

                        Maxims of Baloo, from Kaa’s Hunting, in Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book 1 (p 46)


“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—T. S. Eliot (from “Four Quartets”)


“Had I only been a better writer, I could have saved the world!”

–Supposedly the last words of a famous French sage, but I have never found an actual reference, and this appears to be academic folklore.  However, “if it isn’t true, it’s a good story,” as the Italians say, and it certainly is exactly the way I feel on some mornings.


The shortest refutation of environmental determinism:  “Where the Greeks once lived, the Turks now live, and there’s an end on it.”  Georg Hegel (quoted Geertz 1963:6).


Some ancient Greek tried to lure Diogenes, the cynic who lived in a barrel, back into consumerism, so they lured him down to the Athens city market—extremely busy and active in those days.  They said:  “There, what do you think of that?”  His answer was:  “Behold, how many things there are in the world that Diogenes does not need.”

Exactly my sentiments in Macy’s or Target….


“Nequiquam, quoniam medio de fonte leporum

Surgit amari aliquit quod in ipsis floribus angat”

Lucretius, Book IV, lines 1133-1134, on the sorrows of love—even having sex with passionately loved ones ends, and leaves some guilt or grief.  (Incidentally, in the standard translation of this, the translator has some fun translating Lucretius’ sarcastically over-learned Greek words as French.)


“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority:  still more when you add the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority.”  Lord Acton, 1887, commenting on the then-new idea of Papal infallibility


“We may see the small value God has for riches by the people he gives them to.”  Alexander Pope (Gross, Oxford Book of Aphorisms, 1983:102).

In my childhood this had become proverbial in the Midwest:  “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at whom he gives it to.”  I like this phrasing better than Pope’s.  Related was a sarcastic Midwestern line on tasteless McMansions:  “Shows what God could do if he had money.”


Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

  1. L. Mencken (from “The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail, Nov. 16, 1917, reprinted in Prejudices, second series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920, pp. 155-179; on p. 158).  The article is on inspiration and simplistic explanations for it; Mencken’s sarcastic one was that it’s all from indigestion.


Puritanism:  The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

  1. L. Mencken, from A Book of Burlesques, 1916


The answer is What’s your question?

Sign in a Denver restaurant


“The problem with quotes on the Internet is you can never be certain they’re authentic—Abraham Lincoln.”

Quote (anonymous) on the Internet


“Here is the familiar paradox that all general theories of the relativity of truth must brand themselves as biased or erroneous.”

Max Black, “Linguistic Relativity: The Views of Benjamin Lee Whorf,” in Theory in Anthropology:  A Source Book, R. A. Manners and D. Kaplan, eds.  London:  Routledge, Kegan Paul.  Pp. 437


“Well, the best recipe for apple pie can’t be eaten but it would be odd to regard that as an inadequacy.”  Same, p. 444.


“I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:

  1. This is worthless nonsense,
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
  3. This is true, but quite unimportant,
  4. I always said so.”
  5. B. S. Haldane, reviewing a book for Journal of Genetics, 58:464 (review title “The Truth About Death”)


“One might recall…an anecdote of Darius.  When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers.  They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world.  Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them [as the Greeks did].  They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing.  One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it ‘king of all.’”  (Herodotus 1954, orig. ca. 400 BCE)


“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument” (C. S. Lewis; quoted by Peter Coates 1998:46 from Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Oxford University Press, 1944, p. 28).


Everyone describes the fair according to how well he did there.

Spanish proverb on what is now called the Rashomon effect


Failure is an orphan, success has a hundred fathers.

Anonymous folk wisdom


The millipede has many legs, but the snake is faster.

Chinese traditional (see Huainanzi p. 526)


If you make people think they think, they’ll love you; but if you make them think, they’ll hate you.

Anonymous folk wisdom


When you’re up to your ears in alligators, it’s hard to remember you set out to conserve the wetland.

Traditional (slightly updated)


Don’t try teaching a pig to sing; you merely waste effort and annoy the pig.

American proverb


Futile argument is like shearing a pig: you get too much squealing and too little wool.

Russian rough equivalent


Reality is what refuses to go away when I stop believing in it.

Anonymous folk wisdom


On trying to hurry things up by doing a lot at once:  “You can’t make a baby in one month by impregnating nine women.”

More anonymous folk wisdom


Never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity.

More folk wisdom


What can’t be cured must be endured.

Anonymous proverb, to which Old Man Coyote adds:  what can’t be cured must be uninsured


People will always do what is rational, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Old Man Coyote


Life is too serious to take seriously.

Old Man Coyote


Our need for control is the only human need that is never satisfied.  Since understanding is the only form of control that is good in large quantities, the wise will seek understanding instead of other forms.

Old Man Coyote


Whether one thinks the glass is half full or half empty may depend on whether it is filling or emptying.

Old Man Coyote


Growing up in a family gives to human life the tension between fair-and-equal and hierarchic-and-respectful.  As adults, if we don’t go primarily with the former, we regress to childhood and ultimately babyhood.

Old Man Coyote


Happiness is failing at something worth failing at;

Unhappiness is succeeding at something not worth doing.

Old Man Coyote


Self storage.

Riverside sign–near a cemetery


“The young scholars soon fell into a way of traveling from one school to another, as the contemporary saying went, seeking the liberal arts at Paris, law at Orleans, medicine at Salerno, magic at Toledo, and manners and morals nowhere”

George Whicher, The Goliard Poets, p. 3.  The universities in question were the leading ones in those fields at that time.  This proves that nothing ever changes….


The most outrageous regional putdown AND the greatest be-careful-what-you-wish-for line in history—said by the great Turkic emperor Babur after conquering India (16th century) and taking a long look at what he had won:

“The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry.  In the skilled arts and sciences there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity.  There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, no muskmelons or first-rate fruits, no ice or good water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hammams, no madrasas, no candles, no torches, or candlesticks.”  (Tr. Stephen Dale, in The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, p. 73)


Los Angeles Times, health section (p 1, 7), Mar 17 2003, notes that married people are happier than single ones not because marriage makes you happier but because happier people get married and stay so—this from prospective studies.  And (later) widows/widowers often happier than when married.  So much for marriage.


Nothing worth doing is worth doing perfectly.

Kristin Hawkes (“The Optimizer’s Epigram,” in her article “Why Hunter-Gatherers Work,” Current Anthropology 34:31-362, p. 342)


Without taste, genius is but sublime folly.

Attributed to various people, most often Chateaubriand but no one is sure.

Lord, I thank Thee for denying me the gift of taste.

Old man coyote


Modern version of St. Francis’ Prayer (see above): God grant me the coffee to change the things I can, and the wine to bear the things I cannot change.

From the Internet; “wisdom” of course has dropped out, being not even a concept in the contemporary world.


On prohibition:  “If you were to forbid people to roll camel dung into little balls with their fingers, people would do it, because they would assume there must be pleasure in it.”

Arabic proverb (attributed, not very believably, to Muhammad)


The first novel by Alexandre Dumas, of Three Musketeers fame, did not sell.  So under a false name he wrote a review of it in a leading journal, saying it was a shocking book that would corrupt the morals of the young.  It promptly became a best-seller.

–folktale; maybe true!


Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.  (Aus so krummen Holtze, der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.)

Immanuel Kant, tr, Isaiah Berlin and made famous from his book title The Crooked Timber of Humanity; from Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose; deriving apparently from:

Consider the work of God; for who can make straight, what he hath made crooked?

Ecclesiastes 7:13.


I’m losing money on every skin, and if it weren’t for the turnover I’d go broke.

Alleged remark by anonymous 19th-century fur trader (a bit challenged on economic theory)


I said, “I will keep watch upon my ways,

So that I do not offend with my tongue.

I will put a muzzle on my mouth

While the wicked are in my presence.”

Psalm 39 (Episcopal version)


Alle Leute recht getan

Ist eine Kunst die niemand kann.

(Doing well by everybody is an art known to nobody.)

German proverb, as quoted by my anthropologist friend Gabriela Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi


I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my cousin, brother and I against our village, and our village against the world.

Middle Eastern proverb; a slightly different Afghan version is quoted by Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy, p. 256


I never borrowed his pot, and anyway I returned it to him in perfect condition, and anyway it was cracked when he loaned it to me!

Folk wisdom (or sarcasm) from India


Malay proverbs:

Where there’s a will there’s a thousand ways, where there’s no will there’s a thousand excuses.

Better a wise man for a foe than a fool for a friend.

Where there are no eagles, the grasshoppers say, We are eagles.

Even if ten ships come, the dogs have no loincloths but their tails.


Ulrich, Johannes; Joachim I. Krueger; Anna Brod; Fabian Groschupf.  2013.  “More Is Not Less: Greater Information Quantity Does not Diminish Liking.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105:909-920.

  1. 917: “We believe [there is] a tendency among social psychologists of seeking to prove naïve folk psychologists wrong…. A related epistemological tendency in this field is to identify a psychological bias in the minds of ordinary people and to hold it responsible for a host of irrational, incompetent, or undesirable behaviors…leaving researchers in wonder ‘how people manage to get out of the door in the morning, let alone fly to the moon’ (North & Fiske, 2012, p. 88).” North, M. S., and S. T. Fiske.  2012.  “A History of Social Cognition.”  In Handbook of the History of Social Psychology, A. W. Kruglanski and W. Stroebe, eds.  New York: Psychology Press.  Pp. 81-99.

Old Man Coyote says:  Well, two people have walked on the moon, eight billion can’t get their lives together….


Belize proverbs:

Don’ call di halligator [crocodile] “long mout’” till you cross di riba.  (“Long mouth” is presumably insulting to crocodiles.)

Wat di jankro do befo di jekass die?  (Said of a person who flaunts and shows off his money, especially if his money was gotten by less than noble methods.  “Jankro” is phonetic spelling of “John Crow,” the Caribbean nickname for vultures.  The proverb means “What did the buzzard do before the jackass died?”  I think this gets it absolutely perfectly for most of our corporate rich.)


The world is like a huge guitar.  –William of Conches, tr. G. Dufy (Cathedrals, p.77)


Ethnobiology of the Mongol Empire

November 15th, 2014


Ethnobiology of the Mongol Empire:


Medicinal Items Mentioned and Used in the Huihui Yaofang, a Yuan Dynasty Medical Encyclopedia of Near Eastern Medicine for Chinese Users


  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside





The “Silk Road,” whatever one may think of its modern name (bestowed by F. Von Richtofen in the 19th century), was an information superhighway as well as a trade network.  As an information route, it flourished notably under the Mongols.  Among the most impressive flows was medical knowledge.  Chinese medical classics were translated into Persian and published in Iran; west Asian medical, nutritional, and health-related knowledge flooded into China.

Probably the most impressive single example was the Huihui Yaofang, a medical encyclopedia of Near Eastern medicine, compiled under the Yuan Dynasty for Chinese doctors to use.  It is in classical Chinese with Arabic and Persian drug names neatly and accurately added.  It reflects an astonishing degree of knowledge of west Asian and Galenic medicine.  It is evidently based on Central Asian encyclopedias, probably including lost ones but also showing enough resemblances to sources like Al-Samarqandī (see below) to prove its Central Asian background.

Only about 1/8 of the original survives.  It has been edited and published by Y. C. Kong (1996).  Dr. Paul Buell of the Max Planck Institute has prepared a draft translation, with some assistance from me on botanical identification. Dr. Buell’s draft translation is complete and accurate, but needs editing, for which there is currently no available time; interested scholars can email me or Dr. Buell for the draft.

Kong and his collaborators—including Shiu-Ying Hu, the world’s leading expert on China’s ethnobotany—have identified most of the medicinals.  We have found the rest, with a very few exceptions.

In what follows, I list the substances with their modern biological classification and with brief summaries of their ascribed medical values in classical Greek, Arab, Jewish, Central Asian, Indian and Chinese medicine, using the standard references (discussed in detail below).


A total of around 381 entries appears below (not counting synonyms and several completely unidentifiable items, which would bring the total to approximately 416).  This does not translate to 381 species, because there are entries for generic things (“dung,” “soil”) and some entries that cover several species of plants that seem similar and were apparently used similarly.  The actual total of identifiable species (or substances) is 287 plants, 68 animals and animal products, and 26 minerals.  In some cases multiple substances are derived from one species; in others, we are not sure of which species was actually used in the HHYF and thus include data for two or three similar ones.  I have tried to make one entry correspond to one taxon as listed the HHYF.  In many accounts I have included data on related species when such data are clearly relevant (e.g. when several similar species are used in similar ways in Central Asian medicine, as with oreganos, smartweeds and many others).   However, when different species within a genus have different names in the HHYF, as with cinnamon relatives, mints, and Prunus, I have given separate accounts to each named category.

I can do no more than follow the identifications in Kong’s edition (Kong 1996) of the HHYF, including the various papers republished there.  However, some of these identifications are almost certainly wrong (see e.g. Launaea below).  Further work is sorely needed.  Fortunately, most of the Arabic, Persian and Chinese names are well known and apply to well-known herbal and animal medicinals.

It is striking to note how many of the plants in the HHYF are still used, and proven by biomedical research to have actual value.


The plant family assignments given herein are not always those given in earlier sources.  When possibly I follow Hu Shiu-ying’s great work on Chinese food plants (2005).  Recent research, especially genomic and cladistic work, has dramatically revised many earlier family alignments.  The lily family, in particular, was once known as “the Smith family of the plant world”; there were once thousands of “lilies” only very dubiously related.  This family has now been broken up into several tightly-defined groups that are known to be actual lineages. Everyone knew the lilies were a mess, but no one knew quite what to do about it, until modern genetics and chemistry gave them the tools.

I have tried to be conservative on this, not accepting unproven changes.  Where confusion would be certain and problematic, because the changes are particularly recent, I have included the traditional family names in parentheses after the modern ones.  (The very old, long-abandoned names “Compositae” for Asteraceae, “Labiatae” for Lamiaceae, “Cruciferae” for Brassicaceae, and “Umbelliferae” for Apiaceae are used in the oldest literature.  I have not bothered to indicate this below.)

Species and genus names are given in standard current versions, which may need revision in some cases.  Dominik Wujastyk (2003:xxxvii) is not alone is complaining not only about the difficulty of finding scientific names for Asian herbs, but also about the lack of taxonomic agreement about names even when the identifications are certain.  However, there is a reason for changes in Latin nomenclature.  Some names are just plain wrong.  Others were (mis)applied by scientists who didn’t realize someone had named the plant already.  Most often, research shows that a plant is more different from, or more similar to, another plant than was previously realized.  In Wujastyk’s example, Nardostachys jatamansi, Indian spikenard, was once classed in the genus Valeriana, but turned out to be too different to fit in that genus.  Other names have also been applied to it but are not valid.  At least scientific names are consistent and are based on something.  The Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, English, and other names that have been used for Nardostachys are also confusing, as is often the case.  Vernacular names are usually far too inconsistent to be very useful, though the Chinese did achieve a commendable consistency in herbal usage; Li Shizhen’s taxonomy is quite comparable to the best European taxonomy of his time in its systematic consistency.  China lacked only a Linnaeus.

There is no question about the names—in Latin, Arabic, or Chinese—of common plants like fennel and coriander.  However, in folk practice, common names are regularly applied to anything of the same genus as the “correct” plant, and even very different plants may be lumped under one name according to appearance.  This became particularly problematic when New World crops came to Asia, because they were all too often given the name of some common native plant, leading to endless confusion.  The Chinese transferred the name of an obscure variety of millet to maize.  Guavas were “foreign pomegranates,” pineapples were “foreign jakfruit,” and so for countless other species.  All too often the word “foreign” is dropped in ordinary usage.  In much of southeast Asia, chile (Capsicum annuum) replaced the completely unrelated and dissimilar long pepper (Piper longum) in spice use, and thus took over its name—for instance, lada in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Mercifully, the HHYF dates to an earlier time, but we can see the same principle operating:  often a Chinese name was used for a Near Eastern one labeling a plant of the same genus.  We are left wondering if the Chinese plant itself was substituted.  For example, recipes calling for quince use the Chinese name of the Chinese quince; we have no idea whether they used that species, or used the Near Eastern quince under the same name, or both.



Sources Used and Summarized


Hu:  refers to Hu’s table, pp. 490 ff in the HHYF edition, of when plants are first mentioned in Chinese herbals.  (She gives traditional dates for those.  The actual dates of the entries in question may be later, since the Chinese, like modern medical writers, revised their medical textbooks every so often.)


From here onward, sources are listed, and utilized in the text, in chronological order of the material they treat:  Ancient Egypt first, then the Greeks, and then the Muslim and Jewish sources in order by year, then Nadkarni’s Indian remedies, and finally Li’s Bencao Gangmu.

Material in parentheses is ENA’s commentary.


Manniche:  Lisa Manniche’s An Ancient Egyptian Herbal brings together the relevant lore from the old papyri.  I have briefly summarized pre-Greek uses.  Greek medicine was introduced with Alexander the Great, if not before, and became dominant.

Theophrastus:  Theophrastus, a student a Plato and Aristotle, compiled the first known botany textbook, a superb and thorough overview.  In some areas, notably timber, his work is up-to-date enough to need few revisions today.  He practiced ethnobotany 2200 years avant la lettre by asking mountain and island folk about their plants and plant uses; he bunched together in a brief section the material about which he had a healthy skepticism, such as the idea that mandrake root harvest required one to draw three circles around the plant with a sword, and for a second piece one must dance around the plant talking of erotic love (Theophrastus 1926:II, 257).  Unfortunately for our purposes here, his section on medical uses is short; possibly much is lost, or possibly he ran out of time.  I have drawn on a few accounts where the plants are identifiable and the uses specified in some detail.

Theophrastus was unknown in western Europe until the Renaissance, being “translated from Greek into Latin by Teodoro of Gaza (c. 1398-c. 1478)” (Pavord 2005:146).  There is no evidence that he was any better known in Mongolia.

Athenaeus, in The Deipnosophists (1928-1941), quotes Theophrastus and others on edible plants and medicine, but in snippets too short to be of any value here.  The very long book is purportedly a record of a long dinner spent discussing foods, but is merely a bit of scholarship by quotation; no dinner could possibly be that dull, surely?


Dioscorides:    Dioscorides shows a fascination with plants that are diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, and curative of poisoning.  Snakebite especially was an obsession, emphasized far beyond any believable role it may have had in Roman Empire pathology.  Countless plants are given as snakebite cures.  By modern standards, none of them works.  This stands in contrast to the diuretics and abortifacients, many or most of which do work.

One wonders how all this could be sustained.  How could so many plants be cited for snakebite, when none actually functions against venom?  Probably the Greeks, like many people today, did not well distinguish venomous from nonvenomous snakes, and listed as “good for snakebite” anything that relieved a nonvenomous bite.

Skin diseases also feature largely in his perspective.  This makes more sense; skin conditions are very common, and easily relieved (if not always cured) by commonly available plant materials.  The modern Yucatec Maya have a vast number of skin remedies, because they have a vast number of skin problems.  They explain that one never knows what plants will be around when one is suddenly wounded or burned in the field, and so one must know all sorts of plants that can provide first aid.  Moreover, some remedies work for one condition, some for another.  The ancient Mediterranean surely had similar problems and needs.

Fits, convulsions, and pains rank next.  Cures for fevers and other classic infectious-disease syndromes are notably fewer.  He describes herbs in concrete terms, rarely in theoretical except to say that some are “warming”; most of these do indeed feel warming, often because they stimulate blood flow to the skin.  A few are cooling.  The theories of Galen are far from Dioscorides’ pragmatic soldier’s approach.

This relative listing of concerns evidently provides much insight into what were, in Dioscorides’ day, considered to be the common problems.  Perhaps they were of special concern to soldiers in the field.

Like herbalists everywhere (at least everywhere that the family occurs), Dioscorides uses many mints (Lamiaceae).  This family does indeed contain a striking number of medically active substances, including many strong antibiotics.  More notable is his—and the Greco-Roman world’s—fondness for Apiaceae (carrot family, including celery, dill, and other common flavorings).  A vast variety is recommended, and many rank among his cure-alls.  Apiaceous seeds often contain digestion-aiding oils, and the resins of many have medical effects.  Still, one wonders how the value of Apiaceae became so emphasized.

Available is Robert Gunther’s 1934 edition of the translation by the great English botanist John Goodyer.  Goodyer translated the book in 1652-55 but never published it, and indeed it has never been published except in this one edition.  Identifications are often tentative, though many have worked on the problem; the 1934 book includes an appendix listing identifications assembled by Charles Daubeny in 1857 (Gunther 1934:661-679) and provides updated ones.  These seem generally accurate but I have made silent corrections in some cases, especially for new scientific usages.  Some identifications are clearly wrong (see e.g. under Pinus below) and many must be only guesses.

Goodyer inconsistently transliterated Greek ypsilon as “y” or “u.”  To make comparison with scientific and English names easier, I follow standard botanical usage, making it “y” when it is a stand-alone vowel or first vowel in a diphthong and “u” when the second element in diphthongs.  (I thus avoid the French system, widely used today in English as well as French, in which ypsilon is “u” and the long-u sound is “ou.”)


Galen of Pergamon (130-200 AD):  Galen’s book on food (2003) adds very little to the specifics of herbal application and use.  He usually added his theoretical classification system to the general herbal knowledge of the time (better found in Dioscorides, Pliny, etc.).

Anthimus (1996) has even less of note here; he gives many interesting notes on uses and digestibility, but little about medicine.


Paul of Aegina (625-690) maintained the herbal and Galenic traditions in Byzantium, and was a key link to later medicine.


Levey:  Martin Levey’s translation of medical formulary of Al-Kindī (801-873) (Levey 1966).  Levey goes well beyond mere translation; his enormous ethnobotanical appendix covers everything from ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt to modern India.  Below, however, we focus on Al-Kindī’s own uses.  His remedies are overwhelmingly for external application; sores, skin problems, and mouth and eye conditions were obviously major problems then, as they are today in the Middle East.  Many of the other remedies are for stomach ailments, and are usually good homely remedies and mild but effective herbal cures of the sort familiar to many who grew up in mid-20th century America.

Notable is the overlap between Al-Kindī’s drugs and the HHYF’s.  Few drugs are found in one but not the other.  One is also struck by the similarity with the remedies recorded from Morocco by Bellakhdar et al. in the late 20th century, and visible now in such venues as the great bazaar in and around the center of Marrakesh.  Notable, also, and not unrelated, are the high percentage of Al-Kindī’s drug names that have gone over into English, or, alternatively, are from the Greek and thus cognate with Greco-English and/or scientific names.  Greek kentaurion became Arabic qant.ūriyūn, Latin and scientific Centaurium, English “centaury.”


Al-Bīrūnī (973-1048): This Central Asian polymath, one of the greatest Islamic scholars, produced Al-Bīrūnī’s Book on Pharmacy and Materia Medica, edited and translated by the Pakistani Yunani hakim (doctor) Mohammed Said (1973).  Al-Bīrūnī spent time in India and wrote an excellent account of that subcontinent, and thus learned about Indian drugs, though it is not clear if he had done so when he wrote this herbal.  Even without full Indian treatment, his herbal is one of the more astonishing medical sources of all time.  An incredible work listing some 850 simples, it updated Dioscorides and added Near Eastern discoveries and philologies.  Unfortunately for our purposes, it is much more an economic botany than a pharmacology.  Details on medicinal uses are fewer than on wood uses, local varieties, edibility, and even poetic and metaphoric uses.  When he does give medical uses, he often cites them to Dioscorides or to Rāzī.  It is clear from the entries that he intended this book to be used as a supplement to their herbals.  It provides names in many languages, background information, and substitutions, but generally refers the reader to them (sometimes to Galen, Mesue, and others) for the medicinal uses.  When he does give medicinal uses, it is often because the plant is obscure.  Such obscure plants did not generally become known to the Mongols or Chinese, and thus are outside our scope here.  Serious comments on medical uses almost stop about half way through, resuming with Letter 20.  (A copyist at the end of 19 in the version used by Mohammed Said says the previous copyist must have been “insane,” because there were so many mistakes and omissions).  Minor comments and names are ignored in the present work.  Said’s translation is an astounding accomplishment in itself, involving not only translation and annotation but identification of the plants, animals and minerals mentioned; moreover, Sami Hamarneh provides an appendix reviewing al-Bīrūnī’s life and work and providing notes on all the dozens of authors drawn on by al-Bīrūnī in the book.

Here and elsewhere, Said and Hamarneh have provided a very large percentage of the English-language material on medieval Near Eastern medicine, just as Fred Rosner has done on the medieval Jewish material (see Maimonides 1979 below).  Without them and a very few others (notably Michael Dols and Martin Levey) we would know very, very little about this huge and important tradition.


Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, 980-1037).  Avicenna, born near Bukhara, was probably the greatest medical man between Galen and the “scientific revolution” of the 16th-17th centuries.  Avicenna’s Canon was the basic medical book of the entire western world for centuries.  Its second volume is an herbal. Unavailable in English till very recently, this book was translated by the Hamdard Delhi group of Yunani doctors and edited and published by Laleh Bakhtiar (Avicenna 2012).  (At the same time, the first volume was translated and published [Avicenna 2013]; it had appeared before in a poor summary.)  Avicenna’s drug records are summarized below.

An interesting point about Avicenna’s herbal, and to an extent al-Bīrūnī’s, is their awareness of Indian drugs.  In Central Asia, they had much more opportunity to learn of these.

Like many later authorities, Avicenna uses very many drugs for the same purposes, and usually uses any given drug for many purposes.  In particular, there is a standard list of uses for drugs considered hot and dry in the humoral system—as most active drugs are.  They are used externally for swellings and wounds, and for earaches and eye troubles; internally, for respiratory problems and stomach aches.  Many, perhaps most, of them do indeed work for these conditions—but some are much better than others.  Some could be combined, but that is not often mentioned.  I assume that the situation is the same as that which my Maya friends in the Yucatan Peninsula explained to me:  You have to know all the plants that treat a given condition, because you never know which plants will be available when the need arises.

Like Dioscorides, he recommends an astonishing number of abortifacients—many of which are well-known in modern medical literature (and are often quite dangerous).  Some of this was precautionary—warning women what to avoid—but at the very least these early societies, with their supposedly pronatalist policies, felt a clear need to know what would terminate a pregnancy.

Avicenna has notes on 226 of our medicinals: 182 plants, 32 animals, 12 minerals.  This is by far the most mentions in any authority, Li Shizhen being the runner-up with 203.


Nasrallah:  Nawal Nasrallah (2007) appends to her translation of a medieval Arab cookbook an enormous, comprehensive glossary of Arabic terms for foods, including medicinal items.  She includes considerable material from medieval medical herbals.  Some material is summarized below, but most of it duplicates the accounts in the more complete translations cited herein.


Graziani (1980):  A general study of medieval Arab medicine as seen in the works of Ibn Jazlah (d. ca. 1100).  He provides an appendix listing major drugs; in this he not only gives some of Ibn Jazlah’s uses, but provides considerable valuable comparative material, including otherwise impossible to find folk uses of today.


Maimonides (1135-1204):  Maimonides (1974) lists several uses, mostly of foods, closely following Galen and Dioscorides.  Maimonides’ incredible dictionary of drug names (Maimonides 1979), an early ethnobotany, is, alas, lacking in medical detail.


Levey and Al-Khaledy (1967):  Translation and annotation of the important herbal of Shams al-Dīn Al-Samarqandī (ca. 1250-ca. 1310), the closest well-studied source in time and space to the HHYF.  Most of the common drugs below are used by Al-Samarqandī, but it is hard to tell exactly how in most cases, since he usually provides only a long list of ingredients in an introductory paragraph or for a formulary recipe.  It would be tedious to mention all cases, so only the most important ones are inserted in the species accounts below.  Al-Samarqandī used carrot, cinnamon, cress, cucumbers, cyperus, frankincense, ginger, gourds, ironwood, lavender, lettuce, malabathrum, mint, myrrh, nightshade, peppers (black, cubeb, long), sagapenum, sarcocol, senna/cassia, scammony, sebesten, sesame, tarragon, wormwood, the mineral remedies, and most of the other commoner remedies described in the species accounts below, presumably in the usual ways.  He also used several remedies not found in what we have of the HHYF, including whey (“milk of cheese”), which he recommends highly.


Lev and Amar:  Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar (2008) have studied the Cairo Genizah documents concerning medicine and extracted a vast amount of medical lore, including discussion of 278 materia medica items—interestingly close to the figure of 286, the figure for the medieval Levant, and also the average of modern folk medicine lists they could discover for the Middle East (but the modern Cairo markets produced fully 504 items, raising that average considerably).  They provide an extremely valuable review of materia medica in the Greek-Arabic-Jewish tradition from Theophrastus to the present (pp. 55-86).  The entries under particular drugs review all early sources.  This is the best and most valuable single compendium of medieval Near Eastern medications, but most of the information in it is from—or at least in—the other sources cited here, and it seems preferable to cite to them.

The discussions of drugs show that the Genizah physicians tended to use almost any drug for almost any condition.   (So did Avicenna.  So did medieval European doctors; see Wallis 2010, passim.)  In particular, almost every animal, mineral and vegetable was used for the most common complaints—eye problems, stomach upsets, skin pathologies of every kind, kidney problems, hemorrhoids, swellings, and so on.  One becomes weary of reading the same long list of uses for every drug, even those—and there are many—that have no conceivable value for any of the stated purposes.  Clearly, the idea was to try everything and hope something worked.

Notable, here and in the classic early sources, is the use of virtually everything for eye medicine.  This is explained by the fact that the Near East’s extreme dryness, extreme dustiness and extreme crowding have always caused eye problems and diseases to be a major concern here—far more so than in countries with less extreme conditions.  Evidently, anything that could soothe the eye, let alone actually treat diseases there, was pressed into service.

The level of sharing with the HHYF is astonishing.  Some 200 of the 278 are shared, including all the mjaor ones.  Only very local items (spiny lizards, rare desert plants, and the like) are not.


Kamal:  Kamal’s modern-day encyclopedia of Islamic medicine contains a great deal about pharmaceuticals.  It also has considerable data on bites, cancers, etc.

Fattening drugs:  Kamal cites Avicenna:  Almonds, hazelnuts, nigella, camphor, pistachois, cannabis (presumably the seeds), and pine seeds.  Make into pills and take with wine.  These are not only fattening but aphrodisiac (Kamal 1975:117).

Conversely, slimming can be aided by centaury, birthwort, gentian, germander, parsley, sumac, and other herbs (118).

Cauterization:  Major section; for many purposes.  Local burning seems to have been used for almost everything.  A huge section covers almost every condition.

Compounds:  see p. 164-189.


Bellakhdar et al. (1991):  A study of modern Moroccan folk and traditional medical uses.  They recorded 231 species and 567 indications.  Digestive remedies were the most frequent, followed by cosmetic and skin uses.  (I have had the opportunity to observe this medicinal tradition in the field, visiting traditional drug markets and observing medicinal plants in the Atlas; thanks to Dr. M. Ouhammou for superb ethnobotanical guiding.)  The findings here show great similarity to Kamal’s Egyptian data and lesser but real similarity to ancient and medieval uses.  There is a truly astonishing degree of overlap between modern Morocco and medieval North China in species and uses!  There would surely be more if more of the HHYF had survived.


Ghazanfar (1994):  This book is a wonderful ethnobotany of Arabia.  Ghazanfar is based in Oman, an exceptionally enlightened Arab country as far as scholarship goes.  She gives full nomenclature, usage, and treatment directions, especially for Omani practice.  She gives very detailed descriptions of treatments and treatment methods.  Particularly unique and valuable are her findings on women’s medicines, especially in relation to childbirth; this is an area almost totally inaccessible to male researchers today (less so in medieval times, when gender attitudes were generally more liberal in Arabia than they are now).  She also has a great deal on aphrodisiacs—some two dozen plants being noted—and one wishes she had indicated whether any of these are used by women.  This book would repay much more comparative research, but I am limiting citations to very basic nomenclature (no strictly local names) and uses.  Interesting here, especially in comparison with Levey, are the number of plants in the HHYF that are in Arabic medicine but not in her book—usually because they are not native to desert Arabia, but are Greek plants (often extending into northern Arabia and montane Iran).


Lebling and Pepperdine (2006):  This valuable book on Saudi Arabian folk medicine is a beautifully illustrated popular account (a “coffee table book”) rather than a thorough ethnobotany, but it is rigorous and valuable as far as it goes.  It records in detail many household remedies.  Again, the presence of a female researcher (Donna Pepperdine) allowed otherwise inaccessible material on women and childbirth to be recorded.  Among the most interesting findings here is the apparently universal use of spices and herbs to restore strength and tone after delivery; this seems a close equivalent to the Chinese custom of “doing the month” by eating foods rich in protein, iron, calcium and other mineral nutrients.


Mandaville (2011):  James Mandaville’s superb recent ethnobotany of the Bedouin of Arabia.  (See also his earlier work, Mandaville 1989.)


Another reference with many modern folkloric uses of these plants is Chishti (1985); it adds little to what is extracted below, but has some interesting brief formulas that may be compared with the much longer ones in the HHYF.


Madanapāla Nighantu:  An ayurvedic materia medica compiled for King Madanapāla (a central Indian king) in 1374 A.D., and thus almost contemporary with the HHYF.  It has been edited and translated by Vaidya Bhagwan Dash assisted by K. Kanchan Gupta (1991).  They provide good annotations and give the Sanskrit and many transliterations.  Disease name translations are only approximate; the Sanskrit is given so that one can check the actual medieval indications.  I have not provided the full transcriptions.  In general, few of his remedies are in the HHYF.  Many congeners are, but I have not summarized their qualities here.

The book discusses the various values of different types of waters, as does the YSCY and some of the Arab and Persian sources.  It also discusses alcohol and alcoholic drinks at length—something that is of course rather thinly represented in Islamic works, and is surprisingly thin in Chinese sources also.

Interesting is the amount of sharing with the Near Eastern sources from slightly earlier.  Evidently, yunani (“Ionian,” i.e. Galenic) medicine had influenced ayurveda enormously by this time, and ayurveda had influenced the Near East at least as much.  Outside our purview here, but very interesting in this text, are the many recommendations about foods, seasonal regimen (food, sex, exercise, etc.), and other matter, reasonably close to the Near Eastern works.

Dash’s identifications are not always perfect; Psidium guajava is given for one name (not in our database), but it did not reach India until the 16th century.


Nadkarni (1976):  A standard English-language source on Indian traditional materia medica.  A huge collection of remedies, both ayurvedic and “unani” (i.e., yunāni, Greek).  These are not distinguished, but the unani remedies are essentially the Arab-Persian ones.  The book is a good source not only for Indian uses of the HHYF plants, but also for Persian ones, which are often not described in the Arabic sources.  Of course, ayurvedic remedies moved into Arabic and Persian practice quite freely, too.

The number of uses of plants in Indian medicine is truly noteworthy; everything with any visible effect seems to be used for a vast range of purposes, and, notably, a huge range of unlikely plants are “aphrodisiac.”  Medieval cookbooks and sexual manuals from India confirm this tendency to see aphrodisiacs in every garden.

More recent work by Vaidya Dash on India (Dash and Laliteshkashyap 1980) and Tibet (Dash 1994) has been consulted also.


Dash:  Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, Materia Medica of Tibetan Medicine (1994), a wonderful compilation.  Material is culled from Tibetan sources, primarily the Sman gyi min gi rnam grans.  It seems close to ayurvedic medicine—not surprising, because it is basically a translation of an 8th-10th century Kashimiri work, translated into Tibetan around 1013.  Dash reports that it is still very influential in Tibet and neighboring areas, including Mongolia (p. xvi).  Dash’s own ayurvedic background is clearly relevant to his interpretations, and he seems to have selected sources particularly influenced by ayurvedic medicine.

Notable is the use of essentially all spices in Tibet to treat poisoning.  Possibly they were used as emetics, as they are today, but a deeper belief seems implied.

In spite of the clear evidence of Tibetan influence on the Mongols and on the HHYF, the number of Tibetan medicines not in the HHYF is astonishing.  The HHYF remedies truly are Near Eastern, with a solid Dioscoridean core.  Tibet has had rather little influence on the pharmacopoeia of this book.

We have also consulted Clifford (1984; overlaps with or based partially on Dash).  We have had the benefits of discussion with Denise Glover, whose work on Tibetan medicinal plants is extensive but unpublished.


Eisenman: Eisenman et al., Medicinal Plants of Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (2013), provides an excellent, thorough reference to medicinal herbs of high central Asia; gives the actual chemistry, and contemporary herbal uses.  A fascinating note is the very large number of plants used medicinally in these two countries, many of them also used all over the western world, including Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle) and Datura stramonium as well as Salvia (sage), Verbascum (mullein), and Silybum (milk thistle), that did not find their way into the HHYF.  This seems truly remarkable.  Conversely, medicines widely used in China and also in these parts of Central Asia, such as Codonopsis, did not make it to the west.  These observations present interesting historical problems.  Eisenman et al. list many biochemical findings for each plant; note that these are Russian or Central Asian research, often old and often preliminary, and are not to be taken as current demonstrated biochemical effectiveness!  I have thus kept them strictly separate from my much more brief notes (in parenthesis) on current uses.


Sun:  Sun Simiao, Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold, a great Tang Dynasty medical compilation (appearing 654 AD).  Sun is quoted literally, since his work is beautifully concise and clear, and since it has not previously been translated or made available to non-Chinese readers.  The translation here is by Sumei Yi, done in 2007 when she was a graduate student at the University of Washington, used by her kind permission; I have edited and commented on it.  Material in red needs translation checking.


Li:  Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, the famous Chinese herbal compilation that remains definitive in traditional Chinese medicine.  (NB:  “traditional Chinese medicine,” with small letters, is the traditional medicine of late imperial and early 20th-century China.  “Traditional Chinese Medicine,” with capitals, is a specific derivative of it, developed by the Communists after 1950, and quite different in countless ways from the older version.)  Li mentions some 203 of the medicinals in the HHYF, including at least 46 western ones and 15 from India and southeast Asia.  Used here is the Foreign Languages Press edition (2003), which overtranslates illness names (using English equivalents that do not exactly correspond to the traditional categories) and is otherwise problematical.  However, awaiting a major study and improved translation, this version is satisfactory, and better than trying to deal with the Chinese given my lack of medical experience.  One very useful thing done by the Foreign Languages Press edition is capitalizing the humoral illness-causal categories (Hot, Cold, Wind, etc.) to separate them from literal heat, cold, and so on (but also from the Galenic hot/cold qualities of the ingredients themselves).  I follow this edition in using “toxic” and “nontoxic” to translate you du “having poison” and wu du “lacking poison,” but actually the terms mean something closer to “poison-potentiating” and “safe in most applications.”  According to Chinese medicine, a plant that you du may be poisonous or it may simply bring out poisons in other medicines or in a patient’s body itself.  I have drawn the line at following their mistranslation of “balanced” as “plain”; balanced herbs are neutral between heating and cooling—they balance yang and yin.

Li usefully quoted all the major herbals he could find, so that we have data going back to early times.  Outside of a small study of the 7th-century “Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold” (Sun 2007), there is little translation or specific study of these materials (cf. Unschuld 1986 for their history).  We await much-needed studies of Chinese herbals, especially Tao Hongjing’s monumental 6th-century works, which remain not only untranslated but quite little studied in the western world.

Striking is the comparison of Li’s mammoth compilation with the far more modest Greek and Arab herbals.  For instance, he has 14 large pages (in the translation) on various aconites, as opposed to a page or so in the western sources.  There is no room even to summarize adequately Li’s enormous detail; mere suggestions of the wealth are given below.

A problem for Chinese doctors of the old school was the enormous range of conditions treated by almost any important drug; how would one decide?  Usually, standard mixtures were prepared.  But, also, my rather long experience with ordinary Chinese pharmacists and herbalists is that they knew quite well which drugs really, visibly, empirically worked for a given condition, and did not worry about the countless others specified for that condition in the old herbals.  They would give artemisia for worms, or watercress for scurvy, for instance—not the minimally effective nostrums mentioned in Li’s more obscure sources.  Not all their remedies worked, but at least they maximized their odds given what they could know.

It is worth noting that Li repeats with a straight face and proper respect the more ridiculous stories in the old herbals and in the folk wisdom of his own time, but is conspicuously silent about them when writing in his own voice to evaluate what an herb really does.  This is exactly equivalent to Dioscorides’ (and his Arab followers’) “some say.”  However, even the long-suffering Li does sometimes denounce truly outrageous stories (see under Cinnamomum cassia).

A notable thing about Li’s book is that he clearly recognizes taxonomic reality, putting e.g. Artemisia species together, Brassica species together, and so on.  The Chinese names do not reflect this; Chinese simply gives a quite separate name to every common plant, and tend to assimilate the rest to superficially similar common ones, with an appropriate adjective—so the pomegranate, when the Chinese acquired it from the western world, became the “seedy willow,” and then the South American guava (introduced by the Spanish or Portuguese) became the “foreign seedy willow.”  Li sometimes arranges plants according to these ad hoc names, as in treating the ma “hemp” plants—sesame (hu ma), flax (ya ma) and marijuana (da ma)—together although they are very dissimilar and Li must have seen they were botanically very different.  Usually, however, he seems to have a pre-Linnaean view of taxonomy, similar to that in Europe in his time.


Meserve:  Ruth Meserve (2004) has published a short list of Mongol medicinal plants collected by Ralph Chaney on the Roy Chapman Andrews expedition to Mongolia in 1925.  She provides extensive commentary.  The most interesting thing about the list is how few plants from it are on the list below.  Only a few widespread species are shared.  Clearly, the HHYF was concerned solely with transmitting received medical wisdom; unlike the Yinshan Zhengyao, it did not incorporate specifically Mongol knowledge.


In addition to the above sources, Chipman (2010) summarizes a pharmacist’s manual from Cairo, ca. 1260.  It mentions many (perhaps most) of the medicines herein, and gives uses and formulas, as well as tests for genuineness.  The material is taken from the classics, and has nothing significant to add, but is interesting to show what was standard practice in the developed west as the Mongols were expanding.

For the following list, Uphof (1968) and Wikipedia always provide faithful backup, especially useful when no one else gives the authorities and families.  Tobyn et al (2011) provide a great deal of information, not summarized here, on post-medieval uses of herbs in European medicine; most of the herbs are in our list below.

There is a huge modern literature on medical botany, and all or nearly all the plants mentioned herein have been the subjects of extensive studies, mostly chemical and taxonomic; a simple computer search turns up many, and there is no reason to go into this literature.

Material in parentheses, beyond simple word queries and synonyms, are my own observations from wide experience with Chinese and other folk medicines.



The Medicinals


Acacia gummifera Willd., Fabaceae.  Bunk (Persian).

Manniche:  A. nilotica for vermifuge, swellings, sores, wounds, etc., and even in bandages on broken bones (the tannin might ease the pain and swelling).

Dioscorides:  I-133, akakia, A. vera [and probably other spp.].  Binding and cooling.  Juice of leaves (and/or fruit) for eyes, sores, skin conditions, etc.  Stops excess menstruation and related conditions (presumably leucorrhea).  Stops diarrhea.  Wash for eyes.  Gum, with egg, good on burns.  Also used to make black hair dye.

Levey:  A. arabica gum for lesions, teech, cough, eyes, etc.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Astringent, haemostatic, darkens hair, good for skin, good in eyes for conjunctivitis and redness, used for leucorrhoea, etc.  Some of this obviously refers to the bark extract rather than, or as well as, the gum.

Avicenna:  A. arabica, shaukah, qaraẓ, aqāqiā.  Gum of Arabic trees is hot; Egyptian cold and dry.  Constricting.  Very good for many external uses, including swellings.  Roots and seeds of Egyptian acacia for healing joints.  Acacia gums used for vision, coughs, sore throat, stomach, etc.   A. nilotica (and probably other spp.) hot and dry, strengthening, clears skin, good for stomach, but disturbs the mind.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Usual uses; important in Al-Samarqandī’s herbal.

Lev and Amar:  A. nilotica gum for eyes, headache, stomach, teeth, cleasning, fractures, etc.  Less usual is a use as “a depilatory for hairy women” (p. 181), presumably as Persian wax is used today.  Hot and dry.  The highly astringent juice of acacia pods was used in sexual medicine “to constrict the glans and strengthen the penis, as well as in a preparation to restore virginity” (p. 181; i.e. to constrict the vagina to give the false impression of virginity).  Other acacias of uncertain identity also used. Kamal:  Sont, shokah; “anciently for heoptysis and ophthalmias” (28).

Bellakkhdar et al:  ‘alk talh.  For broncho-pulmonary infections; antitussive.

Ghazanfar:  A. nilotica resin for cataracts; leaves for diarrhea; seed extract for diabetes; leaf paste for boils; smoke of pods for colds.  A. senegal  gum for many medicines.  Several other species used locally.

Nadkarni:  Acacia spp., gums astringent, demulcent, expectorant, etc.; for a vast range of uses; shoots, seeds, leaves for many uses also, most obviously depending on the tannins in them.

Li:  A. catechu known only as an “earth,” a resin imported from far off.

(The powerful catechin tannins in acacia actually make it very effective for many medical uses.  Various acacia products were officinal in the United States well into the mid-twentieth century.)


Aconitum ferox Wall., Ranunculaceae.  Bish

Dioscorides: IV-78, akoniton eteron, Aconitum lococtonum and/or A. napellus, wolfsbane, to kill wolves.

IV-77, akoniton, probably Doronicum pardalianches, used to kill “Panthers and Sowes, and wolves, & all wild beasts” (Gunther 1934:475).

Al-Bīrūnī:  Khāniq-al-namir.  Aconitum lycoctinum.  Poisonous.  Kills wild animals.  Discussion followed by a number of other poisons of dogs and wolves; species of Aconitum or other poisons; identifications unclear.

Avicenna:  Deadly poison, but used for skin conditions, and very carefully taken for this also.  A. lycoctonum very poisonous, too much so to use; only for poisoning wild animals.

Kamal:  Akonit, or khaneq al-theb (“strangler of wolf”).  A. napellus for poisoning, but also “sedative, antipyretic and sudorific” (29).  For rheumatism, gout, cough, asthma.

Nadkarni:  Root used for diaphoretic, diuretic, antiperiodic, anodyne, antidiabetic, antiphlogistic, antipyretic, narcotinc, sedative.  Acrid and poisonous.  Several other spp. mentioned.

Dash:  A. heterophyllum cold, digestive stimulant, carminative, cures dysentery and parasites.

Eisenman: A. karakolicum and A. soongaricum taken in kumys, broth, etc., in spite of high toxicity, for tuberculosis and headaches and sore throats; externally for rheumatism and similar painful conditions.  A. leucostomum used for heart arrhythmia.  A.talassicum for rheumatism, malaria, veterinary medicine.

Li:  A. carmichaeli, loulanzi:  Bitter, pungent, toxic.  Good for malignant dysentery, scrofula and Cold.  Malignant sores and leprosy. Directions given.

  1. coreanum, baifuzi: Warming and usually considered toxic. Treats pains, stagnation of blod, face ailments, pathogenic Cold and Wind, etc. Tonifies liver.
  2. kusnezoffi, wutou: Several opinions on humoral qualities; all agree it is toxic. Used for fevers due to Wind, etc.  Several pages of indications and formulas, most for dispelling Cold conditions (but also fevers and much else); one is warned of toxin, and Li gives a personal reminiscence of a friend who died of overdose.
  3. ochranthum, niubian: Minor use, largely to kill ectoparasites on people and animals.

(Well-known alkaloid toxins make this a dangerous medicine.)


Acorus calamus (Chinese form sometimes separated as A. gramineus Soland.), Acoraceae.     Native

Manniche:  A. calamus rhizome powdered for ant repelling, perfume, tooth powder, shampoo, etc., at least in later times and very likely in ancient times.

Dioscorides:  1-2, akoron, Iris pseudacorus, root for body pains, liver, ruptures, convulsions, spleen, eye medicine, poisoning.

1-17, kalamos euodes, Acorus calamus, root for kidneys/diuresis, hernia, reducing menstrual flow (as drink or pultice), cough (incl. smoke with terebinth resin), etc.

Levey:  A. calamus, teeth; memory and mind cure.

Avicenna:  Wajj. Persian agir.  Hot and dry.  Usual minor uses for hot dry drugs, plus use for stomach gas, improving complexion, treating convulsions and muscle rupture, pain of liver, abdominal pain, hernia, uterine pains, diuretic, emmenagogue, stimulant.

Lev and Amar:  Stomach, colic, tonic.

Kamal:  ‘Erq-aikar, al-wagg.  simulant; for eyes.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, emetic, nauseant, stomachic, aromatic, expectorant, carminative, antispasmodic, sedative.  In unani specifically, aphrodisiac; for sight, antipoison; for digestion, cold, coughs, nervous complaints.

Dash:  Indigestion, appetite. Throat, etc.

Li:  Changpu.  Treats pain due to Wind, Cold, Humidity.  Stops coughing, opens Heart orifice, etc.; very long list of indications.  Cheers the spirit.

Baichang, A. calamus, receives much less attention.  Apparently used as a poor substitute for the foregoing.

(Sweet flag still widely used medicinally, especially by Native Americans, the plant being circumpolar in distribution)


Adiantum capillis-veneris L., Polypodiaceae.  Barsiyyawashan (Persian).

Dioscorides: IV-136, adianton, A. capillus-veneris, “is of force” for practically anything: asthma, dyspnoeia, pox, etc.; diuretic and emmenagogue; for spleen, stones, stopping diarrhea, curing poison, sores and boils; grows and restores hair; and even makes fighting-cocks braver when fed to them (Gunther 1934:527)!

Avicenna:  Neutral tempering or slightly hot and dry.  Dissolving, blood thinning, constricting.  Ashes for baldness.  Used for abscesses, tubercular lymph glands, malignant ulcers, dandrusff, itches.  Internally for lungs, coiughs, stomach, urine, urinary calculi.  Emmenagogue.  Aspleenium  hot and dry, diutant, dissolvent.  Used for spleen.  Also kidney and bladder stones.

Lev and Amar:  kuzbarat al-bi’r, etc.  Hair, purgative, snakebite, worms, stones, stomach skin.  Expectorant. Stops hemorrhages, accelerates menstruation, diuretic.  Asplenium onoperis for spleen (hence name) and hemorrhoids, intestines, etc.  For melancholy and related conditions.

Nadkarni:  Expectorant, diuretic, emmenagogue.

(Widespread tonic use continues today)


Aegle marmelos  Correa, Rutaceae.  Bull.  BiLi.

Avicenna: Hot and dry.  Diluent; blood thinning.   Fruit bitter, piungent, constridtive, but soothing like honey.

Nadkarni:  Cooling, alterative, nutritive.  Fresh fruit is laxative.  Unripe is astringent, digestive, stomachic.  Pulp stimulant, antipyretc, antiscorbutic.

(Note that this is an example of an almost strictly Indian medicinal in the HHYF.  The central Asian Avicenna must have learned of it from India, directly or indirectly.  Indian contacts were deep and wide in central Asia in his time.)


Agaricus campestris L., Agaricaceae.  ALiFong, AliHun; ghārīqūn

Dioscorides:  III-1, agarikon.  He thought it was a root, but he knew that at least some agarika grew on stumps like mushrooms.  Binding, warming, for sores and ruptures and falls, for all respiratory conditions, liver, rashes, “womb stranglings, and sickly looks”; for spleen, stomach, blood, pains, epilepsy, constipation, snakebite; emmenagogue, and for “women suffocated in ye womb,” malarial shivering (Gunther 1934:232).  Certainly useful, but we remain unsure what the term comprised.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry.  Dissolving and diluent of thick humors.  Used for swellings, asthma (with wine), stomach ache, purging black bile and phlegm, fevers, insect bites.  A different species, fuṭr or kashnaj, identified as Boletus luridus in our source, is cold; minor external uses.  Notes poisonous mushrooms, which cause numbness, strokes, etc., and bear rapidly putrefying and sticky substances on the cap; these could be Amanita or a toxic Russula or other bolete.

Levey:  Malaria, jaundice, stomach, liver.

Nasrallah:  Sweet but turns bitter.  Cures stomach-ache, diarrhea, etc.

Lev and Amar:  Al-Kindī used it for malaria, intestines, liver.  Maimonides: cleansing, expectorant.  Hot and dry.  Ibn Sīnā:  for epilepsy and malaria.  Other uses noted, including modern one to stanch wounds—presumably powdered (a use known from my own folk tradition).

Nadkarni:  Tonic.  A. ostreatus astringent.

Li:  Moguxun.  Reinforces Intestine and Stomach, dissolves phlegm and regulates qi, but mainly a food.


Agrimonia eupatoria L., Rosaceae.  Ghafath.  A FeiDi

Levey:  Ghāfit.  In electuary for jaundice, and phlegm.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Notes some differences of opinion.  Benign, incisive, detersive; slightly styptic.  For falling hair, etc.  Drunk (and/or applied?) for skin problems.

Lev and Amar:  ghāfit.  Poisons, stings, bites; liver, kidneys, eyes, cough, fever, jaundice—in short, the standard things for which the Near Eastern sages used almost every drug.

Kamal:  astringent, tonic, antihelminthic.  Leaves and root (only leaves mentioned for antihelminthic action).

Nadkarni:  Aromatic, astringent, antihelminthic, diuretic.  (Note near-identity to Kamal’s Egyptian uses.)

Eisenman:  A. asiatica.  Hemostatic.  “Decoction of underground parts and dried stems and leaves is used” )p. 26) for gastrointensinal conditions; astringent; for rehumatism and verious external conditions.  Flowers also.


Ajuga chamaepitys Schreb., Lamiaceae.  Kamafitus (Gr), KeMaFeiTuSi  or  YaLaYiFeiJiLa, Ar

Dioscorides:  III-175, chamaipitys, A. chamaepitys, ground pine.  Rashes; liver, kidneys, being diuretic; aconite antidote; with figs for stomach; with honey etc. for purge; several other minor uses.

III-176, chamaipitys etera, ?Teucrium or Ajuga iva; chamaipitys trite, Passerina hirsuta.  Uses as for 175.   III-153, anthyllis, second type, may be A. iva; for kidneys and epilepsy, and as pessary for womb inflammations (with rose and milk).  Used on wounds.

Eisenman: A. turkestanica for weight, hair growth, ulcers, burns, wounds.  Several compounds shown to have anabolic and tonic activity.


Ajuga iva Schreb., Lamiaceae.  ShuWuDa

Dioscorides:  See above.

Bellakhdar et al:  Shendgura. Antihelminthic, panacea (sic), and for intestinal disorders

Nadkarni: A. bracteosa astringent, aperient, diuretic.


Alectoria usneoides.  Usneaceae.  Ushnat, Ushna; includes also Usnea spp. and probably other lichens.

Dioscorides:  I-20-21, bryon, Usnea sp., lichen.  For pains of vulva; suppositories; etc.  Used in perfumes and painkillers for its binding quality [medical or physical?].

Galen:  Astringent.

Levey:  Swollen spleen; eyes.

Vicenna:  Ushnah.  Hot, or possibly cold; dry.  Relieves inflammations, swellings, etc.  With medicinal oil for joints.  Produces sleep if soaked in wine and taken.  Clears vision.  Stops vomiting; also for stomach, relieving gas, etc.  Sitz bath relieves uteral pain.

Lev and Amar:  Usnea sp., Parmeliaceae, ’ushna. Swellings, furuncles, stiffness, eyes, heartbeat, stomach, womb obstructions, menstruation, liver, womb pains, anaesthetic.  Stops vomiting.

Li:  Songluo, Usnea spp.  Bitter, sweet, balanced, nontoxic.  For malaria and some other serious illnesses.

(Useful, powdered, for stanching blood and the like, but the internal uses seem without any biomedical foundation.)


Allium cepa L. (including the var. ascalonicum), Alliaceae (Liliaceae). WenSuLi

Manniche:  A. cepa, astringent.  Stops excessive menstruation, bleeding; for mummification also.  (Probably it had more astringent chemicals then than now.)  Cooling (probably so considered because of the astringency).

Dioscorides:  II-181, kromyon, A. cepa:  appetite, thirst, bringing about vomiting and purging, stomach problems generally, hemorrhoids (usually as suppository apparently).  Juice with honey for a very wide range of conditions.  With chicken grease, given for diarrhea, hearing and ear problems, and many other conditions.  With raisis or figs as plaster for sores.  If sick, eating too many onions brings lethargy.

Galen:  Onions in general.  Bitter, heating.  Thin the humors and cut viscid ones.  Lose bitterness (i.e. spiciness) when boiled.

Levey:  Squill, Urginea maritima, Ishqīl. Malaria, jaundice, ear, stomach, liver pains; seeds demulcent and stimulant.  Kurrāth, the Near Eastern leek-like onion, for headache and hemorrhoids.

Avicenna:  A. cepa, baṣal; pīāz in Persian.  Drops of the juice in the nose to cleanse the head.  Drops in ear for ringing, and heaviness of head, etc.  Too much use harms the intellect and produces bad humors.  In eye for cataracts; seeds with honey for corna.  Minor uses internally and for piles.   A. porrum, leek (actually a var. of A. cepa).  ḥirbah; kurrāth; these are different varieties, and tame and wild ones are distinguished.  Hot and dry to different degrees, by variety.  Various external uses on wounds, ulcers, etc.  Vapor of seeds for nosebleeds, and with cedar resin for tooth decay.  Oral use cuases bad dreams.  Used for ringing in ears, but bad for teeth and eyes.  Used for asth,ma, etc.  Seeds for coughing up blood, and with vinegar for spleen.  Piungent and so irritates digestive tract; produces gas.  Diuretic (leaves).  Emmenagogue.  Stimulate sexual desire.  Various combinations for pains, etc.   Urginea maritima, ishqīl or ‘unsul, hot and dry, for serious external uses (very burning and destroying), asthma, cough, spleen, stomach, diuretic, etc.

Lev and Amar:  A. cepa, baṣal. Eyes, ears, paresis and weakness of sexual organs, aphrodisiac.  Prevents vomiting.  Strengthens memory and appetite.  Externally, cleans wounds etc.; poultice.  Maimonides held it a bad food, partly because he recognized its low caloric value—so he recommended it for weight-loss diets.   A. cepa var. porrum, Near Eastern form, kurrāth, hot and dry, nutrition and for hair and skin; trivial uses.  Urginea maritima, squill, al-far’, etc., for malaria, jaundice, intestines, liver, epilepsy, etc.  (Highly poisonous and might have some antibacterial action.)

Kamal:  A. cepa, “” in Arabic, for whitlows (poultice), rubefacient (rubbed over), peel for filiarisis but doubtful; many ancient Egyptian uses.  A. porrum (leek; these too actually a var of cepa), kurratl, qurt, etc., for expectorant; asthma, cough, respiratory diseases; enema for constipation.

Bellakhdar et al:  Common onion, bsal, antiasthmatic and used for skin diseases and dental hygeine; leek, zgebt l-korrat, basal l-korrat, for hair care.

Ghazanfar:  Baṣāl.  Juice for coughs, deafness, skin, stomach.

Madanapala:  Palāndu.  Sweet.  Properties similar to garlic.

Nadkarni:  Oil stimulant, diuretic, expectorant.  Bulb emmenagogue; topically as stimulant and rubefacient.  Roasted, demulcent, aphrodisiac, antiseptic.

Dash:  Sweet, minor uses.

Eisenman:  A. karataviense, bulb used for lungs and breath.  A. suvorovii, very rare, pickled for spitting blood and tuberculosis.  Also on skin for eczema, itch, etc.  Neither of these has known biomedical compounds beyond ordinary allicin compounds.

Li:  A. cepa.  Hucong.  Edible.  Warming, dissolving, softening.  General tonic.  Allium nipponicum Fr. et Sav., Shansuan.  One of a number of Allium spp. used for dissolving, warming, etc.

(Onion juice is slightly antiseptic, and the plant seems good for heart health.)

Meserve:  A. fistulosum, “for loss of appetite” (Meserve 2004:79).  Muich comparative material.


Allium sativum L., Alliaceae (Liliaceae).  WuSuHuErDiRong

Manniche:  Oddly not used in medicine (Nunn 1996 also notes this).  Used for food.

Dioscorides:  II-182, skorodon, A. sativum; leukoskorodon, A. ampeloprasum; ophioskorodon, A. scorodoprasum; elaphoskorodon, A. subhirsutum.  The descriptions make the scientific identifications likely.  Used (eaten, or drunk) for stomach problems of all kinds, boils, eyes, vermifuge, snakebites, arteries, coughs, lice and nits.  Plaster, mashed, for snakebite, hemorrhoids, bites of mad dogs; burnt with honey, for eyes, hair loss, etc.; with salt and oil or honey for papules and sores and skin problems of all kinds; with “taeda” and frankincense for toothache; with fig leaves and cumin for bites of the “mygale”; leaf decocted or used for smoke, as emmenagogue; mashed with black olives for diuretic (Gunther 1934:189-191).  Apparently any garlic will do for all these diverse uses.

Levey:  Thūm.  Pain in ears; suppuration, fistulas.

Avicenna:  Thūm.  Hot and dry.  Laxative and stomachic.  Oddly, eating it with mountain mint destroys lice and nits.  External uses include ash with honey for shedding skin.  For baldness, freckles, abscesses, skin ulcers, mites; with germander for malignant wounds.  Expels blood (i.e. sanguine humor), yellow bile and black bile.  Poultice with vinegar for muscoles.  Cuases headache, butboiled for toothaches.  Used for dandruff, and with egg yolk for cracks in the skull.  With yok for eyes.  For throat, cough, colds.  Good for stomach.  Hip bath of garlic leaves is diuretic and emmenagogue and helps expel placenta.  Orally helps also.  With honey-water for phlegm and worms.  Purgative.  Possibly anaphrodisiac, but helps produce semen.

Nasrallah:  Hot; causes stomach-ache and thirst.  Drying.  Anaphrodisiac.

Lev and Amar:  thūm.  Both wild and tame used.  (The wild would probably be a different species.)  Cureall:  bites, stings, inflamattions, eyes, lungs, worms, throat, coughs, toothache, skin, emmenagogue, stomachic, diuretic.

Kamal:  thom, theriac-al-fuqara’, “theriac of the poor”: “stomachic, antipyretic, intestinal antiseptic, e.g. in cholera, food poisoning, enteritis and enteric fever.  It is expectorant in whooping cough and asthma; prevents dental caries, diuretic, emmenagogue, carminative and aphrodisiac.  Boiled in water or milk, the fluid is useful in colic and urinary stones.  Externally it is rubefacient.  As ear-drops it improves hearing.  Externally it also removes the toe-corn.” (45).  Oil antiseptic.

Bellakhdar et al:  tuma.  Antihelminthic,antirheumatism, urinary antiseptic, antidote.  Used for pulmonary and digestive disorders and hypertension (this last presumably a modern use).

Ghazanfar:  Thōm.  Abdominal pain and colic, dandruff, diabetes, diarrhea, eyes, tuberculosis, bites and wounds.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Topically on bites and stings, bleeding, hair loss, warts.  Taken for coughs, colds, diarrhea, fatigue, heart, stomach including vomiting.  Eaten after childbirth, with spices.

Madanapala:  Laśuna.  Hot.  Laxative, carminative, aphrodisiac, rejuvenating, nourishing; for hair, intellect, dyspnoea, cough, fever, anorexia, edema, piles, skin, colic, parasites.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative, emmenagogue, antirheumatic, antihelminthic, alterative.

An amazing ayurvedic paean of praise to garlic, dating to the 6th century, is translated by Dominik Wujastyk (2003:154-160).  This document is so overwritten, and in such a delightful style, that one suspects humorous irony, but clearly someone really thought garlic was the great cureall.  Very significantly for our purposes here, the document occurs in a manuscript transcribed—and much later (re)discovered—in Kucha, Xinjiang.

Dash:  Pungent, sweet, hot, promotes strength and virility.  For intellect, voice, complexion and eyesight.  Helps in healing fractures.  For heart, fever, pain and other conditions in abdomen, constipation, skin, parasites, etc.  A cureall.

Sun:  Garlic (hu葫): spicy, warm, and poisonous. The spiciness will go to the five internal organs. So it dispels deteriorative ulcer (yongju癰疽) and cures (?chuang[匿蟲]瘡)[1]. It eliminates the noxious feng (fengxie風邪) and kills the poisonous qi expelled by a gu (gu duqi蠱毒氣). When the bulb has only one clove, it is best. The Yellow Emperor said, “If one takes raw garlic with salted herring (qingyu zhashi青魚鮓食), it will cause ulcer in his abdomen, or swelling in his intestines, or ache and hardness in the abdomen (shanjia疝瘕). If one has frequently taken raw garlic, he will hurt the qi of his liver when he is having sex. It will make one’s face lose color. In the fourth and eighth month, do not eat garlic. Otherwise, it will hurt the spirit (shen神) as well as the qi of the bladder. It will cause gasping and the feeling of being frightened (chuanji喘悸). It will cause the shortage of the qi around the ribs and the upper part of the side of the body (xielei qiji脅肋氣急). It will also frequently cause one to lose sense of his taste.”

Li:  Dasuan, hu.  Warming, nontoxic.  Standard food.  Helps digestion but large amounts are harmful (in various ways for various reasons, depending on authority quoted).  Several pages of indications and recipes.

(Allicin, the acrid chemical released when garlic is injured, is a powerful antibiotic and antifungal, which is why the plant produces it on injury.  Allicin is also stimulant.  The medicinal value of this plant is very widely known and used.  Allium spp., especially this one, may well be the most-used drugs on earth.)


  1. tuberosum Rottler, Alliaceae (Liliaceae). native. FaLaXiRong

Sun:  Leek (jiu韭; this entry may include Chinese chives, Allium tuberosum): spicy, sour, warm, astringent, nonpoisonous. The spiciness will eventually go to the heart. It is good for the liver. It can be eaten frequently. It pacifies the five internal organs and eliminates heat in the stomach. It is not good for the sick. If one whose heart and stomach has frozen coldness (guleng固冷) eats it, his illness will be worsened. Its seeds mainly treat the discharge of semen in dreams (mengxiejing 夢泄精) as well as white-colored urine. Its roots can be boiled and the soup is nutritious for hair. The Yellow Emperor said, “The frost leek is frozen and cannot be taken when it is raw. Otherwise it will arouse the water stagnant for a long time (sushui宿水), and if one drinks too much, he will vomit water. In the fifth month, do not eat leek, which damages one’s taste and makes him short of strength. In the second and third month, it is preferable to eat leek, which is very good for the heart.”

Li:  Not specifically mentioned, but evidently implied in the many long articles on Allium spp.; it would be another used for warming, softening, digestion, etc.


  1. victorialis L., Alliaceae (Liliaceae). native YiSiJiLi

Sun:  Longroot onion (gecong格蔥): spicy, mildly warm, nonpoisonous. It gets rid of noxious poison caused by miasma (zhangqi瘴氣). If one has taken it for a long time, it is beneficial to the gall qi. It also strengthens the mind. Its seeds mainly treat the discharge of semen (xiejing泄精).

Li:  Gecong.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Usual Allium uses plus antiparasite action against worms, fleas, etc.

(A very common medicinal plant in east Asia; unknown in the old Near East.  It is probably the “mountain onion” of some recipes in the HHYF, but see Veratrum.)


Aloe spp., incl. “Aloe  vera L.”  Asphodelaceae (Liliaceae).   Introd.  The name Aloe vera is invalid technically, because Linnaeus never made it really clear which aloe he was naming, and no one has been much clearer since.  Thus it is not used in standard botany works.  Hu identifies the HHYF plant as A. barbadensis Miller (her number 973).  This is indeed the standard Chinese “aloe vera” (my observations as well as published sources), and also the Indian one (see Nadkarni), but other species are used elsewhere under the “aloe vera” name.

Manniche:  Dubiously identified; possibly mentioned in a catarrh remedy.

Dioscorides:  III-25, aloe, A. vulgaris.  Juice, dried, for binding and drying.  Produces sleep.  For stomach cleansing, spitting blood, poxes, purge.  For wounds and sores, including genital sores and cracks, hemorrhoids, eye sores, etc.  With wine for falling hair; with honey and wine for tonsils and gums and mouth sores; roasted, for eyes.  Dioscorides explains in detail how to tell the pure from the adulterated or counterfeit, indicating that this drug was (1) imported and (2) highly valued.

Avicenna:  Notes 3 spp., Socotran (presumably A. socotrana), Arabian and Samangani. Socotra is best.  Gum used.  Hot and somewhatr dry.  Constricting.  Helps sleep.  Put on scars, skin infections, ulcers, arthritis, etc., and for hair loss and swellings. With rose oil, rubbed on head for headaches. Purgative; used for stomach ache, etc. Arabian form causes spasms when taken internally.  Worst on cold days, so avoid it then.

Levey:  S.abir.  In preparations for boils, abscesses, teeth, eyes, insanity and epilepsy, perspiration.

Lev and Amar:  Eyes, inflammations, headaches; in compounds for insanity, epilepsy, sweat, abscesses, etc.  Stomach, nervous system, liver.  Maimonides: A. succotrina for heaemorrhoids, stomach, bleedig, wounds.  Several modern uses noted, including usual uses on wounds and sore places, as purgative, intestinal, etc.

Kamal:  ‘wud, sabr, lowah; genus in general.  Aloin is stimulant, stomachic, laxative.  For anemia, amenorrhea, atonic dyspepsia; jaundice, piles; antihelminthic.  Powder dusted on wounds.  The Arabs would have used Socotra aloes and other local products.

Bellakhdar et al:  sibr, sibr sidqi, A. succotrina [a.k.a. socotrana] laxative, hypoglycemic, and for skin.

Ghazanfar:  A. vera leaves for fever, headache, eyes.  Several other species used for various similar purposes.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Diabetes, hair loss.  Modern evidence of value for diabetes.  Antioxidant.

Nadkarni:  Cathartic, stomachic, tonic.  Other Aloe spp. tonic, purgative, laxative, etc.

Dash:  “A. barbadensis” [the traditional, shaky ID for “aloe vera”]:  laxative, rejuvenating, for eyes, corpulence, strength, virility.  Spleen, liver, fever, burns, eruptions, bleeding, skin diseases.

Li:  Luhui.  Besides the obvious external uses:  Vermifuge, tooth soothing, treats restlessness and suffocation from Wind and Heat, dispearses Heat, etc.  Poorly known in China at the time.

(Aloes of the small-sized “aloe vera” group are still used worldwide for their well-known and well-demonstrated value in healing the skin, especially from sores and burns.  They are grown in gardens and houses everywhere, and are among the most widely used herbal medicinals.  The HHYF in several places specifies Socotran aloes, which come from a quite different group of species peculiar to that island.)


Alpinia galanga L., Zingiberaceae.  Lesser galingale (galangal).    Introd.  SaoWuLinZhang.  Xolungan, Rolenzan (Farsi), khwalinjān

Levey:  A. officinarum, khūlanjān, greater galingale.  Stomachic; for sexual overindulgence; for breathing, teeth, fistulas.  Both the name for this and for the lesser galingale are from Farsi khawlinjān.

Al-Bīrūnī:  for dementia, citing, as so often, Rāzī.

Avicenna:  A. officinarum, khalanjan, ec.  Hot and dry.  Useful in stomach, other very minor uses.

Nasrallah:  Aphrodisiac, as well as digestive and breath-sweetening.

Graziani:  A. officinarum, khūlanjan.  Liver pain, digestion, stomachic, sciatica, easing urination (Ibn Jazlan).  Ibn Butlān used it for sciatic vein, sweetening the mouth, strengthening cold stomach, increasing sexual power.  Today in Iran, Iraq and Egypt as aromatic and carminative.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  As above.  Minor.

Lev and Amar:  khūlanjān, khawlanjān.  Stomach including colic; tonic.  Treats sex

addiction, strengthens respiration, improves virility, etc.  Used in toothpaste.

Bellakhdar et al:  A. officinarum, kudenjal, kolenjan; antitussive, stimulant.

Ghazanfar:  A. officinarum in tea with cinnamon and cloves for colds, tonic, aphrodisiac.

Nadkarni:  Aromatic, stimulant, stomachic, carminative.  A. officinarum same.

Li:  A. japonica, shanjiang.  Pungent, hot, nontoxic.  Treats pain with cold, malignant qi, etc.

(Stimulant and stomachic chemicals well known.)


Althaea rosea (L.) Cav., Malvaceae.  Native

Theophrastus:  II, p. 309. marsh-mallow (A. officinalis).  For fractures; also in wine for coughs.

Dioscorides:  III-144, malache agria, Malva sylvestris; malache kepaia, Alcea [=Althaea] rosea.  Plaster for sores, stings, skin conditions, etc.  Decoction for womb, stomach pains, poisonings, etc.  Makes one vomit up poison.

III-163, althaia, Althea officinalis, marsh mallow.  Taken for wounds, sores, skin problems, and similar conditions (including nerves).  With grease or turpentine, applied to inflammations; also for womb, expelling afterbirth etc.  Decoction of root in wine for dysentery, toothache, and many other conditions.  Seed for skin conditions; also for bites, stings, etc.

Avicenna: A. officinalis, khiṭmī.  Slightly hot.  Rlaxant, drying, diluting, etc.  External uses to soften, dissolve blood, mature boils, relieve skin conditions and joint pains.  Poultice for swellings, edema, etc.  Poultice on chest.  Boiled down roots orally for inflammation of urinary tract, burning in intestines.  Rub with vinegar and olive oil for insect bites.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  A. officinalis  for few uses.  Today for chest and bladder.

Lev and Amar:  A. officinalis.  Khaṭmī.  Sciatica, varicose veins, liver, bile corruption, swellings, lung ailments, urinary tract burning, kidney stones, hot coughs, etc.  Sweet, gooey root product used for lozenges, lotions and poultices.  Also externally on all sorts of pains, abscesses, swellings, etc.

Kamal:  Khatmiyah, khatmi, althea.  A. officinalis:  emollient, sedative.  For throat inflammations.  Enema for enteritis.  Ear bath for ear infections.  Powdered roots used in pills.

Ghazanfar:  Flowers in tea for coughs.

Nadkarni:  Seeds demulcent, diuretic, febrifurge.  Roots astringent, demulcent.

Eisenman:  A. nudiflora, dried flowers for diarrhea.  Root and seed decoction for postnatal bleeding.  Plaster of flower and leaf powder for tumors.  Fresh stem on cuts.  Roots and seeds diuretic tea.  No demonstrated biomedical effect.  A. officinalis, anti-inflammatory, for flu, sore throat, liver, urine, stones, cycstitis, tumors, prostatitis, joint pain.

Sun:  Hollyhock/althea (wukui吳葵): it has another name, shukui蜀葵. It is sweet, mildly cold, smooth, and nonpoisonous. Its flower stabilizes the heart qi. Its leaves eliminates the heat caused by outside sources (kere客熱). It helps empty the intestines and stomach. It cannot be frequently taken, or it will slow one’s mind. If one is bit by a dog and then takes it, the wound will never recover.

Li:  Shukui.  Seeds, roots, stem, flower used.  Cooling; disperses heat.  Diuretic.  Treats dysentery and a large number of other conditions and pains.

(A. officinalis, marsh mallow, has a sweet substance in the root that can be beaten up into a frothy white mass—the original of marshmallow candy, now made of spun sugar.  It was originally medicinal, for the soothing purposes indicated by many authors above.  Eisenman notes that it is used in biomedicine to treat eczema, itch, skin inflammations, and for metabolism—taken internally for all.   Also used with other herbs for stomach and intestinal ulcers, colitis, dysentery, kidneys, etc.  Action seems largely due to soothing compounds.  Probably many of the above accounts refer to this sp., not rosea.)


Ambrosia maritima, Asteraceae.   Bastard absinth, amrūsiyā.  One mention in the Index.

Ghazanfar:  Bronchial asthma; antispasmodic; diuretic.  Contains chlorosesquiterpene lactones.


Ammi copticum.  Nānakhwah.  See Carum copticum.


Amomum spp. including A. racemosum Lam., Zingiberaceae.  Hamama, qāqulla.

Dioscorides:  I-14, amomon, begins by describing a bush, probably Cissus; then “that which commes from Pontus” fits Amomum subulatum or Elettaria cardamomum.  Like many spice names, this one was reapplied from a non-spicy Greek plant to an Asian spice, but early enough for Dioscorides—that is, the late-edited version we have—to include both.  The Amomum was “warming, binding and drying” and as a plaster could relax and ease pain, from eye conditions to scorpion stings.  (Dioscorides was obsessed with scorpions; they must have been a major problem in the rural Greek world.)  Decoction drunk for liver and kidneys, etc., and as antidote.  Some of these uses are probably for the Cissus.

Levey: Amomum spp., qāqullah, in throat and mouth preparations, for hemorrhoids, for breathing, for stomachic.

Nasrallah:  Heating, dry; more so than Ellettaria.

Lev and Amar:  “palpitation, theriac, purgative, general tonics, indigestions, haemorrhoids, looseness of bowels, stomach ailments, and colic” (p. 101).  Also wounds stings, eye problems, etc.  Hot and dry (as it is today in China).  Soporific, and for liver and kidneys.

Bellakhdar et al:  Aframomum granum-paradisii, guza sahrawiya, stimulant, aphrodisiac.

Madanapala:  A. subulatum, sthūlailā, for appetite, nausea, poisoning, mouth, head, vomiting, cough.  Hot.

Nadkarni:  A. subulatum and relatives, stimulant, carminative.  For stomach, kidneys, etc.

(Amomum species have strong stimulant and carminative effect.)

Dash:  A. subulatum, digestive, carminative, aromatic, for bad taste in mouth.  Cleases uterus.


Amomum tsaoko Crevost & Lemarie.   Native; another species, A. xanthioides Wall, probably included.    Introd.  HaZanErCDheShan.  Egyp, Gaz is-sirk.

Li:  These, and/or A. villosum, included in suoshamiA. tsaoko is usually called caoko is Chinese, as in the scientific name.  Warming.  Generally considered pungent.  Nontoxic.  Treats consumptive diseases, diarrhea and dysentery, and other Cold conditions.  Long detailed account with many indications.


Ampelopsis cantoniensis Planch. Vitaceae.  Possible but uncertain identification for one entry in the Index.


Anacardium, Anacardiaceae.  See Semecarpus anacardium.


Anacyclus pyrethrum (L.) Link, Asteraceae.  Pellitory-of-Spain.  ‘Āqīr qarh.ā

Dioscorides:  III:73.  Paralysis, phlegm, toothache.

Levey:  Blemishes, neck pustule, sore throat, teeth, insanity.

Avicenna:  Būzīdān (Arabic and Persian). Hot and dry.  Minor rubbing and massaging uses for soothing.  Cleans out nose.  Used for toothaches.

Lev and Amar:  ‘āqir qarḥa, ‘ud qarḥ.  Eyes, throat, insanity, pustules, teeth, headaches, stomach-ache, malaria, chills, paralysis, swellings, stings. etc.  Hot and dry.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, sialogogue.


Anamirta paniculata Colebr., Menispermaceae.  Mahizahrah.

Nadkarni:  Seeds for night-sweats (tuberculosis). (Another case of a strictly Indian or Indo-Iranian drug in the HHYF.)


Andropogon schoenanthus L., A. nardus.  Poaceae.  Not in Ch med or native to Ch. YiJiHeiEr Gen for root, KeMaKuiYuXi, ZhaAKui(Ta)

Dioscorides:  I:17.  Probably the species he called sxoinos.

Galen:  Astringent, diuretic.

Levey, Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Idhkhir, lemon-grass.  Kidneys.  Modern uses for tumors, fevers, etc.

Lev and Amar:  ’idhkhir.  Kidneys, fever.  Stones.  Bleeding (flowers).

Bellakhdar et al:  Antipyretic, diuretic.  Idkir, obviously the source of “YiJiHeiEr,” which would have been pronounced almost exactly like idkir in Yuan times.

Nadkarni:  Oil stimulant, carminative, antispasmodic, diaphoretic.   Extensively used.  Many other spp. of the genus used.

Dash:  A. jwarancusa, bitter, cold, aphrodisiac, urinary.

Since lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is not in the HHYF, it seems possible that the HHYF subsumes it under this name.


Androsace sp., Primulaceae.  Jaft-afirid (Persian).  ShuFuDiAFeiLiDi

There seems to be no mention of this plant as an herb anywhere in the standard sources (not even in Uphof).  Very possibly a misidentification.


Anemarrhena asphodeloides Bge., Asparagaceae (Liliaceae).  Native.  YaErSa.

Li:  Zhimu.  Huge synonymy.  Bitter, cold.  Very large number of indications, and history of use going back to long passage by Zhang Zhongjing (Later Han).


Anethum graveolens L., Apiaceae.  Dill.    Introd.  KeLuoYa. Morocco:  Karwiya amja.  (Note that these are names derived from caraway, not the Arabic word for dill.)

Levey:  Shabath.  In plaster for arthritis, and in remedy for kidneys and bladder.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Shibthth.  Cites Dioscorides as diuretic; for gripes and inflammation; palliative.  Reduces hiccups.  Palliates uterine pain; sitz bath.  Seeds burnt for hemorrhoids.  Galen gave it as hot and dry, resolvent, anodyne, soporific, matures inflammations, helps genitalia, soporific.  Rāzī adds:  very hot, too much so for people with hot temperament; useful for gas and lumbago.  Other sources note galactagogue, etc.

Avicenna:  Shibitt. Hot and dry. Externalliy, ash for ulcers; oil for nerve pain and other pains, on head for sleep, in ear for earaches.  Dill leaves and seeds internally for breat milk production; hiccups; abdominal pain.

Graziani:  Shibith.  Used by Ibn Jazlah for brain diseases, nose, ears, and throat illnesses, and vomiting poison.  Boiled with oil and water and drunk.  Al-Kindī used it for limb problems, kidneys, bladder.

Lev and Amar:  shibth.  For arthritic limbs, kidneys, bladder, pain, breath, digestion.  Emmenagogue.  Carminatve.

Kamal:  Shabat.  “The seeds are stomachic, cardiac tonic, carminative and soporific.  The ashes are antiseptic for sores”  (57).

Bellakhdar et al. (1991):  modern Moroccan use as aphrodisiac, stomachic, antiseptic.  Parts unspecified; presumably seeds and ashes as above.

Ghazanfar:  Seeds for colic.

Li:  Shiluo.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Known as a foreign drug; few uses; unclear image.  Diarrhea, gas, aches, etc.

(There is more than a little apparent confusion in the HHYF about apiaceous seeds.  All the commonly-used ones contain volatile oils that are stimulant, carminative, and stomachic, as virtually the entire Eurasian world has known since time immemorial.  They are in the first herbal writings.)


Angelica sinensis (Oliv.) Diels, Apiaceae.  native.  FeiTuiLaSaHeiRong.

Li:  Danggui.  Sweet, warm, nontoxic.  This famous cureall rates 7 pages in the translation.

(As all those familiar with Chinese medicine know, it is used to treat almost everything that is not clearly a Warm condition.  So important in women’s medicine that it is called “women’s ginseng.”)


Apium graveolens L., Apiaceae.  Karafs, KeLaFuShiZi (pronounced something like “klafusis” in HHYF times—not too far from karafs).

Var dulce DC

Manniche:  Popular, important.  Tonic, appetiser, carminative (mostly the seeds) and the juice is diuretic.  Used in mixes to stimulate appetite, treat the teeth, “cool the uterus” (Manniche 1989:76), and as contraceptive.  Used also in remedies for burns and eye problems.

Dioscorides:  III-67, anethon.  Dill.  Decoction of dried leaves and seeds, lactogogue, eases sores and pains, stops diarrhea and vomiting.  Diuretic.  Too much dulls sight and reduces sexual potency.  Seed burnt, ash applied to skin eruptions.

Avicenna:  Karafs.  Hot; dry only when dried somewhat.  Relieves gas, opens obstructions, sudatory.  Wild celery has hot and pungent properties; erosive, cleansing, irritating.  Wild celery—from his description, including different species—treats baldness, cracked nails, warts, cold eruptions, vitiligo, scabies, etc.  Poultice of the wild form for ulcers.  Not good for headache, but roots promote nasal discharge.  Garden celery for poultice.  Diuretic, emmenagogue, harmful in pregnancy; can hasten labor or even bring abortion.  (This probably refers to a wild type, since some wild relatives do indeed produce abortion.)  Disagreements on stomach effects; not considered good.  (The different species explain the differences here.)

Levey:  Karafs.  Seed in poultice for stomach, in electuaries, in drug for memory, and as stomachic.  Modern uses as carminative, aromatic, tonic (evidently the seed).

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  term (karafs) may include parsley.  (The HHYF also seems a bit confused about parsley, celery and related herbs.)

Lev and Amar:  Karafs.  “Pains, palpitation, theriac, sand in kidney, wounds, indigestion, haemorrhoids, looseness of bowels, stomach ailments, and colic, and as a purgative” (p. 136); Seeds for most of these, and diarrhea, flatulence, warts, diysuria, dysmenorrhea, hard swellings, abortifacient; leaves for inflammations; roots for neile erection; celery water for sciatica, veins.  Once again we see the use of a very mildly active substance for a vast range of conditions, most of which would be trivially affected by it (if at all).  Many of these uses persist and still more can be found in modern times.

Kamal:  Seed diuretic and antispasmodic; some say carminative, emmenagogue, aphrodisiac, stops lactation.

Nadkarni:  Unani uses as deobstruent, resolvent; pectoral tonic, carminative with purgatives; diuretic, emmenagogue, etc.  In addition, seeds are stimulant and cordial.  Prevents rheumatism and gout.

Dash:  Pungent, hot, digestive, carminative, stimulant.  For parasites.

Li:  Qin.  Cold, nontoxic.  Minor uses.

(Domestic celery is as biologically uninteresting as one could get, but wild celery and, above all, some of its relatives are active medicinally.)


Aquilaria agallocha Roxb., Thymeleaceae.   Imported.  WuDiBaLaShan. (WuDi is from Arabic ‘ud-i-*Balashan “resin of Balashan,” wherever that was—though possibly merely a corruption of the Arabic name āghlā).  Hu:540

Avicenna:  Constricting.  Hot, dry, diluting.   Causes constipation, so used for dysentery.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Minor use.  Today for astringent, stomachic, etc.  The appearance of this plant in Al-Samarqandī is one of the marks of progressively increasing Indian influence; it is, in fact, called ‘ud hindī in the text.

Lev and Amar:  Al-Kindī used it for enlarged head, bad respiration, tooth complaints including caries, etc.  Others note various uses, including Maimonides’use for stimulating sexual desire and pleasure.  Hot and dry.  Carminative, for nerves, diuretic (Ibn al-Bayt.ār).

Bellakhdar et al:  ‘ud l-qmari, cardiac stimulant.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, cholagogue, deobstruent.   In nerve tonics, carminative and stimulant preparations.  For gout, rheumatism, vomiting, snake-bite, etc.  Fumigant for wounds and ulcers.  Paste with other things on chest, head.

Dash:  Hot.  Fumigant.

Li:  Chenxiang (“sinking fragrance”—a very famous perfume and fumigant throughout Chinese history).  Warm or hot.  Clears the mind as well as treating pains and much else.  In addition to treating Cold conditions it does what a good warming drug should do:  adds energy, stamina, etc., and treats weakness or debility.


Aralia racemosa L., Araliaceae.  Sadah (Persian)  A misidentification; A. racemosa is an American plant, and not in the Chinese pharmacopoeia.  Possibly intended here for A. cordata.

Nadkarni:  A. pseudo-ginseng for dyspepsia and vomiting.


Arctium lappa L., Asteraceae.    native.  HaZanErZeXiPanDi (Zi)  In the HHYF, “white bezoar” is very frequently mentioned, but always glossed as “this is burdock.”  There is no reason to doubt that burdock was indeed used in those remedies.

Kamal: lawiyah, or from the Greek:  arqityon, araqityon, arqityum.  “Aperient, diuretic and diaphoretic” (the root; 73).

Li:  Eshi.  Many synonyms (partly—Li says—because eshi, “ugly fruit,” is not very medical-sounding!).  Fruit, root and stem used for a large number of Cold conditions, etc.


Areca catechu L., Arecaceae.  BingLong.  Hu: 1300 [but, Nan-f?]

Avicenna:  Coolling, constricting.  For hot and hard swellings, eye pain, aphrodisiac.

Levey:  Faufal.  Ointment, nasal uses.

Kamal:  “astringent, stupefying, anthelmintic” (73).

Lev and Amar:  fawfal.  Liver, skin.

Madanapala:  Pūīphala.  Cold.  Digestive, intoxicating, appetiser. For parasites.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, astringent, antihelminthic.  Modern data on stimulant, toxic, mind-altering qualities added.

Dash:  Astringent, sweet, laxative, intoxicating, appetiser.

Li:  Binlang (which, like the HHYF name, is a Sinicization of the Malaysian name pinang—via Hokkien, in which the characters that in Mandarin are “bin lang” are pronounced “pin nang.”).  Known as a Southeast Asian product.  Seed qualities subject to varying opinions.  Many indications, most conformant to the real stimulant qualities of the seed.


Aristolochia longa L., A. rotunda L., Aristolochiaceae.  Zarāwand, zarawand-gird, zarawand-daraz.  ZaLaWan, ZaLaWanDe

Theophrastus:  II-319:  Applied for head bruises, wounds, snakebite.  Pessary for womb.  Taken for snakebite, sleep.

Dioscorides:  III-4, aristolochia stroggole, A. pallida.  “Aristolocia is so called because it is thought to help passing well women in child-bed.”  (The Greek name means “noble or best for birth.”)  But it can be an abortifacient, too.  This one is “female” because rounder.

III-5, aristolocia makra, A. parvifolia, A. sempervirens.  The male, because larger and less round-leaved and round-rooted.  (This same distinction between male—longer, more pointed—and female—rounder—varieties of plants is made among the Maya of Yucatan.  Possibly it came via the Spanish from Dioscorides.  The Maya also use Aristolochia as a cureall.  In fact, wherever this genus is found, its toxic but highly bioactive ingredients have tended to attract herbalist attention.)

III-6, aristolochia klematitis, A. boetica.

In addition to uses for birth and menstruation—either in medicines or as plaster—these herbs were used for poisons and bites, asthma, rickets, spasms, spleen, ruptures, convulsions, pains, splinters, and much else.  Cleans gums and teeth.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry.  Cleansing, diluting, opening, absorbing.  Can extract thorns.  Produces flesh (round sp.).  Used for skin diseases, ulcers.  Orally for gout.  Good for tetanus.  Used for head conditions, asthma, hiccups, spleen, etc.  Purges out phlegm and yellow bile.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient.  Treats scorpion poison.

Levey:  A. rotunda, zarāwand mudaḥrij.  Scrofula, nose ointment, boils, ulcers, hemorrhoids, teeth, etc.  In oil of wild cucumber for sinews, backache, sciatica, pains of rheumatism and lameness.  One species for tooth powder.   

Graziani:  Zarawand mudahraj, zarawand tawil.  A. rotunda, A. longa respectively.  Use unmentioned but widely used.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  A. longa in several recipes.

Lev and Amar:  Vomiting, gas, warts, dysuria, dysmenorrhea, swellings.

Kamal:  zarawand; whole genus discussed; some emmenagogue, sudorific, antipyretic, but species unclear.

Bellakhdar et al:  Laxative, emmenagogue, anti-palpitant

Ghazanfar:  A. bracteolata rubbed on stings, bites.  It is toxic.

Nadkarni:  A. indica, for snake-bite and other bites, both externally and internally.  For leprosy, dropsy, cholera, diarrhea, intestinal problems, abortifacient.  Several other spp. with similar uses.

Dash:  A. indica pungent, bitter, for parasites, scorpion stings, snakebite, ulcers.

Li:  A. contorta and A. debilis, tianxianteng, bitter, warm nontoxic, for many uses relating to warming.  Blended widely.  A. mandschurica, tongcao, treats both cold and heat; disperses stagnant qi, drains urine, treats a range of conditions.  Balanced, nontoxic.

(Aristolochia species are used worldwide for tonic and cureall effects, including childbirth, whence the name, Greek for “fine birth”; but the plants are actually too toxic for safe use.)


Artemisia abrotanum L., Asteraceae.  Qaysum.  GaiSong

The many very real medical values of Artemisia spp.—a huge genus of some 550 speces—have made these plants medicinally important almost everywhere they are found.  They are still grown by millions of Chinese and other Asian households, and very often elsewhere in the world, from Europe to Latin America.  They are still very widely used as vermifuges (in spite of some danger), abortifacients (much more danger), digestive aids (their original role in vermouth, “wormwood” wine), and so on.  See below; most entries in the HHYF refer to annua or are hard to disentangle; identifications combined below.

Avicenna:  A abrotanum specifically is ‘ubaithrān.  Hot and dry.  Dissolving, blood-thinning, etc.  Irritant, so not for wounds.  Tea for muscular contusions, brain diseases, cold problems in head.  Improves vision and breathing.  Cooked with olive oil for stomach.  Expels fetus.


Artemisia absinthium, A. annua L., Asteraceae.  Qinghao.

This, the traditional Chinese treatment for malaria, has emerged as the leading treatment for malaria today, partly because it kills young stages of the parasite almost totally, making it difficult for the parasite to evolve resistance (as it has to other treatments; see White 2008 for an excellent account).

  1. absinthium and other spp. are included in this section because the text is unclear on these related and similar species.

Dioscorides:  III-127:  Artemisia monoklonos, A. campestris; artemisia monoklonos etera, A. vulgaris.  Either one could really be abrotanum and annuum may be involved also.  For emmenagogue and abortion.

III-138, artemisia leptophyullos, A. arborescens.  Poultice for stomach and sore sinews.

III-26:  Apsinthion, A. pontica, A. absinthium; warming, binding.  Emmenagogue.  For poisons, including shrew bites (which can be infected) and sea-dragon bites.  For eyes and ears, liver, stomach, many other conditions.  Absinth wine noted and used; in Propontis and Thrace it was used as a general tonic drink.  The leaves could be used for insect repellent, as powdered sagebrush leaves were in China and elsewhere.

III-27, apsinthion thalassion, A. maritima.  Warming, bad for stomach, but a powerful, effective vermifuge.

III-28:  Apsinthion triton, santonion, A. palmata.  Also vermifuge.

Note that only two Artemisia spp. are recommended for vermifuge, though all work well.

Levey:  This sp. is shīh., used for teeth and mouth.  A. absinthum, ifsintīn.  Reduces swelling of the spleen.

Al-Bīrūnī: “artamisiyā, artamāsā” for headaches due to colds (citing Rāzī, as he often does).  “Afsantin,” this species, repels moths, cleans the air, is useful for hair, but can cause headache if taken (as for drinking alcohol—possibly explaining the headache!).  Used in ears.  Used for apoplexy, eyes, etc.

Avicenna:  A. absinthium, Asfantīn.  Several other names for wormwoods are given.  Bitter, biting, acrid.  Purgative.  Smoke and vapor used as well as tea.  Astringent.  Used for swellings, pimples, wounds, ulcers, black bile, eyes, a very wide range of internal ailments, and, of course, worms.

Graziani:  “absinthum” used; shikh, with synonyms etc.; stomachic [and surely vermifuge].

Lev and Amar:  all the species are discussed together, though the Arabic clearly refers to several different species with quite different names.  Apparently the Genizah documents are shaky as to actual identifications.  Uses as specified under the species.

Kamal:  A. absinthum, Arabic afsantin or shaibah, as tea, appetizer, tonic for brain, heart, stomach; febrifurge, worm medicine, emmenagogue.  A. pontica, shih, burnt for purifying; febrifurge; tea for diabetes.

  1. abrotanum, qaysum, stimuilant and anthelminthic. The “female” (whatever Kamal may mean by that) is khrisaneh; it is stomachic, antivconvoulsive, anthelminthic.
  2. santonin, shih khurasani, qaisum ontha antihelminthic.

Bellakhdar et al:  A. arborescens, antihelminthic; diuretic; emmenagogue; abortive; aperitive.  A. herba-alba, gastro-intestinal, antiseptic, anthelminthic, poison antidote, hypoglycemiant, emmenagogue.

Ghazanfar:  A. herba-alba for worms.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  A. herba-alba and A. sieberi, shih, etc.; for diabetes, indigestion, kidneys, stomach, weakness, and with bay leaf and rose water or milk, fenugreek, and other spices for childbirth (presumably recovery after delivery).   A. judaica, bu-aythiran, sheeh, for insomnia, rheumatism, skin, stomach.

Nadkarni:  A. absinthium, febrifurge, stomachic, deobstruent, diaphoretic, antihelminthic, antiseptic, stomachic. Toxic, but tonic effect on brain.  A. maritima, strong antihelminthic; antispasmodic.  Several other spp. used.

Eisenman:  Carminative; vermifuge.  Used locally for dyspepsia, insomnia, “liver, stomach, spleeen, and gall bladder, fever, hemorrhoids, malaria, intestinal ulcers,…wounds” (p. 41).  Biomedically effective on skin, and for stomach, as well as for worms.  A. annua, leaves for skin conditions.

Li:  A. annua?, huanghuahao, pungent, bitter, cool, nontoxic, minor uses.  A. annua is normally qinghao. This seems to be a color variant of it, greener in leaf, yellower in flower (the name means “yellow-flowered wormwood”).

  1. apiacea, A. annua, qinghao. Leaves and fruits used. Bitter, cold, nontoxic.  Many uses, including killing external parasites and other pest insects.  The famous use, of course, is for malaria; artemisin derived from it is now the worldwide drug of choice for that disease.  Li apparently got confused, and used “qinghao” for A. apiacea.
  2. anomala, liujinucao, fruit, bitter, warm, nontoxic. Minor uses, mostly digestive.
  3. argyris, ai, a very common and important remedy. Usually leaves used, but fruit also. Bitter, slightly warm, nontoxic.  Not only is it taken for a huge range of conditions; the leaf is dried and powdered for moxibustion.  A rare and unusual Artemisia, qiannian’ai “Argy wormwood of a thousand years,” is found in mountains and used to treat male debility and female pain; from Li’s description it appears to be a different species.
  4. capillaris, A. scoparia, yinchenhao. Bitter, balanced or cold, nontoxic. Important; wide range of uses.  Like some other wormwoods, it will make the rabbits that eat it immortal, according to early reports that Li politely indicates he questions.
  5. japonica, muhao, bitter, slightly sweet, warm, nontoxic Minor uses, plus in combination for malaria.
  6. keikeskiana, yanlu, bitter, cold or warm, nontoxic. Range of treatments for pain and digestion, etc.
  7. sieversiana, baihao, leaves, roots, seeds used; cool; similar to above. Many uses as food and drug.

(Sagebrushes are digestive in small doses, vermifugal in larger, dangerously abortifacient in slightly larger—all cultures in the range of the genus seem to know this.  Very widespread but often deadly as last resort for abortion.)

Meserve:  Artemisia sp. for constipation, and other Mongol uses cited, including the inevitable vermifuge use as well as antiseptic and febrifuge uses.

Elisabeth Hsu (2010b):  a major paper by this brilliant Needham Institute researcher finds A. annua used for external purposes—bites, stings, wounds—in the earlier literature, including one of the excavated Mawangdui texts.  Ge Hong is the first known to have used it for intermittent and persistent fevers, certainly including malaria (see esp. pp. 109-110, 116).  He used extracts or infusions of the fresh plant, as did later writers, but eventually the dried material was made into tea, which is much less effective.  A. apiacea, Li Shizhen’s “qinghao,” is less effective, but may have been easier to extract.  Hsu thoroughly reviews the literature.  A companion piece (Hsu 2010a) stresses the common-sense nature of plant knowledge (with philosophical grounding from Thomas Reid and Scott Atran on the concept of “common sense”), and the resulting mix of truth and error that culture constructs from plant experiences.


Artemisia dracunculus L. (=A. dracunculoides Pursh), Asteraceae.  Tarragon.

One mention in Index; evidently not a serious medicinal.  Not mentioned in most sources; evidently blanked by the more pharmaceutically active Artemisia spp.  See above

Dioscorides:  apparently mentioned.  Old uses as diuretic, anthelminthic, emmenagogue, as with other artemisias.

Avicenna:  ṭarkhūn; Persian tarkhūn  Dry, somewhat cold. Reduces libido and hard to digest.

Kamal:  A. dracunculus, tarkhun (whence English “tarragon”) is stomachic, emmenagogue, anti-tooth-decay.

Eisenman:  For edema, scurvy, appetite, carminative.  Powder for mouth conditions.  Vermifuge.  Central Asian tarragon has no methyl-chavicol, unlike the western form, but the medical relevance of this is unclear.  A. leucodes, a more sagebrush-like species, is strongly anti-inflammatory and used in biomedicine for athersclerosis and heart problems.  A. scoparia used for respiratory conditions, rheumatism, and as diuretic; also, like other Artemisia spp., vermfuge and emmenagogue.  Essential oils with such action are noted.  A. viridis, infusions for uclers, kidneys, liver, bile ducts, but biomedical action unstudied.


Artemisia vulgaris L., Asteraceae.  native.  A FuSaDing  Iran, Afzentin

Dioscorides:  see above.

Kamal:  Swaila, shwaila.  A. vulgaris, emmenagogue, anti-hysteria; roots anti-epileptic.  Used for catarrh in Morocco.

Madanapala:  Nāgadamanī.  Cures poisons.

Nadkarni:  Antihelminthic, antiseptic, expectorant.

Dash:  Bitter, cardiac, alleviates dosas, cures afflictions by evil spirits as well as poisoning and skin conditions.

Eisenman:  Wide range of folk uses, including colds, nervous conditions, epilepsy, neurasthenia, anticonvulsant; poisoning, inflammation of gastrointestinal tract, tuberculosis, appetite, ulcers; wounds (externally). Antibacterial, anthelminthic, and other biomedical effects well known.

Sun:  Wormwood/hairhead wormwood (baihao白蒿)[2]: bitter, spicy, balanced, and nonpoisonous. It nourishes the five internal organs. It is good for the Middle Jiao and enhances qi. It helps hair grow. If one has taken it for a long time, he will not die; white rabbits take it and become Immortals.


Asarum sieboldii Miq., Aristolochiaceae.  Native.  A JiErHaErHa

Dioscorides:  I-9, asaron, Asarum europaeum.  Root for ruptures, convulsions, cough, breathing problems; diuretic and emmenagogue.  With wine for poisonous bites.  Leaves as poultice for inflammations, headache, inflammations, rashes, etc.  Smell induces sleep.  Can cause vomiting.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Warming.  Used for smallpox.

Kamal:  A. europoeum, asaron, emetic.

Nadkarni:  A. enropoeum, emetic, cathartic.

Li:  This and A. heterotropoides, A. sieboldii, A. hexalobum are xixin, a common and important drug still today.  A. forbesii is duheng.  Roots used.  Warming, pungent, nontoxic.  Many uses, with little in common; a cureall.


Asparagus officinalis L., Asparagaceae (Liliaceae).  Marjubah (Persian), whence MaErChuBi

Dioscorides:  II-152, aspharagos, Asparagus acutifolius.  Root decoction for illnesses generally; kidneys, being diuretic; helps with dysentery and bites.  Can make one infertile.  Seed, etc. used also.  Dioscorides properly dismissed a tale that bits of rams’ horns would grow into asparagus.

Avicenna:  Neutral to hot.  Cleansing, opening.  Dissolvent Diuretic.  Roots increasees semen and libido, so helps in conceiving. Suppository for menses.  Used for kidney stone.  A kind that grows on rocks is hotter and stronger (the normal kind grows in marshy ground and cannot live on rocks, so this is evidently some other, interesting species).

Graziani:  Asparagus sp., hilyawn, used by Ibn Jazlah for sciatica.  Other medieval Arab uses for kidneys, bladder, backache, lumbago, pains in lungs; in syrup and robs.

Lev and Amar:  eyes, strength, bites, urine, pains, etc.  Seeds fermented good for sexual medicine, and plant aphrodisiac (traditionally from phallic shape).  Diuretic.

Bellakhdar et al.:  sekkum, A. albus antirheumatismal and for liver infections; aperitive.

Nadkarni:  Dropsy, rheumatism, gout, etc.  Whole plant used.  Some other spp. noted.

Eisenman:  A. persicus, for various conditions; no empirical data though contains various chemicals.

Li:  A. cochinchinensis, tianmendong, root widely used.  Sources disagree on qualities and value.  Used in medieval times to prolong life and youth, with some preposterous stories from Ge Hong and others.  Li admits value as a tonic, but maintains his skeptical silence in regard to the “immortality” and “300-year longevity” stories.


Astragalus sarcocolla Dym., Fabaceae.  ‘anzarūt.  AnZaLuDe (LuTi), DuLuNuZhi, HeiHaLiJi.  (Sometimes identified as, or equated with, Penaeus mucronata L.  See Levey.)

Dioscorides:  IV-62, astragalos, A. baeticus and/or similar spp.  Stops diarrhea.  Diuretic.  Good for old sores, as powder applied.

4-18, medion, A. sesameus.  With honey for dysentery.  Seed in wine emmenagogue.

Levey:  This or Penaea mucronata L., salve for skin spots,leprosy, abscesses, cataracts; in musk.

Avicenna:  ṣamagh, anzarūt, etc.  Astragalus spp.  He calls it “Persian gum,” which may reflect his Central Asian origins.  Hot and dry (somewhat).  Can cause baldness.  Poultice for swellings, etc.  Sets sprained organs.  Used for ear, eyes, coughs and chest (with honey and wine), kidney pains, etc.

Lev and Amar:  ‘anzarūt.  Eyes,very widely and for almost any eye condition; sexual health; skin spots, abscesses; leprosy. Wounds, intestines, etc.  Hot and dry.

  1. gummifera, kathīrā, Perspirant; for cough and espiratory diseases, throat pains, limbs, etc. In compounds for all sorts of purposes.

Bellakhdar et al.:  A. gummifera, ktira.  Antitussive, antiashthmatic, reconstituant.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  A. sarcocolla, anzarut, kuhl farsi.  On cuts and wounds; rubbed on babies; taken for indigestion.

Nadkarni:  Aperient.  Other spp. used.

Eisenman:  A sieversianus, infusion for kidney and bladder stones.  Seeds for “hernias in children, and are smoked to treat syphilis” (p. 52).  Biomedically, antioxidant, sedative, antibacterial, anti-inflammatroy, and other effects demonstrated; saponins from roots protect liver from chemicals; clearly a plant to watch.  Many chemical ingredients known.

Li:  Five or more species lumped in Chinese as huangqi.  A very common, important drug then and today; usually the root used.  Several pages of uses, for almost every imaginable condition and some unimaginable ones.


Astragalus tragacantha L., Fabaceae.  Kathīra.  Probably a misidentification for the above, but possibly both this and A. sarcocolla were known.  Members of the genus are more or less interchangeable in Arabic-Persian medicine.


Athamantha tragacantha L., Apiaceae.  KeXiLa

Dioscorides:  III-77, petroselinon, Athamantha macedonica.  Diuretic and emmenagogue.  Good for gripes, bloating, other stomach pains; kidneys, bladder.

III-83, daukos; one kind may be A. cretensis.  See Daucus below.  This kind is specially noted for use of root with wine for “hurts by poisonous beasts” (Gunther 1934:316).


Avicennia officinals L., Avicenniaceae (Verbenaceae).  Shura

Possibly a misidentification, but the tree is common on tropical shores, and, as the scientific name suggests, used medicinally.

Nadkarni:  Bark astringent; used in smallpox.

(Very high tannin content makes it a powerful astringent.)


Balsamodendron africanum Arn., B.  mukul Hook., and probably other spp.  Burseraceae.  Sometimes classed with Commiphora.

Levey:  Kūr azraq, resin of former; muql, latter.  Dressings; insanity.

Bellakhdar et al:  B. africana, cosmetics, digestive, pulmonary cure, stomachic.

Ghazanfar:  Commiphora mukul  (=B. mukul) for childbirth:  resin burned, smoke directed to birth area to get placenta expelled and dry up area.

Earlier and other uses unclear as to species.  (HHYF confusing on this also.)

Nadkarni:  B. mukul gum, demulcent, aperient, alterative, carminative, antispasmodic, emmenagogue.  Said to be aphrodisiac.


Bambusa spp., Poaceae.  Stem concretions or ash:  tabasheer (Arabic ṭabāshīr).  Also one mention of use of shoots in soup, but this is merely an intrusion of Chinese foodways rather than a medical entry (it is the other ingredients in the soup that are medicinal).

Avicenna:  constricting, ripening, dissolvent. Bitter, drying.  Used for ulcers, sores, eye inflammation, heart,  yellow bile in stomach, quenching thirst, stopping vomiting, etc.

Levey:  Few casual mentions.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Commonly recommended by Al-Samarqandī in many formulations.  One of the marks of progressively increasing Indian influence on Near Eastern medicine.  Note that it does not appear often in the earlier sources.

Lev and Amar:  Jaundice, fever, palpitation, stomach and diarrhea, bile, black bile, phlegm, mouth sores, gums, eyes, etc.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, astringent, febrifuge, tonic, cooling, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac.  Unani specifically:  Tonic for heart and liver, sedative, and for vomiting, palpitation, coma, fevers.

Li:  Bamboos are zhu, the shoots zhusun, the concretions in the stems—what is usually meant by tabasheer—zhuhuang.  Minor, somewhat dubious uses.  Bamboos, on the other hand, are used for a vast range of conditions.

(This substance is singularly inactive pharmacologically, but the high content of silica granules in the ash would possibly make it good for binding and soothing sores.)


Berberis spp. (probably originally B. vulgaris L. in the source materials, but several spp. occur in China and are used medicinally, so no doubt this should be understood generically), Berberidaceae.  Barberry.  Barbārīs, amirbārīs.

Brief mentions; not significant.  Apparently the reference in the HHYF index is to the fruit as a food, not the wood and root as remedies.

Dioscorides:  probably B. lycium.  Fruit much used.

Avicenna:  cold, dry.  Syrup for eradicating yerllow bile.  Indian barberry is dissolvent, and used on sores and ulcers.  Barberry taken internally for spleen, etc.  Causes constipation.  Fruit used.

Lev and Amar:  Liver, spleen, abdomen, bowles, bile, etc.  Maimonides recommends for stomach, purgative, etc.  Widely used for ointment for skin in Iraq and Iran today.

Nadkarni:  Several spp. used, esp. B. vulgaris.  Tonic, stomachic, astringent, antipyretic, tonic, antiperiodic, diaphoretic, alterative, root purgative, etc.  The yellow alkaloid berberine, froom the wood and roots, is known to be effective for at least several of these uses.  Fruit can serve as a laxative.  B. lycium Royle for hemorrhoids and ulcers.  B. vulgaris for leprosy, snakebite, malaria, jaundice (presumably sympathetic magic, because of the yellow extract), etc.  The fruit has minor medical uses as laxative, stomach soothing, etc.

Eisenman:  B. integerrima, fruit antipyretic (and a food).  Roots for wounds, bone fractures, rheumantism, heart pain, stomach aches.  Leaves for kidney stones.  Tea of flowers for lungs, chest, headache.  Infusion of fruits for constipation and wounds.  Contains berberine, widely known as a blood pressure and relatant drugs; depresses nervous system action.  Also has antitumor and bacteriostatic action and other biomedical effects.  B. oblonga, similar uses; atnidiarrheal; root for eyes and mouth (wash for sores).  Residue from root tea eaten or applied externally for jaundice, stomach, back and other pains.  Shares biomedical effects of other barberries (berberine, etc.).

Li:  Various spp. for aphtha, nasal and oral eczema, worms, Heat in stomach and abdomen, etc.

(Common food in Iran.  Nutritious.  Note that the English name is a folk etymology based on Latin barbaris, the source also of the Arabic and scientific names.  But the plant does have barbs and berries, so the folk etymology was irresistable.)


Beta vulgaris L  var. cicla L.  Chenopodiaceae.  JunDaErYe (Persian chundur).

Dioscorides:  II-149, teutlon melan agrion.  Good for the belly, but the black root causes constipation.  Juice in nostril with honey to purge the head and help pains of ears.  Cleanses sores, etc.  Raw leaves to anoint skin eruptions, etc.

IV-16, leimonion, B. sylvestris, seed for dysentery.

Levey:  Silq.  Includes other plants.  Beet leaves in a clyster.

Lev and Amar:  Silq. Hot and dry to some, but Maimonides saw it as cold and moist.  Various kinds.  Good food.  Modern uses for seeds and leves as well as root; leaves put on stings, rashes, wounds, dandruff, etc.; food for intestines, urination, kidney stones, anemia, liver.

Kamal:  Diuresis, cystitis, constipation.  Leaves used.

Nadkarni:  Various minor uses for headache, liver, eyes, burns, constipation, hemorrhoids, and externallyi for ulcers, sores, dandruff, etc.

Li:  Tiancai.  Sweet, bitter, very cold, slippery, nontoxic.  Use, obviously, for very serious Heat conditions, including some “real” heat affections like moxibustion burns (poultice used for them as well as bites, etc.).


Bletilla striata (Thunb.) Reichb., Orchidaceae.  F.  native

Li:  Baiji.  Nontoxic, pungent.  Balanced.  Wide range of uses, especially for chapping, wounds, swellings, acne, and other external conditions.


Borago officinalis L., Boraginaceae.  KunDuShi.  Arabic lisān al-thawr.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Lisān al-thawr; “būghlūs in Roman.”  (Cf. English “bugloss”—which is bu-gloss, cow-tongue, not bug-loss!)  Refrigerant.  Quotes several major authors.

Avicenna:  Hot, moist.  Exhilarant; relieves anxiety (still believed in 21st century!).  Cures mouth ulcers.

Graziani:  Ibn Jazlah used it for palpitation, cough, chest pain; could harm the spleen.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Usual importance—a person from the Persian cultural universe, which included Samarqand, would never neglect this one!

Maimonides:  Used by Maimonides as rather a cureall (Maimonides 1974).

Lev and Amar:  Probably various species, including Anchusa spp., used.  Hallucination, eyes, headaches, fever, aphrodisiac, etc.  many uses, internal and external, including madness and melancholy.  Relieves pain, etc.

Kamal: Aperient and diaphoretic.

(Used in Persia today under the name “cow’s tongue” for every imaginable condition, including those mentioned by Graziani.  Usually made up as an herbal tea, it is the great Iranian cureall.  My Persian students were all raised with it.  Dried flowers in bags of all sizes are sold in every Persian market.  Oddly little or no use in traditional medicine in India or China.)


Boswellia carteri Birdw., Burseraceae.

Imported.  YuLiQiSaQi.  Hu: RuXiang; 540

Dioscorides:  1-81, libanon thus, frankincense.  Warns about adulteration.  Warming, binding, cleansing.  Applied:  Cures ulcers and wounds, suppresses bloody flux and excessive bleeding, cures skin ailments (long list), relieves women’s breast inflammations.  Taken with medicines:  arteries, intestines, lungs; but being drunk by the healthy, it drives mad or kills.

1-82, phloios libanou:  bark of this species.   Similar uses, but more binding.

1-83, libanou manna, manna of the species.  Similar uses.  One wonders what this is as opposed to the gum itself.

1-84, libanou aithalie, “fuligo of frankincense,” i.e. soot prepared by charring.  For inflammation of eyes, repressing fluxes, cleaning ulcers, etc.  1-85 notes that other resins (myrrh, styrax, etc.) make good soot also.

Levey:  Lubān, Lubnā.  Storax (gum) from this plant.  In a clyster for humors.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Kundur.  Heating, etc.  Quotes Galen, Paul of Aegina and many Arab writers.

Avicenna:  Kundur.  Hot and dry.  Stops bleeding.  Vapor has strong drying quality, constricting tissues and channels.  Many external uses, by itself or with vinegar, oil, honey, rose oil, etc.  With duck fat on skin fungus, and with swine fat (odd thing to see in a Muslim book) “on burn ulcers and cold fissures” (*p. 465).  Used internally for fevers, vomiting, etc.

Graziani:  Kandur, kundur, luban.  Resin used.

Lev and Amar:  Lubān, kundur.  Maimonides used I for melancholy, rabid dog bites, stings, hemorrhages, wounds, skin diseases; hot and dry.  Various other authorities noted the same, plus use for lungs, intestines, liver, etc.  Strengthens teeth and gums.  Used today for these purposes and for disinfectant.

Kamal: Luban, loban.  Stimulant, emmenagogue; for throat and larynx, locally for chilblains; sudorific; toothache relief.

Bellakhdar et al:  Antitussive, cosmetic

Ghazanfar:  B. sacra.  Lubān, bakhor.  (Same sp. as above; taxonomy has been debated.)  Gum for perfume, mastitis, teeth, digestion, etc.; soot for eyes; gum chewed by pregnant women and to treat emotional problems.  Diuretic, purgative, and for memory in Saudi Arabia.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Smoke for wounds and swellings, post-delivery, etc.  Taken for childbirth, coughs, diabetes, diarrhea, liver, lungs, memory, nausea, odors, oral care, stomach!

Nadkarni:  This and various related Indian spp.; resin refrigerant, diuretic, demulcent, aperient, alterative, emmenagogue, etc.

Li:  Xunluxiang, ruxiang. Known to be from the western world.  Warm or hot, nontoxic. Treats pains, disabilities, etc.

(Resin well known as antiseptic and soothing.)


Boswellia papyrifera Hochst., Burseraceae.  Tus.

Same data and sources, but seem distinguishable in the formularies.


Brassica alba (L.) Boiss. and other Brassica spp.  Brassicaceae.  Native.  BaiXiPanDan. Morocco, Zarrit s-san

Dioscorides:  II-134, gongylis, B. rapa, turnip.  Root, eaten boiled, noted as causing flatulence; “provoking venerie” (Gunther 1934:147), presumably from the stomach irritation.  Decoction for gout and sores; drunk or applied.  Leaves diuretic.  Seeds antidotal to poison etc.

Levey:  Khardal.  May include Sinapis.  Leprosy, erysipelas, itch, etc.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Brassica sp.  Khardal.  Treats dyspepsia and flatulence.

Avicenna:  B. rapa, turnip, shaljam.  Softening effedcts; trivial uses; increase semen; water of boiling is diuretic.  B. nigra, khardal, black mustard.  Hot and dry to fourth degree. Prevents production of phlegm.  Oil very warm.  Fumes repel insects.  Cleansing, dissolving, rubefacient.  Poultice irritating and erosive; clears complexion and spots, dissolves hot inflammations and chronic swellings, used with sulfur on tubercular lymph glands.  Used on scabies and arthritis.  For ear, eye (for day-blindness and roughness).  Internally for windpipe, inflammation of spleen, hysteria.  Aphrodisiac.  Used for intermittent and chronic fevers.

  1. campestris, turnip, shaljam, used for gout, chapping, etc. Stalks diuretic. Seeds in pastes, electuaries, confections; analgesic for bites; antidote. Aphrodisiac.  Wild turnip seeds for poultices for mouth and skin.

Graziani:  “Mustard,” khardal, species uncertain, used by Ibn Jazlah for menstrual disorders. Ibn Butlān used it for gouit and loosening induration.  Today in Iran and Iraq [as elsewhere in the world] for emetic.

Lev and Amar:  Sinapis alba, khardal.  Skin and skin conditions including leprosy and erysipelas.  Neck pustules.  Several species recognized (unclear identifications).  Seeds for stomach.  Plan for inflammations, rheumatism, pains, colds, influenza, jaundice, stones in urinary system, etc.

Bellakhdar et al:  B. napus, magic uses; B. nigra, magic, calefacient, revulsive.

Madanapala:  Sārsapa, B. campestris. Heavy, hot.  Alleviates dosas.

Nadkarni:  Mustard powder stimulant, emetic, diuretic.  Digestive.  Oil stimulant, rubefacient, vesicant.

Dash:  B. campestris and B. nigra discussed together; pungent, cures parasites and colic.  B. nigra prevents afflictions by evil spirits and bestws auspiciousness on children.

Li:  Baijie.  Known to be from west.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  A range of respiratory and warming uses, as for coughing, phlegm, asthma; most familiar to the western world.

  1. campestris, yuntai. Pungent, warm (or cool), nontoxic. Common food.  For swellings, erysipelas, other external conditions, as well as diarrhea and other internal matters.  Leaves and seeds used.  The disagreement over whether the leaves are warm or cool persists today.  The seeds are always warm.
  2. chinensis (B. campestris var. chinesis), song, baicai. Stem and leaf sweet, warm or cool (today considered very cooling), nontoxic. Leaves for digestive and a few other complaints.  Seeds for oil used for hair growth etc.
  3. rapa (B. campestris var. rapa), wujing, root, leaves, seeds. Bitter and nontoxic. Various conditions.  It is not clear which of these apply to the western turnip and which to the indigenous Chinese turnip, which are closely related and confused even by modern scientists.

(Stimulant effects of Brassica seeds are known worldwide.  Mustard plasters are still not unknown in the United States.)


Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. et Coss.  Brassicaceae.  Native.

Nadkarni:  Plant aperient and tonic.  Oil stimulant, counterirritant.  Hot mustard bath, emmenagogue.

Sun:  Mustard leaf (jiecai芥菜): spicy, warm, nonpoisonous. It treats nose problems (guibi歸鼻). It dispels noxious qi in the kidney. It breaks spells of vomiting caused by coughing. It makes qi move downward. It is good for the nine orifices. It is good for eyesight and hearing. It pacifies the Middle Jiao (anzhong安中). When one takes it for a long time, it warms the Middle Jiao, though alternatively it is said that “it chills the Middle Jiao.” Its seeds are spicy. The spiciness also treats nose problems (guibi歸鼻). The seeds are poisonous. They especially treat throat illnesses caused by wetness, wind, or cold (houbi喉痹). They can rid every kind of wind poison and bump [boil? Tumor?] caused by living in wet and lower places (fengduzhong風毒腫). The Yellow Emperor said, “Mustard leaves cannot be taken along with rabbit meat. Otherwise they will cause bad and noxious disease (exiebing惡邪病).”

Li:  jie.  Leaves and seeds; large number of miscellaneous uses, mostly household first-aid and minor remedies, but Li personally recommends the seeds for lockjaw, deafness, epistaxis, and other serious conditions.

(Seeds of this plant are the traditional source of the standard Chinese mustard preparations, used in households as stimulant, etc.)


Brassica oleracea L., Brassicaceae. Kurunb, karnab, kirnab.

Var. botrytis L.  Kalam (Persian)

Dioscorides:  Krambe.  II:120, sight, trembling, stomach, erysipelas, carbuncles, gangrene, spleen, pessary against conception, etc.

Avicenna:  Laxative, drying.  Good for inflammations of soft connective tissue.  Leaves made into poultice, sometimes with flour.  Heals wounds, eused on burns with egg white, treats mites and the like.  Burnt and used with butter on chronic pain of chest and ribs.  Poured on arthritis.  Boiled wild cabbages, and seeds, delay intoxication.  Diuretic.  Emmenagogue.  For treating displaced uterus, but this can interfere with semen.  Sea cabbage (Crambe maritima) mild laxative.  Various other uses.

Levey:  Kurunb.  Ulcers, etc.

Lev and Amar:  Qunnabīṭ, qarnabīt, kurnub.  Stomach ulcers, etc.  Bites, food poisoning.

Graziani:  Kurunb.  Ibn Jazlah used for bites and to stop trembling.  “Dioscorides employs it for dull sight, trembling, stomach, erysipelas, carbuncles, gangrene and spleen troubles” (1980:208); presumably this is an Arabic Dioscorides; it is not in the English.

Li:  ganlan.  Sweet, plain, nontoxic.  Very little said; known as a western borrowing, rarely found in China.  Very interesting is that Li puts it with smartweed and other herbs rather than with the other Brassica species, which are together in a single group of entries.


Bryonia alba L., Cucurbitaceae.  Hazarjashan (Persian).  HaSanErHeiSang.

Manniche:  B. dioica for bladder and urinary problems, stomach problems, digestion, anal inflammation.

Dioscorides:  IV-184, ampelos leuke.  Young shoots (a traditional European food) diuretic.  With salt on ulcers and gangrenous sores.  Root or fruit for sunburn and scars, etc., or with wine for inflammation and abscesses.  Root brewed and drunk for epilepsy, one dram daily for a year.  Also apoplexy, dizziness, etc.  More (drunk or as pessary) will produce abortion.  Fruit, eaten in boiled wheat, lactogogue.

Avicenna:  Hot, dry.  Cleansing, diluent, warming.  Cleanses the body and treats scars and marks.  Used on hard swellings, spleen inflammation (taken with vinegar), etc.  With honey for hysteria.  Useful for stomach; astringent, pungent, a boit bitter and acrid.  Abortifacient but good for displaced uterus.  Black bryony (Tamus communis) used for chest, paralysis, etc.

Lev and Amar:  B. cretica.  Fāshirā, hazārjishān.  Pains in womb, swellings, diuretic, purgative, ulcers, abscesses, etc.  Juice increases mother’s milk but excess causes vomiting.  Roots for cleansing, bunions, boils, scars, skin.  Ointment of root cooked in oil for pain, hemorrhoids, broken bones, etc.  Leaves for stomach, diuretic.

Kamal:  fashra, etc.  Cathartic.  For anasarca, mania, jaundice, colic, constipation.

Nadkarni:  Several related species have minor uses in India.  B. epigoea especially in alterative, tonic, antihelminthic, aperient, with uses for sexually transmitted disesases, acute dysentery, etc.


Bupleurum chinense DC. & other spp.  Apiaceae.  Native.

Kamal:  B. perfoliatum, antihelminthic.  Cooked, for hematomas.

Li:  Chaihu.  Several other spp. included in this name.  Root a common, important medicine.  Bitter, balanced to cold, nontoxic.  Several pages of indications.  Leaf usedfor ears to prevent deafness.


Calonyction muricatum.  Convolvulaceae.  Tentatively identified in one HHYF recipe; not noted in the herbals.  Likely an error for some other convolvulaceous plant.


Calycotome spinosa.  Fabaceae. Dārshīsh’ān.  Hairy thorn-broom.  Mentioned in the Table of Contents.  Nothing known of its herbal use here, and little or nothing in the literature; very possibly a mistake, the name being used for some more medicinal species of broom..  A widespread weed with no recorded medical uses.


Canarium album (Lour.) Raeusch.  Burseraceae.  NaErDingYou

Nadkarni:  C. commune kernels demulcent, stimulant, laxative, expectorant.  Gum stimulant and rubefacient, oil demulcent.

(The kernel of the nut is a common food in south China, with some warming uses, but seems little discussed in old herbals.  Thus scored as an “Indian” drug.)


Cannabis sativa L.  Cannabaceae (Urticaceae).  Native.  HuMaRen (seeds) Hu: 100

Manniche:  With celery for eyes.

Dioscorides:  III-165, kannabis emeros.  Seed eaten, kills sexual desire (!).  Juice of green plant for pain of ears.  (Interesting that the drug quality was not known, and that our 17th-century translator already calls it Cannabis sativa.  This is by no means the only plant already known in 1655 by its eventual Linnaean name.)

Al-Bīrūnī:  Shāhdhānaj.   Seeds dry up sperm.  Infusion of seeds for ears.  Leaves cure gas.  Desiccant.  Embrocation applied to hot inflammations and the like.  Note differences from Dioscorides; Galen cited for the drying up of sperm, presumably the same idea as Dioscorides’ anaphrodisiac claim.

Avicenna:  qinnab.  Seeds are shahdānj, oil is ḥabb-al-simnah and may sometimes come from other spp.  Hot and dry.  Dissolves gas.  Minor external uses;  Causes dark-sightnedness.  Seeds fattening but hard to digest.  Makes semen sticky.  Mild laxative.

Nasrallah:  Adds that the seeds create “unfavorable humors in the body and cause headaches and constipation” (2007:672).  Notes that Ibn al-Bā described marijuana and its extremely intoxicating, maddening properties.  Apparently the poor used them in pills or with sugar and sesame.

Graziani:  Avicenna and Rāzī used as anaesthetic, painkiller.  They warned against overdose.  Ibn Jazlah avoided it.  Modern uses in Middle East as anaesthetic, styptic, diuretic.

Lev and Amar:  Against insanity (!) and epilepsy.  Al-Bīrūnī and others noted dangers of use; causes intoxication and even insanity.  Maimonides notes use of oil for ears.  Plant used for soporific and eye pains (cf. modern use for glaucoma).

Kamal:  qinnab hindi, qunbus; hashish for the drug.  Narcotic.

Bellakhdar et al:  just a narcotic.  Famously a major part of Moroccan culture.

Madanapala:  Bhangā.   Digestive, constipative but also cures constipation [i.e., regularizes digestion].  Causes intoxication.

Nadkarni:  Stomachic, antispasmodic, analgesic, stimulant, aphrodisiac, sedative, etc.  Bad effects of habitual use noted.  (Important part of Indian culture; traditional indulgent, often abused long before modern times.)

Dash:  Bitter, hot, sharp, constipative, carminative, intoxicating.  Makes one talkative.

Li:  For foretelling future, amnesia, etc.  Plant toxic, seeds debatably so.  Sweet, balanced to cold.  Seeds much used for medicine and in early times for food and oil.  Leaves, being dangerous, much less used.  (The indulgent use of marijuana was conspicuously rare in traditional China, in sharp contrast to the Islamic and Indian worlds.)


Capparis spinosa L., Capparidaceae.  Kabr.  KeBo (B) ErGen, KeBoEr

Dioscorides:  II-204, kapparis; cynosbatos (dog bush); many other names.  Fruit for spleen, urine, dysentery, sciatica, palsy, ruptures, convulsions, toothache; emmenagogue; applied on ulcers; juice kills worms in ears.

Avicenna:  Root and fruit used.  Pungent and hot.  Keeps mustard from fermenting and spoiling.  Root bitter and pungent.  Hot and dry; hot according to local climate (hotter where climate is hotter).  Fruit dissolving, opening, cleansing; root erosive.  Bark bitter and pungent; constrictive.  Nutritious, but less so when salted (interesting, showing that it was salted then as now).  Bark of root for wounds, pain, tenderness, etc.  Extract as enema.  Can treat paralysis and loss of sensation.  Chewing bark of root relieves cold headaches.  Treats worms; extract instilled in ear (possibly for worms in ear?).  Relieves toothache.  Mouthwash, probably from root bark again.  Salted fruit for asthma.  Fruit and root bark for splenic hardness.  Kills roundworms when taken internally; increases sexual desire; treats piles and menses.

Levey:  Kabbār.  Root bark in poultice for spleen, and for hemorrhoids.  Leaf for the spirits.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Root rind for various conditions; fairly important to Al-Samarqandī.  Current uses for ulcers, scrofula, carminative, aphrodisiac, fever, rheumatism.  Various uses in India, including dropsy.

Lev and Amar:  kabar.  Pains, women’s afflictions, insanity, worms in ears, diuretic; mouth medicine for sores, gums, teeth; also stings, wounds, stomach, emmenagogue, hemorrhoids, appetite, etc., etc.

Kamal:  qabbar (Persian kabar).  Roots diuretic, fruit carminative and sudorific.  Leaves alleviate toothache.

Bellakhdar et al:  Antirheumatic, stimulant; treats painful menstruation.

Ghazanfar:  Las.afa, fakouha, shafallah.  Leaves for earache, coughs, worms, diabetes.  Other spp. of the genus and the closely related Cleome for various purposes.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Emetic, scrofula, spleen, liver.

Nadkarni:  For palsy, dropsy, gout, rheumatism.  Related species, similar minor uses.

Eisenman:  For hepatitis; root bark smoked for syphilis.  Flower juice for scrofula.  Fruit, decocted, for hemorrhoids and toothatches, and gums.  Antioxidant and other biomedical effects; experimental data indicate potential.

Li:  Several local species, mabinlang (“horse’s areca-nut”).  For childbirth.  A “minority”-area drug very little known in Han circles, but Li recommends it personally for mouth and gum sores—another example of his seeking out even very obscure drugs.


Carduus benedictus L., C. dipsacus L., Asteraceae.  YiSiTiErHa.  Bad-āvard.

Dioscorides:  This species not distinguished, but he cites many thistles, including skolymos, Scolymus hispanicus, glossed as “carduus” in the 1655 translation, and used for urine; shoots a pot-herb.

Li:  C. crispus, feilian, bitter, salty, balanced, nontoxic; for a number of conditions.  One early herbal recommends it for “Wind in the skin that makes the patient feel as if it is a bee sting with bumps” (Li 2003:1673), another for getting rid of worms, like horse’s tail hair, in the genitalia.


Carthamus tinctorius L., Asteraceae.  Shikh.  Hu:HongHua 973

Dioscorides:  IV:188, knekos, purgative.

Levey:  In salve for beatings.

Avicenna:  ‘aṣfar.  Hot and dry.  Usual minor external uses.  Taken with fig or honey for abdominal pain and to evacuate burnt phlegm.  A number of mixtures and combinations mentioned, including with almond, anise and honey.

Lev and Amar:  qurṭum, qirṭim.  Womb, kidney pains, heart, poisons, urinary tract.  Causes diarrhea; laxative.  Hot and dry; much used in medieval Egypt.

Kamal:  Qurtum, qurtuma, bahram and variants.  Oil purgative and emmenagogue.  Mixed with honey for soothing use on skin, etc.

Bellakhdar et al:  ophthalmic, antiseptic, laxative.

Ghazanfar:  Conjunctivitis and related conditions; whole plant extracted, or leaves simply crushed.

Nadkarni:  Seeds purgative, roots diuretic.

Dash:  Alleviates blood, etc.

Li:  Hunglanhua.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Usual range of uses.  Seeds and leaf.


Carum copticum Benth. (Trachyspermum ammi L.), Apiaceae.  Known in English by the Indian name ajwain or ajowan.  Nānakhwah (Arabic) from nankhawah (Persian). Nan Hua, FaErFeiRong, NangHua.  This or caraway (Carum carvi) is presumably the “karawyā,” implausibly defined as dill, in the HHYF.

Dioscorides:  III-66, karos, Carum carvi, caraway.  Antidote, etc., used like dill.  Root boiled and eaten.

Avicenna:  hot and dry.  Used for skin; pulverized fruits with honey for bruises. Digestive.  Treats gas, upset stomach, nausea.  Treats cold liver.  Used for cleaning eyes and darkened sight.  Increases stickiness of semen, as does rue.  Emenagogue; pessary for displaced uterus, etc.  Diuretic.  Minor first aid uses for stings.  Caraway is hot and dry, carminative, strengthening.  Relieves stomach and gas.  For eyes, but overdose harmful.  Clears chest and coughs, treats hiccups.  Scent said to be abortifacient.

Levey:  For hemorrhoids.  Minor use.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Very commonly used by Al-Samarqandī in a range of formulas.

Lev and Amar:  nākhuwāh.  Hot and dry.  Diuretic, for skin, bites, liver, stomach, urine, etc.  C. carvi, hot and dry, for smallpox, kidney stones, stomach worms, swellings, sleep, etc.

Kamal:  C. copticum, ammi, nikhwah, nan-khuwav, etc.  Stimulant, carminative.  For appetite.  C. carvi, karawyah, al-niqr, etc.; seeds fragrant, stomachic, carminative, diuretic.

Bellakhdar et al. (1991:126):  “digestive, stimulant, spasmolytic, analgesic, sedative for children” in modern Morocco.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Stomachic.  Mothers drink tea of it to increase milk.

Nadkarni:  Antihelminthic, antiseptic, carminative.

Dash:  C. carvi bitter, cleases uterus, and for colic.

(Another apiaceous seed, with the usual well-recognized properties—stomachic, carminative—from the volatile oil.  Contains enough thymol and related phenols to be strongly antibiotic, and widely used for this, especially for treating digestive disease)

Eisenman:  C. carvi, a common plant in Central Asia, used as sedative, expectorant, diuretic, carminative, laxative, sedative, appetite help; most of this is well documented medically.

(Oddly, this plant never made it to China as a regular medicine; it seems almost limited to the HHYF.)


Cassia acutifolia Del., Fabaceae (C. angustifolia).  Sana-makki.

Levey: Sanā makkī.  Infusion.  Used generally as purgative, etc.

Avicenna:  C. fistularis.  Khiyār shambar, qiththā.  Cold and moist, with some heat.  Laxative.  Used also for visceral swellings, throat, gout, joints, diphtheria, liver (including jaundice and liver pain), thirst, etc.

Lev and Amar:  sanā.  This and other species for eyes, women’s illnesses, epilepsy, smallpox, purgative, etc.  Recent use as cathartic.

Kamal:  C. absus, shishm, etc.  From west Sudan.  Eye powder for eye diseases made from seeds; with sugar, sarcocolla, celandine.  C. senna, sana, sana-makkak, sana hejazi, al-sana-al-Makki; purgative, cholagogue.  Major cure for constimpation.  Also vermifuge for roundworms.

Bellakhdar et al:  C. (Chamaecrista) absus and C. glauca, znina, ophthalmic, antiseptic.  C. italica, sana haram, sana mekka, laxative, blood-clensing.

Ghazanfar:  Several Cassia  and related spp. for purgative and stomachic uses.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  C. italica, purgative, laxative.

Nadkarni:  This and other spp. purgative, laxative, antiparasitic.

Dash:  C. tora, reduces fat, cures skin fungus and itch.

Li:  C. tora, juemingC. sophora, jiangmang.  Various uses.  The long-suffering Li breaks out into vituperation at the silliness of some claims about cassia; for instance, a claim that cassia in the garden makes lame children.  He says: “This is what a decadent scholar had overheard and [one] should not take it seriously” (Li 2003:1788).

(Cassia spp. are still widely and effectively used to treat constipation and similar complaints.)


Cassia fistula L., Fabaceae.  Khiyarchanbar.

Lev and Amar:  khiyyār shanbar (one name) and variants thereof.  Hot and dry.  Purging. Swellings, nerves, throat, anti-venom, etc.; similar modern uses, also for colds, cleansing blood, fevers, gall bladder, liver, respiration.

Kamal:  Khiyar, shambar (two separate names).  Eye-drops.  Pulp of seed pod edible.

Bellakhdar et al:  kiyar shambar; ‘ud salib.  Laxative; for gastro-intestinal disorders.

Ghazanfar:  For constipation, stomach ulcers and gastritis, hemorrhoids.

Madanapala:  Āragvadha.  Mild purgative.  For fever, heart, bleeding, colic, etc.  Flower constipative; pulp and flower bitter.

Nadkarni:  Purgative.  Root tonic and febrifuge.

Dash:  Mild laxative.

(Effective and well-known laxative, purgative.  Standard in biomedicine until fairly recently.)


Cedrus spp.  C. deodara Loud., Pinaceae.  Diydar.

Avicenna:  C. deodara, diwdār.  Hot and dry.  Bitter.  Sap pungent; produces thirst; hot and dry.  Used for cold diseases of head; stroke; epilepsy.  Dissolves kidney and bladder stones.  C. libani.  Resin hot and dry.  Treats lice, mites, and the like.  Tones up flabby flesh.  Cones or seeds apparently cause headaches, but the resin cures them.  Leaves with vinegar for mouthwash.  Resin used in ears and eyes.  Cone to control coughs (presumably boiled and tea used).  Treats painful urination; diuretic, with pepper.  Bark disinfectant, pesticide, emmenagogue, abortifacient, birth easer.  Constipating.  Resin as enema for worms.  Contraceptive if rubbed on penis.

Kamal:  C. libani, arz-libnan, needles diuretic and used on wounds.

Bellakhdar et al.:  C. atlantica, qitran er-raqiq, for skin infections, antiseptic, hair-care.

Nadkarni:  Wood carminative.  Bark powerful astringent, febrifuge.  Unani specifically:  Antispasmodic, anti-paralysis, and for fevers and kidney-stones.

(The three Cedrus species are very similar, and a nice example of a genus whose members have mutually exclusive ranges and would surely be substituted for each other.  Cedar leaves, bark and resin are rich in volatile oils, terpenes, and other chemicals, and have a strong astringent and antibiotic action.  Many of the uses above would be justified biochemically.)


Centaurea behen L., Asteraceae.  Bahman, bahman-sapid (Persian).

Dioscorides:  III-8, kentaurion makron, Centaurea centaurium.  Root for ruptures, convulsions, pleurisy, respirators infections especially tuberculosis, etc.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient; root applied to vulva.  Good on wounds.

Levey:  C. centaurium, qant.ūriyūn, in clyster, and for sciatica, lameness, backaches, rheumatic pains.

Avicenna:  Bahman.  Hot and dry.  Heart tonic.  Increases semen.

Lev and Amar:  Qanṭūriyūn; bahamān abyaḍ.  Heart, gout, aphrodisiac.

Kamal:  noted for thinning.

Bellakhdar et al:  C. chamaerhaponticum, for gastrointestinal and hepatic disorders.

Nadkarni:  Aphrodisiac, and used for jaundice and stone.

Eisenman:  C. depressa, tea for melancholy, neurasthenia, eye conditions, hepatitis.  Biomedical antibacterial and antifungal action.


Ceratonia siliqua L., FabaceaeCarob.  Kharnūb (whence “carob”), yanbūt (Arabic)

Avicenna:  Bad for stomach; hard to digest.  Good for skin—extract rubbed on.  Diuretic.  Can be laxative.  Different carobs from different areas have somewhat different properties.

Lev and Amar:  A number of uses, ranging from treating fractures (how?) to diuretic, anti-swelling, stopping bleeding, increasing sexual desire, and even curing the hair. Vaious uses of honey, juice, jam, pods, etc.

Ghazanfar:  Diarrhea; seeds eaten.

Nadkarni:  Purgative, astringent, for cough.  Pods used.  (Evidently in tea.)

(High tannin content of plant, especially pods, explains use for diarrhea.)


Cetraria islandica (L.) Ach., Parmeliaceae. Iceland moss.  Khazaz.

A lichen with a number of folk and herbal medical uses; not in the Asian sources but widely used in Europe, and current today for humans and animals for a number of herbalist uses.  The HHYF may be referring to a wider or general category of lichens; the few references are hard to pin down (see Alectoria).


Cheiranthus cheiri L. (Erysimum cheiri), Brassicaceae.  Khiri

Dioscorides:  III-138, leukoion, wallflower.  Leukoion thalassion, C. tricuspidatus.  Confused in this edition of Dioscorides with Viola alba (violet) and apparently also Matthiola incana (stock), but distinguishes the yellow-flowered one as the medicinal one; its uses ring true for a mustard (cf. other mustards in the book), not for a violet. The pictures are unequivocally Brassicaceae.  Seeds used in bath, for womb and as emmenagogue, and as pessary for same and as abortifacient.  Seed infusion drunk for respiratory complaints, etc.  Roots in oil used as rub for gout and the like.

Nadkarni:  Emmenagogue.


Chrysanthemum x  morifolium Ramat.  A hybrid of C. indicum and at least one other sp., possibly C. coronarium.  Asteraceae.  Native.

Avicenna:  C. parthenium, the related and somewhat similar feverfew, varioius minor uses.

Nadkarni:  C. coronarium and C. indicum for gonorrhea.

Sun:  C. coronarium (tonghao茼蒿)[3]: spicy, balanced, nonpoisonous. It pacifies the heart qi and nourishes the spleen and stomach. It also eliminates thick or thin mucus in the respiratory tract (tanyin痰飲).

Li:  Ju.  Flower, leaf, foliage.  Bitter, balanced, nontoxic.  White ones somewhat different in values from yellow.  Many uses.  (The modern, very common Chinese use as febrifuge and general coolant, however, seems minor, and the plant was “balanced” to Li, rather than, as now, very cooling.)

  1. indicum, ye ju, bitter, pungent, warm, slightly toxic. Minor uses mostly on external irritations.

(Chrysanthemum spp. and related genera such as Matricaria are used worldwide to reduce fevers—hence the name “feverfew”—or just make the patient feel cooler.  The biomedical jury is still out on whether these plants actually have any such value.  For what it’s worth, my experience is that they do.)


Cichorium endivia L.  Asteraceae.  ASiMangGong. Lettuce is rather oddly absent from the HHYF, and may be lumped under this name.

Levey:  Baql, hundabā’. Nasal ointment; itching.  Other for bites, etc.  Some Cichorium or similar plant is t.alakhshaqūq, used for poultices for swellings.  Root to cure insanity.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Karwah, a mysterious drug from Kashmir, is described by “some pharmacists” as root of wild endive.  It could also be dandelion (notes).  Root cooling, refrigerant, febrifurgal.  Adulterated with aconite roots, which is a very dangerous thing to do.  Interesting to show Al-Bīrūnī’s attention to new drugs not in the Dioscoridean canon.

Avicenna:  hindabā’.  Bitter.  Cold and dry, but with a moist component.  (The idea that a plant could have two natures is occasional in Avicenna and occasional in Chinese medicine too.)  Removes obstructions.  Not a strong medicine; wild is stronger than domestic.  Milky sap relieves conjunctivitis.  Used for chest poultice, and gargle for soe throat (with purging cassia).  Relieves nausea and yellow bile.  Strengthens heart.  Good for stomach of a person with hot temperament.

Graziani:  Ibn Jazlah noted two kinds [possibly the two spp. herein] and used for obstructed liver [whatever he meant by that], gout, stomach, malaria, astringent, stomach.  Kindī used it for nasal ointment and juice for itching. Samarqandī used it in syrups and robs.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Very important, used widely

Lev and Amar:  Plaster, liver, aphrodisiac, weak eyes, headaches; stops salivation; liver and bile corruption; other uses.  Recnt uses add many, most of them involving putting the plant on irritations as a soothing agent, but also taken for a vast range of purposes.  As so often, we see an ordinary food pressed into service for anything and everything.

Bellakhdar et al:  C. intybus, diuretic, hepatic.  (Essentially the same plant as C. endivia.  Odd that it is so little noticed by older writers; its value as a diuretic is unquestionable and must have been well known for millennia.)

Ghazanfar:  C. intybus, h.ind.iba’, for fevers (leaves, eaten raw or boiled); dyspepsia (roots); headache, jaundice (fruits).

Nadkarni:  Resolvent, cooling for bilious complaints.  C. intybus for bile, digestion, tonic; aperient, diuretic.  Resolvent.  Carminative seeds.

Eisenman:  C. intybus, roots for appetite and digestion; flowers for stomachinflammation, intestines, gall bladder, kidneys including stones, heart conditions.  Biomedical action as sedative, heart tonic, anti-inflammatory, cholesterol uptake drug, etc., and more certainly proved use as diuretic.

(Appetite can be stimulated by the bitterness.  C. endivia is unknown in the wild and appears to be a domestic hybrid, presumably of intybus with (perhaps) C. pumilum.)


Cinnamomum burmannii.  See C. cassia.


Cinnamomum camphora (L.) Presl., Lauraceae.  Kafur (Indian)

Levey:  Kāfūr.  Poultices for liver and spleen, drugs for sore throat.  Teeth, eyes.

Nasrallah:  Cold and dry, so used for heat-related conditions.  Can produce euphoria.  For thooth decay.  Over-sniffing can bring insomnia, etc.  Can be balanced with heating things such as ambergris.  Nasrallah retails some medieval stories to the effect that the trees were frequented by tigers, and camphor could be gathered only when the tigers were in heat and went off to cool themselves in water.  (This is presumably a merchants’ tall tale to justify charging high prices, like many other medieval tall tales about spices.)

Lev and Amar:  Antisepsis; cough; jaundice; trachoma, ulcers, pains, swellings, etc.  Even for use in dyeing hair black.  Common in ointments.  Dissolves bladder stones.  A major aromatic medicine.  Recent uses include the above and also typhoid.

Graziani:  In India for sprains and rehumatism.  Medieval Arab uses for headache, abscess, kidney and bladder stones.

Bellakhdar et al:  l-kafur.  Antiseptic, for skin diseases, revulsive.

Ghazanfar:  Kafur.  Bark, branches and root, anti-convulsant, antihelminthic, carminative.

Madanapala:  Karpūra.  Aphrodisiac.  Cold.  Curse burning syndrome, distaste in the mouth, edema.  For obesity and some poisons.

Nadkarni:  Diaphoretic, stimulant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, expectorant, sedative, carminative, etc.  More or less a cureall.

Dash:  Sweet, cold, intoxicating (!).  Cures eyes, thirst, poison.

Li:  Zhang. Wood, zhangcai, and camphor, zhangnao, minor use in several compounds.


  1. cassia Presl. Lauraceae. Native.

Chinese cinnamon or cassia is not distinguished in the HHYF from other Cinnamomum spp.  Probably several were used, with this the most important.  See C. zeylanicum below.

Avicenna:  As usual, unclear which sp.  Darṣīnī or darchīnī.  Diluting, absorbent, opening.  Oil very hot.  Constricting.  Pungent, tenuous, erosive.  Cinnamon was rubbed on spots, used on swellings and ulcers, used on ringworm.  Bark with honey for acne.  Oil for nervous tics, colds, earaches.  Treats many internal pains.  Used with oil, wax and egg yolk for many reasons including preventing production of hardness in uterus and kidneys.  Emmenagogue.  Various uses for female medicine, etc.  Treats fevers.  Avicenna notes that juniper berries can substitute.  C. tamala (or C. citriodora), sādhaj, malabathrum. Hot and dry. {pi;toces pm jpt swe;;omgs. Etc/  Doiretoc/

Lev and Amar:  Cassia was distinguished as salīkha in the Middle East, including in Avicenna and the Genizah documents, but apparently used as C. zeylanicum.  C. citriodorum, sādhaj, is malabathrum, with minor uses including preventing caries, treating hot swellings, etc.

Nasrallah:  stomachic, whets the mind, aphrodisiac.

Dash:  Cold, aromatic.  For heart, anorexia, parasites, skin, influenza.

Li:  Gui; jungui for small reedy trees.  Considerable differences of opinion on humoral qualities, but general agreement that it is hot or very hot.  Bark (rarely leaf) for a vast range of uses mostly involving heating and dispelling.  The jungui were used for magical practices to produce immortality, about which Li says “Taoist alchemists always make such stories to mislead people” (Li 2003:2945). C. japonicum, tianzhugui, and true laurel, Laurus nobilis, yuegui, follow in the book with minor uses.  The entry on true laurel is actually about mythical trees that are obviously not laurel; included are stories (which Li ridicules) of seeds falling from the cassia-tree in the moon.

(Cinnamon and cassia oils are powerfully antiseptic, as well as stimulant and carminative.  C. japonicum certainly, C. loureiroi probably, and C. burmannii possibly, are referred to in the HHYF, used more or less the same as C. cassia.)


Cinnamomum japonicum.  See C. cassia.


Cinnamon loureiroi.  See C. cassia.


Cinnamomum zeylanicum Nees, Lauraceae.

Manniche:  Used with other ingredients—mostly vehicles: oil, fat, honey—for unguents for sores, growths, wounds, anal inflammation, etc.  Theophrastus describes cinnamon for perfume among the Egyptians.

Dioscorides:  I-13, kinamomon.  Gunther identifies it as C. cassia, but Dioscorides notes many kinds from many countries.  These would be different species and genera.  All are warming.  Reduces menstruation when drunk with myrrh.  Gets rid of poisons, heat, eye problems, etc.  With honey on sunburn and skin diseases.  For coughs and similar problems, kidneys, dropsy (congestive heart failure), etc.

Dioscorides’s “kassia” (I-12) is equated with C. iners, but, again, the description refers to several plants and tells how to distinguish them.  The real stuff—unquestionably true Cinnamomum spp.—is used like 1-13.

(The “kinnamon” problem is monumentally vexed.  Kinnamon evidently referred, originally, to a native Greek or Near Eastern plant.  The name was extended to anything with a “hot” bark.  Cinnamon oil, like chile pepper oleoresin, directly stimulates the pain receptors, thus feeling sharp or hot without actually doing damage.  Eventually it settled on Cinnamomum, as being by far the most medicinally useful species.  Cinnamon oil is in in fact strongly antiseptic, warming and carminative, stimulant, and generally a first-rate medicine, which appears to be rising again as antibiotic-resistant organisms evolve.)

Levey:  C. zeylanicum and C. cassia, dār s.īnī.  For happiness.  Strengthens stomach and liver.  In tooth and breathing recipes.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Dār Sīnī, now C. zeylanicum, possibly cassia in his time.  Warming, acrid.  Used in various medicines.

Lev and Amar:  dār s.īnī for both C. zeylanicum and C. cassia; qirfa for the former alone.  Coughs, colds, eyes, colic, obstruction, flatulence, diarrhoea, pleurisy, trembling, palpitation, purging, tonic, etc.  For urine; emmenagogue, abortifacient; for skin diseases, eyes, eas, etc.  (I suspect this would mostly be the oil.)  Liver teeth and mouth, depression, hearing, neck pains, etc.  Maimonides lists many uses, adding poisons, bites, stings, etc. to the above.  Also for sexual health.

Kamal:  Salikha, qirfa sini.  Aromatic, carminative, astringent.  C. zeylanicum (true cinnamon in modern food usage), qurfa, dar sini, same uses.  Also astringent for diarrhea, and internal antiseptic for typhoid.

Bellakhdar et al.:  qerfa, qerfa galida.  Stimulant, notably digestive and cardiac; emmenagogue; used for headache.  C. zeylanicum, dar sini, stimulant; used for headaches, memory loss, colds.  (Note that qerfa, qurfa, and l-kafur are all forms of the same word.  “l” is the definite article in Moroccan Arabic, corresponding to standard Arabic “al.”)

Lebling and Pepperdine:  For coughs, colds, stomach; menstrual pain; and childbirth, with many remedies for helping delivery and for recovery after delivery.  Most involve mixed spices with fat, honey, or milk.  Cf. cardamom.

Madanapala:  Tvak.  Hot.  For poisoning, heart, pelvia, piles, rhinitis, parasites, semen.

Nadkarni:  This and other spp. carminative, antispasmodic, aromatic, stimulant, hemostatic, astringent, antiseptic, stomachic.  (A long list, but most of these uses are well supported by modern research.)  Unani specifically adds absorbent, diuretic, aphrodisiac, demulcent; used for colds, headaches, hiccups, liver, diarrhea, etc.

(Cinnamon contains a volatile oil that is intensely fragrant, and strongly antiseptic and carminative, with very good action on digestion; the oil kills skin diseases but can burn in heavy use.  Cinnamon is actually one of the most effective medicines, by modern biomedical standards, in this corpus.)


Circaea sp., Onagraceae.  Qirqiya (from the Greek).  GuiYa

Nothing in the sources.  Probably an identification error.


Cistus ladaniferus, C. creticus.  Cistaceae.  Lādan, lādhan.

Levey:  The name applies to the resin.  Used in dentifrice, ointment.

Avicenna:  Qissūs, lādhan.  Hot, though relatives include some cold items.  Some value for retaining hair.  Boiled down with wine for ulcers.  Poultice also for ulcers.  Ointment for burns.  Sniffing, with orris root oil, honey, and sodium nitrate, for headaches.  Ear drops from tips, with pomegranate peels, relieve ears and teeth.  Poultice for spleen.  Flowers in wine for dysentery.  Emmenagogue.  Suppository for menses and abortifacient, and getting placenta out. Suppository for uterine swellings.

Lev and Amar:  Minor medication; styptic, constricting, thus e.g. for strengthening penis and constricting glans in Maimonides’ sexual medicine.

(Gum widely used as medicine and soothing agent in Mediterranean from ancient times to today.  These and perhaps other spp. can be included in the HHYF terms.)


Citrullus colocynthis Schrad., Cucurbitaceae.  Hanzal.  (ShaHaMu)HanDaLi

Manniche:  C. lanatus probably used for finger tremors, constipation, various magical procedures.

Dioscorides:  IV-178, kolokynthis, colocynth.  Purging.  Made into pills.  Drives out phlegm and various diseases.  Abortifacient; as pessary.  On toothache.  Bad for stomach.  Suppository for constipation.

Galen:  Bad for stomach; indigestible raw.

Avicenna:  Ḥanẓal.  Dissolving, erosive, absorbent.  Young leaves stop bleeding.  Put on swellings, etc.  Used as massage for leprosy and elephantiasis.  Aalso, presumably the fruit here, for nerve pain, arthristis, etc.Powdered for bleeding, cleasnsing the tbrain, washing teeth and mouth, etc.  Hollowed, burned, for eardrops.  Used for stomach swelling, etc.  Cures diarrhea, but purgative.  Abortifacient.   Used on snake bites.

Levey:  Ḥanẓal.  For itch, insanity, rheumatism and phlegm.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Expels hot and unnatural hu8mors, but dangerous; much use gives diarrhea that can be fatal.

Lev and Amar:  Ḥanẓal.  Tongue swelling, swollen throat, easing tooth extraction.  Pith for joint pains.  In prescriptions for fever, tetany, colic.  Cathartic.  Treats itching, insanity, and much in between.  Expectorant.  Constipation, headache,stings, epilepsy, lung disease, depressionk, kidneys, etc.  Leaves for hemorrhages, boils, leprosy, etc.  Roots for sting and bites, and increasing mother’s milk.  Various minor uses.

Watermelon, C. vulgaris, purgative, diuretic, for oedema and jaundice, kidneys, internal lesions, bites.

Graziani:  Ibn Jazlah used it for elephantiasis, nervous pain, gouit, eye disease, and snakebite.  Used today in Iran and Iraq as a drastic cathartic, in Egypt as purgative and astringent.

Kamal:  handhal, ‘alqam.  Seed oil for liniment.

Ghazanfar:  Bites; laxative; joint pain.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  purge, suppository.

Madanapala:  Indravārunī.  Bitter, hot, pungent; laxative; for jaundice, spleen, abdominal diseases.

Nadkarni:  Drastic, cathartic, diuretic, emetic, etc.

Dash:  For digestion, jaundice, anemia.

(Colocynth still used, and is effective, for the uses noted by Nadkarni.  Watermelon is an effective diuretic, still widespread in Old World folk medicine from China to Europe.)


Citrus aurantium L., Rutaceae, bitter orange.  Nafash  (KeLi)NaFuZhi(Zi).  Native (?).  A “turunj” in Juan 12, p. 65, could be orange or citron.

(Added here are notes on Citrus limon Burmann / C. aurantifolia Swingle, Rutaceae, lemon and lime.  They are not in the HHYF but are not distinguished well in the old herbals, and thus may be included in the general term here; in any case, their modern medical uses in the Middle East are relevant.)

Avicenna:  C. aurantium (“C. sinensis” in Bakhtiar edn., but that plant surely unknown in Central Asia in Avicenna’s time), zarrīn darakht.  Leaves for urination and menstruation.C. limon, hot and dry.  Externally for ringworm, swellings, wounds, etc., and facial paralysis.  Strengthens brain.  A collyrium from sour lemon helps remove yellow tinge in eyes from jaundice; orally for conjunctivitis.  Sour lemon and fruit in sugar for palpoitations, etc., and with vinegar for leedch in throat.  Buds and rind help digestion, though rind itself in not very digestible.  Lemon with wine is laxative and treats excessive menstrual discharge.  Extract calms sexual desire in women. Seeds anti-poison.

Lev and Amar:  C. limon, līmūn, Juice mild purgative;peel and leaves against poison (Maimonides).  Snakebite, headaches, fainting, stomach, appetite (both increase poor appetite and restrain gluttony), etc.  Treats scars (this can work; the combination of oil and acid softens the skin).  Not clear whether lime is included in these indications.

Bellakhdar et al:  C. limon, lim-deqq, cosmetic; used on skin spots.

Ghazanfar:  Lumi, C. aurantifolia.  Juice, fruit, peel, bark for cataracts, colds, fever, chest pains, earache, stomachache.  Crushed dried fruit made into poultice for thorn sticks.  (The dried limes of northern Oman are among the most famous Near Eastern items of commerce, found worldwide today in Middle Eastern food stores.)

Lebling and Pepperdine:  C. aurantifolia, lumi, limun.  Colds, coughs, colic, diarrhea, mesntrual pain.

Kamal:  Leaves of C. aurantium stomachic and antiepileptic.  (The first of these uses is still universal in Latin America; ENA, personal research.)  One variety, bergamot: fruit, bergamut in Arabic, eaten as antihelminthic.

Madanapala:  Jambhīra, C. limon.  Sour, hot.  Colic, distaste, cardiac pain, parasites, etc.  Nārangī (identified as C. reticulata but no doubt actually aurantium or sinensis.).  Sour, hot, laxative appetiser, cardiac.  Nimbu, C. aurantium, sour, but one var. is sweet; digestive, carminative.

Nadkarni:  Dried peel aromatic, stomachic, tonic, astringent, carminative.  Oil strong stomachic; topical applications stimulant.  Several other citrus spp. discussed.

Dash:  As in the Madanapala volume, Dash identifies “nāranga” (here) as C. reticulata, which we doubt.  In any case, in Tibet it apparently is used for appetitie, digestion, heart, following ayurvedic norms.  C. limon given for thirst, colic, nausea, vomiting, asthma, constipation.  This would probably be the juice.

Li:  Zhi.  Fruit, immature or mature.  Bitter, slightly cold, nontoxic, sour.  Several pages of recipes.  Entry followed by one on trifoliate-orange, Poncirus trifoliata. Gouju; Li notes without comment the old story that bitter (or other) oranges planted north of the Yangzi River, they turn to trifoliate oranges.  (This is true; the oranges were grafted onto trifoliate understock, as they still are around the world, and the cold winters and droughts of northern China killed the graft and let the understock grow up.  I have seen the same thing happen many times in California.)

(Citrus species contain volatile oils of well-demonstrated value for soothing the stomach, treating minor skin conditions, etc.)


Citrus medica L.,  Rutaceae.  Native to China, but widespread, possibly domesticated in India.  Certainly a “western” plant to most east Asians.  The lemon is a descendent (probably from a hybrid with lime).

Dioscorides:  1-164, persica mela, C. medica, citron?  For stomach and belly; unripe is too binding.  Dried or decocted for diarrhea.

1-166, medika, C. medica, citron.  Drunk in wine to resist poisons etc.  Juice for sweetening breath.  Reduces lust in women.  Put into clothes-chests to repel moths.

It appears that both these articles apply to citron.  The second one clearly does, the description being unmistakable.  Apparently we are dealing with the same thing under two names with two different usages.

Al-Bīrūnī: Utrujj.  Cucumber-like; name sometimes used for types of cucumber and/or melon.  Nothing specific about its medicinal value, but several beautiful poetry quotes.

Graziani:  Utruj, C. medica.  Widely used; use unspecified.

Kamal:  C. medica:  Fruit skin stomachic, tonic; seeds antipyretic and antihelminthic; juice astringent, used for vomiting, rheumatism, inflammation.

Madanapala:  Bījapūra.  Appetiser; for throat, tongue, heart; bleeding.  Light and sour.  Pulp cold.  Skin and flower bitter and hot.  Pistil light; constipative; for colic, abdomen.  Seed hot; for parasites.  Juice for colic, indigestion, constipation, disgestion, anorexia, dyspnoea, cough, thirst, anorexia, etc.

Dash:  C. medica for griping, intestinal pain; digestive, cardiac; for asthma, cough, anore


  1. reticulata (“C. erythrosa” Tanaka) Rutaceae. Native.

Li:  Ju.  Fruit, seed, pith, leaf, peel all used, in various stages.  Major drug.  Fruit sweet, sour, warm, nontoxic; peel bitter, pungent, warm and nontoxic.  A number of uses cluster around warming, soothing, astringent, and harmonizing functions.

Li discusses many other types of citrus, including pomelo C. grandis.


  1. x sinensis (C. junos Tanaka). Rutaceae. native

The sweet orange is apparently a very ancient hybrid of tangerine and pomelo.

Li:  Jinqiu, guqiao, cheng (the last means sweet orange specifically).  Minor uses.  Closely related is C. x nobilis, gan, a stable swarm of tangerine-orange hybrids with specific qualities (very sweet, juicy, flavorful, large) gets a separate entry in Li, just before this one (with several obsolete scientific names synonymized in Li 2003).


Cocos nucifera L., Arecaceae.  Coconut.

Avicenna:  Somewhat hot and dry.  Good food, though heavy.  Aphrodisiac.  Oil for piles, joints.  Very old oil—copra oil—kills worms.

Lev and Amar:  Very good for sexual health, also hemorrhoids, mental perception.

Dash:  Sweet, cold.  Strength, virility, corpulence, muscle tissue.  Cleanses urinary bladder.  (Today, the flesh would be used for the former, the water for the latter.)

(In modern Chinese folk medicine, the meat is used for soothing and nourishment.  It is nutritious enough to give some credence to the sexual nutrition claims, but it would work only by helping nutrition generally.)


Colchicum autumnale L., Colchicaceae (Iridaceae).  OuSuLingZhang, SuLanZhang.

Dioscorides:  IV-84, kolchikon.  Poisonous.  But counteracts mushroom poisoning.

IV-85, ephemeron, C. parnassicum.  Bulb for toothache.  Leaves for swellings and humors, applied.

Avicenna:  Purgative, biting.  Used for gout (somewhat effectively) as a massage.  Arthritis.  Not good for stomach; weakens it.  However, it is laxative and aphrodisiac, the latter with ginger, mint and cumin.  Purges phlegm, worms, thick humors.

Levey:  Sūranjān.  In drugs for calculi and for the spirits.

Graziani:  Suranjān.  In Babylonia for poison, stings, head and eye, breast pain.

Lev and Amar:  sūranjān, khamīra.  Kidney stones mental illness, hemorrhoids, abscesses, sexual appetite.  Used for fattening in spite of its poisonousness.

Kamal: lihlah, kolshik.  Corm and seed cathartic, cholagogue, diuretic, sudorific, emetic, irritant.  Poisonous in large doses.  Uses in gout, rheumatism, etc., and throat conditions.

Nadkarni:  C. luteum substituted in India for the above.  Rheumatism, gout, etc.  Unani:  Alterative, aperient; diseases of liver and spleen.

(Powerful, dangerous stimulant.)


Commiphora myrrha Engl. Burseraceae.  Imported.  MoYao.  Hu: 973

Dioscorides:  I-77, smyrna, myrrh.  (Identified as Amyris hafal in Gunther 1934:42.)  Long directions on telling counterfeits.  Warming, drying, astringent.  Produces sleep.  Emmenagogue, aid in childbirth, applied with wormwood etc.  Taken against cough, pain in side or thorax, dysentery, malaria.  Kills worms.  Sweetens breath. Applied for armpit chafing, teeth and gums, etc.  Even cures “broken eares and bared bones” (Gunther 1934:43), etc., when applied with various agents.  Various other minor usees.  Soot made and used also.

Levey:  Murr.  In applications for erysipelas, boils, cankers, abscesses, decayed teeth, wounds, eyes, insanity, nosebleeds.  The antiseptic and soothing values of myrrh were obviously well known.

Nasrallah:  Adds abortifacient and vermifugal uses.  Smearing on toe will keep a man able to have sex as long as it is on his toe (Ibn al-Bayt.ār).

Lev and Amar:  C. mukul (bdellium, a common medicine in the Near East) for colic, diarrhea, liver, sciatica, veins, legs, nails, swellings, lungs, cough, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, bile, expelling fetus, etc.  Various kinds noted.

  1. myrrha, murr, stomach, liver, coughs, colds, ulcers, sores, toothache, wounds, eyes, hemorrhages, snakebite, dog bite, worms, etc.

Kamal:  “It is stimulant and astringent, and is used in dyspepsia, chronic bronchitis, leukorrhea, amenorrhea, and as a local application in stomatitis, carious teeth, and inflammation of the gums.”  (p. 91)

Ghazanfar:  Resin for colds, fevers, digenstion, hemorrhoids, toothache.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Murr, murrah.  Abdominal pain, chest, childbirth, colic, coughs, colds, digestion, health, infections, menstrual pain, sore throat; topically on wounds, cuts, newborn (navel), burns.

Nadkarni:  Gum stimulant, expectorant, emmenagogue; externally, astringent.

Dash:  Cold, aromatic, for skin and blood, uterus, thirst.

Li:  Moyao.  Disperses blood stasis, helps physical damage of all kinds, swellings, pains, etc.  Known to be from the west, but a local Southeast Chinese myrrh is mentioned; it would be a different species.  Bitter, balanced, nontoxic.

(In addition to the proverbial use as incense, myrrh gum is genuinely antiseptic, astringent, soothing.  It was one of the more effective drugs in this canon.  Still used medicinally, and was even in biomedical practice till very recently.)


Commiphora opobalsamum (L.) Engler. Burseraceae.  Balsan.  BoLaSang.

Dioscorides:  Drying, heating; long discussion of how to tell it, so clearly important import

Avicenna: hot, dry.  Digestive and diuretic.  Used on sores, swellings, pains, skin conditions.

Levey:  Bakasān.  Drying, heating; clyster.

al-Bīrūnī:  Large tree; oil healing, mixed with other substances.

Lev and Amar:  balasān.  Eyes, epilepsy, palpitation, purging, stomach, etc.  Oil for spleen, kidneys, liver, womb, lungs, cough, tuberculosis, urine, skin, bites, stings, poisons.  Works against infertility, dizziness.

Nadkarni:  Fruit carminative, expectorant, stimulant; gum astringent and demulcent.

(Effective antibacterial.)


Convolvulus scammonia L. Convolvulaceae.  Scammony.  Mah.mūda

Dioscorides:  purgative.

Avicenna:  Saqmūniā.  Hot and dry.  Cledansing, dissolvent.  Used in poultices for skin disease, ulcers, etc.  For headaches; but harms heart, stomach, intestines and liver.  Purges yellow bile, but to be used with care.

Al-Kindī:  purgative, stomach medicines.

Lev and Amar:  Root.  Fever, nervs, stomach, liver.  Dangerous; produces diarrhea and abortion.  In ointment for skin, wounds, scars, headaches.  Powerful purgative. Exfpels worms.  Can cure intestinal diseases, palpitations, insanity.

Nadkarni:  Cathartic; used for dropsy and anasarca.

Eisenman:  C. subhirsutus seeds used for gastrointestinal conditions; infusion of plant for pain, convulsions, wounds, asthma, tuberculosis.  Biomedical action: analgesic but irritating to eyes; large doses paralyze nervous system.  Less toxic derivatives used for spasms and other conditions.

(Powerful purgative.  Not in Chinese practice though important in the Near East; presumably too strong in a negative way for the Chinese medical spirit.)


Coptis chinensis Franch., Ranunculaceae.  Native.

Avicenna:  Coptis trifolia, māmīrān, hot and dry, purifying; minor uses typical of hot and dry drugs.

Nadkarni:  C. teeta.  Bitter tonic; for appetite, digestion, etc.  Used in jaundice, convalescence, fevers, dyspepsia; conjunctivitis (salve).

Li:  C. chinensis, huanglian, Chinese goldthread.  Rhizome most used; bitter, cold, nontoxic.  Many pages on this very popular Chinese drug, whose coldness makes it used to treat Fire of many sorts.

(Modern research confirms some traditional values, due to berberine, but more research is needed.  It is very likely that in the HHYF it is used in place of C. teeta, as one of several cases in which a native drug was used only because it was a substitute for the Middle Eastern one.  C. teeta occurs in Yunnan and is harvested by minority peoples there.  It is used as an analgesic and antibacterial as well as for the uses of C. chinensis.  This is another of the interesting cases in which Avicenna is our only western source for an otherwise Indian drug.)


Cordia myxa L., Boraginaceae.  Sibistan, sebesten.  XiBiXiTang.

Theophrastus:  food (it has a small, pear-like fruit).

Levey:  Sabastān, sibāsah.  In electuary for happiness and stomach and liver.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Shajarah al-dibq and other names.  Disiccant, refrigerant.  Against heat and coughs.  Removes hardness in chest.  Cures blenorrhea due to agitation in bile in kidneys and bladder.  Expels worms.

Avicenna: C. sebestena.  Sibistān, Persian sīsabān.  Laxative.

Lev and Amar:  Ointment for liver etc.  Purgative.  Malaria, etc.  Astringent; dry but neutral (not hot or cold).

Graziani:  Sabastān.  Ibn Jazlah used it for bronchial and pulmonary problems and stomach disorders, to calm sneezing, for throat pain, and as mild laxative; if taken excessively could harm the liver.  “Al-Kindī has it in a remedy to lift up the mood and strengthen stomach and liver”(180:215).  Used today in Iran for coughs and chest, in Egypt and Syria as laxative and for respiratory problems.

Kamal:  C. sebestena, sabastan, mokhatah.  Soothing for chest conditions and urinary tract infections.  Apparently the fruit is eaten for this.

Ghazanfar:  Seeds and leaves for stomach ailments and wounds.

Madanapala:  Ślesmāntaka.  Hot.  For hair, poisoning, pustular eruptions, ulcers, erysipelas, skin; fruit [the foregoing was presumably the leaves] for virility, consumption, blood.

Nadkarni:  Mild tonic.  C. latifolia better known; for chest, uterus, etc.  Demulcent; bark mild astringent and tonic.

Dash:  Sweet, cold.  No special uses.


Coriandrum sativum L., Apiaceae.  Kashnij. Yuansuizi.

Manniche:  Many remedies for stomach problems used it.  Externally it was used in unguent for small sores (herpes?).  The related cumin Cuminum cyminum was very heavily used for stomach complaints—as it still is, worldwide.

Dioscorides:  III-71, koriannon.  Cooling.  Heals skin eruptions and ulcers, inflammations, etc.  Seed drunk can expel worms and increase male semen.  Excess of the seed is bad.  Juice for inflammations, applied to skin.

Avicenna:  Kuzbarah.  Cold and dry, but Galen said it could be warm—perhaps having both a cold and a warm property.  (Modern Chinese and others also tend to disagree about its coldness and warmth.)  Constricts.  Used for swellings, etc.  With rose oil, honey and dried grape for hives and eczema (the combination of soothing and antiseptic qualities would work very well here).  Used for fainting, epilepsy, fevers related to yellow or black bile or phlegm.  Fresh coriander used for sleep.  Treats inflammations and mouth sores.  Powdered dry coriander for mouthwash.  Helps eyes, relieves stomach, purges worms, etc.  Fresh and dry both cause mental confusion and reduce sexual desire and male potency (a very odd claim).

Levey:  Kuzbarah.  Headache, etc.

Nasrallah:  Digestive, soporific, eases childbirth.

Lev and Aman:  Eyes, diarrhea, inflmmatory swellings, headaches, fever, heart.  Plant made into compress for stings.  Also, taken, to accelerate childbirth.  Incense from it keeps snakes and scorpions away.  Sexual medicine and stimulant. Several other minor uses.  Modern uses add toothache.  Another all-purpose plant.  (Its carminative and stimulant effects help digestion—hence wide use in Near Eastern spicing then and now—but it hardly deserves this wide use.)

Graziani:  Kuzbarah.  Ibn Jazlah used it for eyes, bleeding, vomiting, but warns it dulls the eyes and reduces semen.

Kamal:  Kuzburah, qalantarah, etc.  Fruit carminative, aromatic.

Bellakhdar et al.:  for scurvy (evidently the leaves); anti-rabies, stomachic, aphrodisiac, tonic, antiinflammatory (presumably the seeds; aphrodisiac probably only as  mixed into ras-al-hanout, traditional Moroccan spice and drug mixes used for that purpose and often working through incorporation of Spanish fly [cantharid beetles]).

Ghazanfar:  Kobzra, kabzara, khabzara.  Dried seeds, leaves, carminative, for digestion, swellings, eyes, general tonic; seeds boiled in water, for nausia as well as general stomachic, or in vinegar with sugar as tonic for heart and system.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Kuzbara, kizbara.  Digestive.

Madanapala:  Dhānyā.  Diuretic, cardiac tonic, appetite; alleviates excess dosas; for dyspnoea, cough, thirst, piles, parasites.

Nadkarni:  Fruit stimulant, carminative, stomachic, antibilious, refrigerant, tonic, diuretic, aphrodisiac.  Leaves pungent and aromatic.

Dash:  Diuretic.  Pungent and bitter.

Sun:  Coriander (Chinese parsley, cilantro) seeds (huxuzi胡荽子): sour, balanced, nonpoisonous. They help digest grains and recover one’s appetite. Its leaves cannot be taken frequently, or it will cause short memories (duowang多忘). Hua Tuo said, “If one has armpit odor (lit. “fox smell,” huchou 胡臭), bad breath (kouqichou 口氣臭), or (?chi[匿蟲]齒), taking coriander leaves will worsen it. if one is suffering from noxious qi in the abdomen, he should never take it. Otherwise, it will arouse his chronic conditions. One having cut-wounds should not eat it either.”

Li:  Husui, yuansui.  Root and leaf pungent, warm, slightly toxic.  Good food; digestive.  Beneficial to the body, protecting; many specific uses. Seed pungent, sour, balanced, nontoxic.

The HHYF notes a “Western Coriander,” unidentified.

(Overall, note the wide agreement across cultures on the value of this plant.)


Cornus macrophylla Wall, Cornaceae.  Native.

Sun:  Dogwood (Cornus officinalis Sieb. et Zucc., shizhuyu食茱萸): spicy, bitter, greatly warming, nonpoisonous. It should be collected in the ninth month. When preserved for a long time, it becomes better. When its fruit is closed [presumably:  not ripe enough to burst open], it is poisonous and should not be used. It stops pain and helps the qi move downward. It terminates vomiting caused by coughing. It eliminates coldness in the five internal organs. It warms up the Middle Jiao and treats every kind of cold shi[4] that will not disappear (lengshi buxiao冷實不消). Its raw, white bark mainly treats the illness of being attacked by noxious qi (zhong’e中惡), stomachache, and toothache. Its thin roots treat Three Worms and threadworm. The Yellow Emperor said, “In the sixth and seventh month, do not eat dogwood, or it will hurt the spirit and the qi and arouse hot-summer qi (fuqi伏氣).” If one’s throat is not clear, or if wicked wind attacks people (zeifeng zhongren賊風中人), or one’s mouth is wry and cannot speak, take one sheng升 of dogwood and get rid of black seeds and closed fruits. Take three sheng of fermented soy beans (chi豉). Add pure liquor (qingjiu清酒) to the dogwood and beans. Boil them till they reach the boiling point for four or five times. Take the juice and cool it down. The patient has half a sheng of the juice three times a day. After it sweats him a little, he will recover. If one is stung by a scorpion (chai蠆), he should chew dogwood, put what has been chewed up on the wound, and the poison will be dispelled.

Li:  Songyang.  Leaf, sweet, salty, balanced, nontoxic, for fractures and blood; bark, bitter, balanced, nontoxic, for dysentery.  [Tannin makes it effective for this.]


Cornus mas L., Cornaceae.  Dogwood.  One reading for mū, but that is normally, and surely in the HHYF, Meum athamanticum.  However, dogwood uses in the west are clearly relevant to the above entry, which probably was used as a substitute for C. mas in western formulations.

Avicenna: Hot and dry.  Diluent, cleansing, opening.  Root taken for arthritis, painful urination, bladder pain, menstruation, and “cold and aseous inflation of the liver” (376).  Ash of bark on wounds.

Lev and Amar:  C. mas, mū, qaraniyya. (Ali Zargari’s book of Persian plants lists this second name, but not mū, as an Arabic name for this sp.)  Phlegm, poisons, etc.  For urine and generating heat.  Helps smell, voice, stickiness, soothes stomach, live, kidneys.  Stimulates sexual desire, cures infections of bladder, stops sweating, dispeels pains.  Oil for shivers, paralysis, coldness, weakness.


Corylus avellana L. Betulaceae.  Hazelnut.  Mentioned in Index.  Not in our recipes.

Avicenna:  Aṭyuṭ, bunduq (“round thing”).  Hot and moist.  Cleansing, constricting.Slow to digest.  Minor uses include use to remove blue spots on infants, but Avicenna says only “some” believe this, meaning he does not (p. 284).


Crataegus azarolus LRosaceae.  Common hawthorn. Soup of this plant, presumably the fruit, mentioned in Index.

Dioscorides:  Sweet fruit used.

Avicenna:  Constricting.  Best fruit for eliminating yellow bile.

Eisenman:  C. altaica.  Leaves and dried flowers and fruits in tea for “hypertension, dizziness, tachycardia, insomnia,m heart diseases and common colds” (83).  Laxative.  Biomedical evidence for effectiveness, for heart etc.  Tannins give some value.  Vitamin C content high.  C. songarica, similar uses and values.

(Fruits of Chinese hawthorns are widely used medicinally in China today, for cooling, tonic, astringency, but oddly absent from the herbals.)


Cressin alenois.  Possible identification for a mysterious name in the Table of Contents.  Used in Morocco for appetite and as general stimulant (Abdelhai Sijelmassi, Plantes médicinales de Maroc, on website).  Nothing else recorded in the literature.


Crocus sativus L., Iridaceae.  SaFaLang or ZanFaLan  Safran/zafaran  FangHungHua  Hu:596

Dioscorides:  I-25, krokos.  Applied with women’s milk to stop flux of eyes.  Drunk and/or pessary for uterus.  Stirs lust.  Soothes inflammations, applied.  Diuretic.

I-64, krokinon.  Complicated recipe for oil with saffron and other herbs infused.  Warming, soporific, etc.

Levey:  Za’farān.  In musk, air freshener, and perfume products.  For nose, scrofula, swollen head, liver, sore throat and mouth, bad teeth and gums, eyes, epilepsy and insanity, stomachic.  In these various medicines it is probably used largely to give pleasant flavor and stimulant quality.  Others used it for eyes, etc.

Avicenna:  za‘farān.  Hot and dry.  Constricting and dissolving.  Dissolves swellings.  Rubbed on inflammation.  Causes headache but used for sedative.  With wine, makes drunkenness worse, causing uncontrollable behavior.  Strengthens eyesight; various optical uses.  Exhilarant; cardiac tonic; good for lungs and chest conditions.  Causes vomiting, reduces adppetite, diuretic, aphrodisiac.  Used for hardness, malignant ulcers, etc. in uterus.

Nasrallah:  Adds that, in alcoholic drinks, saffron creates “an ecstatic state of euphoria, almost to the point of madness” (2007:678).  Ibn Sīna noted that one could even lose one’s soul.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Very important in Al-Samarqandī’s formulations; major medicine.

Lev and Amar:  za‘farān.  One of the curealls, used for the usual reasons:  eyes, headache, stomach, brain, liver, bile, sexual energy, epilepsy, hemorrhages, purgation, inflammations, women’s ailments, various topical applications, and so on and on.  Hot and dry.

Graziani:  Za‘faran, shiyaf.  Ibn Jazlah used it in eye powder, eye wash, and to meliorate strong medicines.  Also strengthens heart.  Excessive use harmful to lungs, causes headache and drowsiness.

Kamal: Za’faran; emmenagogue.

Bellakhdar et al:  emmenagogue and abortive; cardiac stimulant.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Headaches, heart; externally, skin care.  Anticancer potential noted, and a less plausible finding of value for learning and memory, though like lemon balm and mint it certainly has a soothing and focusing effect when sniffed.

Madanapala:  Kunkuma.  Hot, pungent.  Makes one happier and alleviates excess of dosas.  For skin, ulcers, parasites, headache.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, aphrodisiac, stomachic; anodyne, antispasmodic; emmenagogue.

Dash:  Bitter, astringent, hot.  For parasites among other things.

Li:  Fanhonghua.  Sweet, plain, nontoxic.  Barely known.  Even so, mentioned for melancholy with stagnation and suffocation, blood stasis, mania, etc.; can make one happy.

(The importance of this stimulant, warming medicinal spice continues, though it is now priced out of the reach of most.  Saffron is in fact antiseptic and warming.  Thus, like rose, it fits the medieval Near Eastern ideal of a plant that is beautiful, wonderful-tasting, and genuinely medicinal!  No wonder it became a cureall.

Throughout east Asia, turmeric or safflower are substituted for saffron in dyeing, cooking, and medicine.  Turmeric does have spice and medicinal value; safflower has no well-demonstrated value and is tasteless.  The two were enough to block saffron from getting established in China.)


Croton tiglium L., Euphorbiaceae.  introd.  SaHeiMuNiYa.  Egyp, Habb il-muluk

Avicenna:  Māhūdānah; seed is dand.  Hot and dry.  Strong vomiting and laxative agent.  For a range of stomach conditions.

Kamal:  C. cascarilla, qishr-‘anbar, nabat habb al-muluk.  Bark aromatic, antipytretic, soothing, anti-emetic, expectorant.

  1. tiglium, habb al-muluk, hab al-Salatin. Seeds produce an oil used as antihelminthic, and cathartic for constipation, anasarca, syncope, and externally for rheumatism, gout, etc.

Bellakhdar et al.:  drastic.

Ghazanfar:  C. confertus for constipation, coughs, tonic, pains.

Nadkarni:  Drastic purgative.  Seeds vermifuge.  Oil powerful cathartic; vesicant.  Plant used as extreme measure, for purgation and for violent stimulus in dropsy, apoplexy, etc.

Li:  badou.  Major drug.  Seed pungent, warm, toxic.  Cures diarrhea and other intestinal complaints.  Vermifuge.  Usual huge range, but also some instructions on what not to treat with so poisonous a cure.   Seed coat and seed oil sometimes used.

(Powerful, dangerous purgative and vesicant.)


Cucumis melo  and its var. conomon (Thunb) Mak.  Cucurbitaceae.  Shaogua.  Native.  (conomon is a native Chinese variety, but the sweet fruit is west Asian.)

Avicenna:  C. melo, biṭṭīkh.  Cleansing.  Unripe and ripe fruit and seeds all used.  Flesh and seeds used to clear skin; peel on forehead prevents eye secretions.  Root produces vomiting.  Diuretic.

Wild cucumber (C. sativus?).  Hot and dry. Wild one used for medicine.  Used on ulcers and sores, and internally for dysentery, urination, menstruation, vomiting, etc.

Lev and Amar:  C. melo, shammām, diuretic, good for stomach, useful on swellings and skin.  C. melo var. chate (with a long, hairy, grooved fruit) for liver, cough, aphrodisiac, etc.  Wounds, bites, diuretic, stomach-soothing.  Common food.  C. sativus, ḥ, minor use for fevers and diuretic and stomach.

Sun:  Chinese melon (yuegua越瓜): sweet, balanced, nonpoisonous. One cannot take it too much. It is good for intestines and stomach.

(The latter is a small, smooth fruit, but otherwise similar to the Near Eastern one.  It works as a diuretic and stomach-soother—note that both the Genizah physicians and Sun knew its value for the stomach, though they could not have been in touch.  It might help cough.)


Cuminum cyminum.  Cumin. This apiaceous plants’ small dry fruits (“cumin seeds”) are medicinal throughout the Near East and areas influenced by it.  Surprisingly, one rather thin mention in Juan 34 is all we have on it in the HHYF.  It was probably confused with other apiaceous fruits.

Dioscorides:  stomachic; with wine for poisons.

Avicenna:  kammūn.  Hot and dry.  Warming. Relieves gas.  Erosive, drying, constricting.  Wash for cleansing face.  Ointment, with oil and borad bean flour, for inflammation of the testes.  With vinegar for acne.  Inhalation of powder with vinegar, for nosebleeds.  Chewed with olive oil or salt and used externally.  Used internally for labored breathing; stomachic.

Levey:  carminative, stomachic, carminative, stimulant; against flatulence.  In India for arthritis etc.

Ghazanfar:  “antispasmodic, carminative, sedative and stimulant” (p. 207).  Several active ingredients explain at least the carminative and stimulant functions (it is hard to believe how it could also be a sedative!).  For diarrhea, nosebleed, sexual potency, colic.

(The traditional heavy use of this spice in beans, a use invented in the ancient Near East and spreading with beans to Mexico and elsewhere, is based not only on flavor but on the fruits’ considerable success at improving digestion and combating flatulence.  However, the spice is almost unknown in China.)


Curcuma longa (C. aromatica in Kong).  Salisb.  Zingiberaceae.   Introd

Levey:  C. longa, kurkum.   Throat, mouth, teeth, gums.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry.  Dissolvent.  Used for nerves eyes, jaundice.

Lev and Amar:  kurkam, kurkum.  Teeth, throat, gums, mouth, eyes.  Jaundice, stoach-ace, digetion, headaches, vagina.  Purgative.  Hemorrhoids.  Hot and dry.  Imported from India and liked to saffron.

Ghazanfar:  C. longa, kurkum.  Bronchitis, coughs, bruises, skin, eyes; rhizome used.

Madanapala:  C. longa, haridrā.  Hot.  For skin diseases, urinary disorders, vitiation of blood, edema, anemia, ulcer.

Nadkarni:  Tonic, stimulant, carminative.  C. longa, Same.  Used for liver, etc., and even worms.

Dash:  Cures poisoning, helps bones heal, etc.  Pungent, bitter, cure urinary problems, etc.

Dash:  C. longa bitter, hot, eliminates wastes, cures poisoning, urinary diseases, itch, skin coditions, parasites, julcers, rhinitis, anorexia.  [Much of this is folk Indian usage.]

Li:  Turmeric, C. longa, yujin, includes C. aromatica.  Pungent, bitter, cold, nontoxic.  Many uses for pains and illnesses.

(Strong stimulant effect; stomachic; vitamin and iron content makes it valuable for nutrition, which explains some of the traditional medical uses.  Under study today for anticancer, antiseptic and antiparasite uses.)


Curcuma zedoaria (Berg.) Rosc., zedoary.  Zingiberaceae.  Imported.  C. zerumbet (Rosc.) Roxb. Zurunbat (Egyptian).  ZaErNaBaDi.

Levey:  Zurunbād.  Nosebleed.  Used elsewhere for stomachic, tonic, carminative, etc.

Al-Bīrūnī:  For eyes.  Antitoxin.

Avicenna:  Zaranbād.  Hot and dry.  Dense. Relieves gases.  Cardiac tonic.  Good against insect bites.

Kamal:  C. zerumbet.  Cardiac tonic, other minor uses.

Bellakhdar et al:  C. longa, kerqum, digestive stimulant, for blood diseases, against amnesia.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  C. longa, kurkum.  On burns, eyes, infections, skin ailments.  Smoke for colds and coughs.  One of the spice foods for women after delivery, in soup with meat, onion, pepper, cumin.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative, expectorant, demulcent, diuretic, rubefacient.  Root in particular is cooling, diuretic, aromatic.  Used widely.  C. zerumbet used like ginger.

Dash:  Pungent, bitter, hot, appetiser, stimulates digestion, cures spleen, piles, skin, cough.

Li:  Peng’eshu.  Rhizome used.  Bitter, pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Similar uses to above.


Cuscuta epithymum L.  /or/ Bove ex Choisy, Convolvulaceae.  Dodder of thyme.  (It grows as a parasite on thyme, hence the specific scientific and Arabic names, both from Dioscorides’ Greek for “on thyme.”  Many other very similar dodders occur, and must have been used; the temptation to pass them off as this one would have been great, since the dried medicinal material would have been very difficult to recognize to species.)  Aftimun, AFuTiMeng

Dioscorides:  IV-79, epithymon.  Drunk with honey for purging and black choler (melancholy).

Avicenna:  Hot, dry and pungent.  Relieves gas; digestive.  Not good for those with yellow bile excess.  Purgative for black bile and phlegm. Avicenna also has an entry for European dodder, C. europaea, Arabic kushūth,  a different plant.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Similar uses; very important to Al-Samarqandī, as it is in the HHYF.

Lev and Amar:  afīthimūn.  Influenze spasms, epilepsy depression (al-Kindī).  Vomiting, bile, nerves, worms, hert diseases, purging, etc.  Hot and dry.  An unidentified species or set of species is kashūth, with various uses, including liver, spleen, malaria, and stomach.  Diuretic, purgative, emmenagogue.  For pains and infections.  Maimonides uses it in a sexual medicine for “excitation and great desire” but notes this medicine also causes “sorrow and depression” (which makes one wonder when it could have been worth bothering with; see p. 399).

Nadkarni:  C. reflexa, alterative, purgative, antihelminthic.  Seeds carminative and anodyne.  Stem purgative.

Li:  C. chinensis, tusizi.  Seed useds; pungent, balanced, nontoxic.

(This species of dodder parasitizes thyme, hence the Greek name, lit. “on thyme,” and its Arabic derivative, also the English name dodder-of-thyme.  Its modern uses seem minor, but it was one of the most important medieval remedies.)


Cydonia vulgaris (C. oblonga) and C. indica Spach., Rosaceae. Shull.  ShuLu.  (In the Near East it would be vulgaris.  In actual practice in China, C. vulgaris might have been used, but Pseudocydonia sinensis (a.k.a. Chaenomeles sinensis, Cydonia sinensis) would have been the major medicinal quince.)

Dioscorides:  V-28, C. vulgaris, wine (oinos kydonites) binding; for stomach, dysentery, liver, kidneys (diuretic).

Levey:  C. vulgaris, safarjal, seed in drug for coughs, in a mothwash, etc.

Avicenna:  C. vulgaris, safarjal (Persian bīh).  Cold and dry.  Oil constricting.  Oil on ulcers and skin.  Roasted quince on eye swelligs.  Extract for difficult breathing, asthma, etc.  (Still used for this in China.)  Treats vomiting and hangover.  Diuretic.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Al-Samarqandī and others boiled down the fruit and made syrups, robs, and preserves of it, for its own value but also as vehicle for medicines.  (The modern use of it for quince paste, the original “marmelade” [from Spanish marmelada], derives from this; the paste is still used in folk medicine in many parts of the world.  In the New World tropics, where quinces will not grow, guavas were early substituted, producing one of the world’s great confections.)

Lev and Amar:  C. oblonga (=C. vulgaris).  Safarjal.  Strengthens stomach, helps check diarrhea; seeds, fruits, and jam for stomach in general.  Headaches.  Seed oil for medications against abscesses of liver.

Kamal:  C. vulgaris, safargal, safarag.  Astringent.

Nadkarni:  C. vulgaris, Fruit astringent, demulcent, tonic.  Leaves, buds and bark astringent.  Seeds used for gonorrhea, dysentery.

Sun (almost certainly referring to Chaenomeles sp.):  Quince (muguashi木瓜實): sour, salty, warm, astringent, and nonpoisonous. It mainly cures the illness caused by wet qi (shibiqi濕痹氣), cholera, violent vomiting, ongoing spasms in the back part of the legs (houjiao zhuanjin buzhi後腳轉筋不止). Its uncooked bark is nonpoisonous. It is edible after being boiled.

Li:  C. oblonga (=C. vulgaris), sour, sweet, slightly warm, nontoxic.  Minor uses, mostly for indigenstion.  Stops watery diarrhea.

(The astringent quality and the fibre in quince do work against diarrhea.  The fruit juice is boiled down to a solid cheese-like substance in the Mediterranean world, and thus in Mexico; various versions using other fruit are found elsewhere in the world.  This is still used medicinally for the throat.  The Chinese use quince syrup for the throat and for cooling in general, and for harmonizing with other cooling herbal medicines in a range of situations.  I can testify from experience that the throat-soothing functions are real.)


Cymbopogon schoenanthus (L.) Spreng., Poaceae.  Idkhkir

See Andropogon schoenanthus.


Cynanchum atratum Bge.  Apocynaceae (Asclepidaceae).  Native.  A Sa Long

Avicenna:  C. vincetoxicum, qunna barā.  Cleansing, erosive.  Externally for skin, shedding skin,ulcers. Clears tjhick fluids from brain by sniffing water of roots (presumably infusion).  For lungs, liver, spleen, etc.

Li:  Baiwei.  Root.  Bitter, salty, balanced (or cold) and nontoxic.  Large range of uses.  Many other spp. mentioned.


Cyperus rotundus L.  Cyperaceae.  Native.

Dioscorides:  kypeiros.  Root used.  Warming, diuretic and useful for kidney/bladder stones.  Used for scorpion bites.  Emmenagogue.  Used in ointment for eyes and other conditions.

Levey:  Su’d.  In drugs for canker, ulcers, teeth.

Avicenna:  C. esculentus, ḥabb al-zalim.  Hot and moist.  Fattening.  Increases seminal fluid.  C. rotundus, sa’ad, used on ulcers in “state of foul decay” (804), on joints and nerves, chronic nose and throat disesaes.  Expels stones.

Lev and Amar:  C. longus, su‘d.  Against scorpion stings (topically?) Stimulated menstruation.  Treats mouth and teeth, thus in toothpaste.  In medication to eliminate sexual desire.  Hot and dry.

Graziani:  Su’d.  Used for taste and wonderful smell.

Kamal, C. esculentus, habb al-Aziz, habb al-Zalam.  Oil relaxing; alleviates pains of mastitis.

Bellakhdar et al:  the sp. for hair care, tonic; C. longus reconstituant, aromatic

Madanapala:  Musta.  Cold.  Digestive stimulant, carminative.  For parasites, bleeding, thirst, fever.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, tonic, demulcent, diuretic, antihelminthic, stomachic, carminative, diaphoretic, astringent, emmenagogue.

Li:  Shacao, xiangfuzi.  Rhizome sweet, slightly cold, nontoxic, bitter to some.  Foliage and flowers also used.  Important drug with many pages of uses and recipes.  A very standard qi regulator.

(Tubers roasted for soothing plaster in Middle East.)


Daemonorhops draco Bl., Arecaceae.   Imported.  XueJie.  Hu: 659

Li:  Qilinjie.  Resin.  Sweet, salty, balanced, nontoxic. For pain, bleeding, blood stasis, new flesh, other phyusical injury issues; external conditions generally.  Various other uses.


Daphne mezereum L., Thymeleaceae.  Mazaryun.  MaZaErRong (?)

Dioscorides:  IV-148, daphnoides (literally “laurel-like,” because in Greek daphne applied to laurel, Laurus nobilis; in English as in scientific Latin it was rather unfortunately applied to the unrelated genus Daphne).  Leaf taken, apparently eaten rather than in tea, to expel phlegmatic matter from stomach; causes vomiting; emmenagogue; provokes sneezing.  Leaves and fruit for purge.

Avicenna:  Mādhrīum (from the Greek).  Hot and dry to fourth degree (i.e. extreme).  Cleansing, purifying.  Removes dead skinb, treats vitiligo and spots.  Also on skin fungus, ulcers (with honey), dead skin, scabies.  Mouthwash.  “Very harmful to the liver” (726; true enough).  Purges oiut water.  Expels worms.  Careful instructions given on dosage, since overdose is deadly.

Bellakhdar et al:  D. gnidium, lezzaz, hair-care, abortive.  D. laureola, walidrar, drastic.

Li:  D. genkwa, yuanhua.  Sources disagree on humoral codings but agree that it is toxic (which it is, by any standards).  Several pages of medical uses for dozens of conditions.

  1. odora, ruixiang, sweet, salty, nontoxic, for laryngeal infection (only).

(Dangerously toxic plant.)


Daucus carota L.  Apiaceae.  Introduced, but long cultivated in China.  DuHu

Dioscorides:  III-83, three kinds of “daukos” described, at least one of which is surely this sp.  All have seeds that are warming.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient.  Diuretic.  Help with coughs, bites, swellings, etc.  See Athamantha above.

Levey:  Jazar.  Seed for stomach and for sexual overindulgence. In one remedy for calculus.

Avicenna:  jazar.  Hot and moist.  Wild carrot seed is strong laxative. Powdered seeds and leaves for corroxsive ulcers.  For inflamed chest.  Relieves abdominal pain; diuetic; wild seeds, unlike seeds of garden form, do not produce gas.  Stimulates menstruation, but the use for abortion (so well known in Europe) is not mentioned.

Lev and Amar:  In addition to the usual jazar, it apparently was called dawqū, dawkaws and daucos in some Genizah documents, an odd bit of Latin.  Palpitations, eye problems, purgative.  In theriac, and the usual minor complaints—pains, cough, bites, and so on—that seem to have had every drug in the Genizah documents used as opportunity permitted.  Maimonides held it hot and dry and used it in sexual medicine.

Kamal:  Jazar.  Seeds carminative and diuretic, juice stomachic and diuretic, used in jaundice and bronchitis.  (The use for jaundice is presumably sympathetic magic.)

Bellakhdar et al:  urinary infections.

Ghazanfar:  Gizrī Crushed seeds with honey for sexual potency.

Madanapala:  Grñjana.  Hot, digestive, constipative, for bleeding and piles.

Nadkarni:  Fruits abortifacient and for diarrhea.  Root for first-aid poultices, burns, skin, etc.

Eisenman:  Common weed in high Central Asia.  Vermifuge, purgative, etc.  Extract of seed has been used biomedically for cholesterol, kidney and gallbladder problems, coronary conditions, etc., but seem not usually current.

Li:  Huluobo (“Iranian radish”; today hongluobo, “red radish”).  Sweet, pungent, slightly warm, nontoxic.  Largely a food; good for appetite and health generally, improves digestion.

(Wild carrot plants still used as an abortifacient; unpredictable, dangerous, but a resort of the desperate.  The cultivated carrot is often said to have been developed in Afghanistan in the late Middle Ages, but there are perfectly unmistakable pictures of domestic orange carrots in Dioscorides mss. in Europe, going back to the Juliana Anicia codex of 512; see Carrot Museum website,


Delphinium staphisagria L.  Ranunculaceae.  Zabīb al-jabal.

Dioscorides:  Phlegm, toothache, rheumatic gums, itches.

Levey:  Zabīb al-jabal, mayūbazaj.  Epilepsy, neck pustules.  Today, as emetic, for itch and skin.

Very widely used in Near East at all time periods.

Avicenna: D. staphisagria, mawīzaj.  “Seeds are burning, corrosive, pungent, and biting” (p. 658).  Kill lice (better with arsenic) and mites.  Chewed for clearing phlegm and edema from brain.  Used in mouthwashes, etc.  D. officinale: jadwār, zarduār, etc.  Antidote against snake bites, aconite, insect bites, etc.  Not well known to this writer.

Lev and Amar:  zabīb al-jabal, etc.  Epilepsy, neck pustules, skin, lice, toothache.

Nadkarni:  various related spp., minor uses.

Eisenman:  D. confusum, tea for intestinal disorders, muscle tone, veterinary antiparasitic medicine.  Several current biomedical uses for delphiniums; highly toxic but can be used for anesthesia, parkinson’s disease, various nervous conditions.    D. semibarbatum tea with barley flour on tumors.  Ashes on eczema and scabies.  Tea for fever,flu, sore thbroat, burns, anticonvulsive, stomach, etc.  Kills flies and cockroaches.


Desmodium (Hedysarum) gangeticum DC., Fabaceae.  Matin  MaTing (?)

Nadkarni:  Bitter tonic, febrifuge, digestive, anticatarrh. D. latifolium alterative, tonic, for diarrhea, vomiting, insanity, ulcers.


Dolichos lablab L. Fabaceae.  Native.  (Now renamed Lablab purpureus, but we retain the old name here for convenience, since it is used in almost all the references.)

Levey:  lūbiyāh; this name may also apply to Vigna sinensis (it is a general Arabic word for beans, now including New World beans unknown to medieval Arabia).  In a preparation for freckles.

Avicenna:  Lablāb.  Hot and dry.  Softening, dissolving, drying, purifying.  Removes hair and kills lice.  Leaves usable on large wounds, as poultice or internally with wine.  Poltice on wounds also.  Said ver good.  Used for earaches also.  Treats chest and lung afflictions including asthma (as with other beans, presumably mixed with more obviously medicinal items).  Leves with vinegar for enlarged, inflamed spleen.  Purges burnt bile.

Kamal:  Liblab, kisht, etc.    No medical use noted.

Ghazanfar:  Lablab.  Roots aphrodisiac, laxative, diuretic, and to regulate menstruation.

Nadkarni:  Seeds aphrodisiac.

Li:  Biandou (a name now used for the broad bean or the lima bean).  Sweet, slightly warm, nontoxic.  Several minor uses.


Doronicum scorpioides Lam. (D. grandiflorum), Asteraceae, leopard’s bane.  Darunaj (Gr).  DuLongZhi.

Dioscorides:  IV-77, akoniton, Doronicum pardalianches.  See under Aconitum above.

Levey:  D. pardalianches L.  Durūnj, darsūnaj.  In collyrium, etc.

Avicenna:  Darūnaj, khāniq al-namir.  Hot and dry.  Usual minor uses.  Stimulates heart.  “It causes leopards to suffocate” (p. 650).

Lev and Amar:  D. scorpioides, darwanj, for eyes, and an anaphrodisiac.  Hot and dry.

Nadkarni:  Root of D. hookeri aromatic and tonic.  D. pardalianches cardiac, tonic, for depressio, melancholia, and scorpion stings.


Dracaena spp.  Dracaenaceae (Liliaceae), dragontree.  Imported.  One or another of these may be indicated in HHYF, but not certainly.

Avicenna.  Dam al-akhawain.  Uncertain as to cold or hot; dry.  Used on ulcers and wounds and for strengthening the stomach.  Minor and debatable remedy, in his time.

Levey:  Dam al-akhawain, for fistula, hemorrhoids, canker, gums, etc.

Lev and Amar:  D. draco, the famous dragon’s blood, dam al-’akhawayn, shīyān.  Fistula, hemorrhoids, canker, looseness of gum, stomach, bleeding, wounds, diarrhea.

Ghazanfar:  D. serrulata. ‘Ariyeb, ‘ayrob.  Resin for hemorrhage, skin infections; pain.

Nadkarni:  D. cinnabari, astringent.


Dryobalanops aromatica Gaertn.f., Dipterocarpaceae.  Introd.  Bing-pian, Long-naoxiang  Hu: 659.

Nadkarni:  Gum.  Diaphoretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, stimulant.

Li:  Longnaoxiang.  Li explains that the name—“dragon brain fragrance”—indicates the drug is precious (i.e., powerful like a dragon).  However, the uses are rather few, and the resin seems poorly cognized, with sources disagreeing on the humoral codings.  Nontoxic.  (The name may be from the appearance of the dried resin lumps, or some other feature.  )


Ecballium elaterium (L.) Rich., Cucurbitaceae.  Qatha-al-hamar.  JiSanErHeiMaEr.

Dioscorides:  IV-154, sikys agrios.  Leaf juice in ears for earache.  Root, paste, on swellings, gout, sciatica.  Decoction for toothache.  Beaten for skin infections, scars, etc.  Purges phlegm and choler.  Purge.

IV-155: seed extract of same.  Causes purging and vomiting.  Can be overdone, in which case wine with oil is recommended.  Poured in with milk into nostrils for rash and headache.  Various other minor conditions.

Avicenna:  qitha’ al-ḥimār.  Hot and dry.  Diluting, blood thinning, drying.  External uses for jaundice, scars, wounds, skin diseasses, swellings, abscesses, ringworm, scabies, arthritis, etc.  Internally for laxative, swellings, vomiting.  Evacuates phlegm and excess blood (sanguine humor).

Levey:  ‘alqam.  In oil for binding sinews, pain in back, rheumatisim and lameness.  For nosebleeds.

Kamal:  qaththa’ al himar, etc.  Renal and cardiac anasarca, brain congestion [1], paralysis.

Nadkarni:  Narcotic; for malaria and rabies.


Echinophora tenuifolia L., Apiaceae.  Zufa  ZuFaLa

Dioscorides:  for epilepsy.

A minor medicinal plant of Italy, Greece and Turkey, medically especially the last.

A very large number of bioactive compounds have been isolated from it (Georgiou et al. 2010) but effective medical activity remains to be researched.


Echinopsilon divaricatum, ChenopodiaceaePossible identification for plant mentioned in Table of Contents.  Minor Chinese weed, with no discoverable medical uses.  Not scored.


Ehretia obtusifolia Hochst., Boraginaceae.  Misk (Yemenite).

Possible misidentification; little mention in sources or likelihood of use in Yuan times.

Plant of Africa and Near East with local medical uses.

Nadkarni:  Root for venereal diseases.  E. buxifolia similar.


Elettaria cardamomum L., Zingiberaceae.  HeiMaMa (Ar), JiErDiMaNa, JiErDiMaNu (both from the Greek)

Dioscorides:  I-5, kardamomum.  Unmistakably the present plant, from the description (including source countries), and not the native Greek cress, kardamon (see Lepidium).  Infusion for respiratory and other diseases, worms, scorpion stings, poisons, breaking kidney/bladder stones, etc.  Abortifacient.  Aplied for itch, etc.

Avicenna:  Ḥamāmā, hīl.  Hil in Persian.  Hot and dry.  Sleansing nd diluting.  For stomach, cold liver.  Stops vomiting.  Diuretic and emmenagogue; treats pain in uterus and is used to support a displaced uterus.  Bath for kidney pain; orally for pain in womb.  Plaster with sweet basil for scorpion stings.

Levey:  Hāl.  For happiness.  Also teeth and breath, breathing, stomachic.  “Still sold…as a stomachic, stimulant, carminative, and condiment” (Levey 1966:342).  (I can confirm it is still sold for these purposes over 40 years later in the Middle East.)

Lev and Amar:  Hāl, kākalī.  Colic, kidney stones, cough, paralysis, stomach complains, TB, skin.  Vermifuge.  Teeth and mouth, respiration, tonic, etc.  Still used for all these, including appetite and stomach, nausea, votmiting, stones, etc., and even for insanity and depression.

Graziani:  qaqullah.  Ibn Jazlah used it for constipation and as dentifrice.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Minor uses following the above.

Kamal:  habbahan, hab al hal, al hayl, etc. “Stomachic, carminative, anit-colic, heart stimulant, aphrodisiac, emmenagogue, relaxant and digestive” (117).

Bellakhdar et al:  qa’qulla.  Aphrodisiac, calefacient.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Hal, hail.  Stomachic and for liver.  After childbirth, a woman is given a mix of cardamom, ginger, pepper, fennel, cinnamon, cumin, peppermint, browned flour, and fat.  Cardamom with nigella and ginger in olive oil make a rub for coughs and colds.

Madanapala:  Elā.  For dyspnoea, cough, pales, dysuria.

Nadkarni:  Powerful aromatic, stimulant, carminative, stomachic, duretic.  Unani adds use for nausea, vomiting, headache, digestion; as resolvent, etc.

Dash:  Uses not given.

Sun:  Spicy, warm, astringent, nonpoisonous, and able to warm the Middle Jiao (wenzhong溫中)[5]. Its major effects are to cure heartburn and stomachache, stop vomiting, and get rid of bad breath.  (All of which fits perfectly with modern experience.)

Li:  Not mentioned specifically, but doubtless included in the various cardamoms.

(Still used today in a minor way in China and more commonly in the Middle East; the Amomum cardamoms are much more important medicinally, but Elettaria is used too.  All are effective, having volatile oils with stimulant, carminative, digestive effects.)


Embelia ribes Burm., Primulaceae (Myrsinaceae).  Biranj.

Avicenna:  Birank kābulī.  Notes it as an Indian item, coming (to Central Asia, evidently) from Sindh.  Expels phlegm and worms.

Madanapala:  Vidanga.  Digestion, flatulence, abdominal disease, constipation, parasites.

Nadkarni:  Carminative, antihelminthic, stimulant, alterative, purgative.  Fruit used.

Dash:  Digestion, colic, constipation, parasites.  Note similarity to Madanapala uses.

Note that this is another case of an Indian drug in the HHYF; its importance in Tibetan medicine shows that it may have reached Central Asia via Tibet, but Avicenna had it, obviously via Kabul (see the name); it was one of several Indian drugs that he knew well.


Emblica officinalis.  See Phyllanthus emblica.


Emilia sonchifolia DC, AsteraceaeTentative identification.  Ye xia hong.

Nadkarni:  Sudorific.

Minor Chinese medical uses.


Ephedra sinensis Stapf. & presumably other spp., Ephedraceae.  Native.

Nadkarni:  E. vulgaris and relatives or synonyms.  Alterative, diuretic, stomachic, tonic.  Seems to be known mostly as a plant learned from Chinese practice.  Many Indian species noted.

Eisenman:  E. equisetina, infusion of green shoots for rheumantism, scabies, ulcers, malaria, altitude sickness, fever, heart disease.  Plants also used for asthma. E. intermedia, stimulant and antiasthmatic.  These species, unlike some ephedras, contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and are therefore highly effective biomedically.

Li:  E. sinica, mahuang.  Bitter, warm, nontoxic.  Many pages of uses, but the use to relieve asthma is universally known.  Root also used.

(It was the major worldwide drug for asthma and related conditions, in biomedicine as well as Chinese folk practice, until safer ones were discovered very recently.)


Epilobium vulgare Figari, Onagraceae.  Fuk.

Ghazanfar:  E. hirsutum, Sāq al-gurāb.  Leaves for epilepsy and madness.

Eisenman:  E. hirsuum, hemostatic, astringent, anti-inflammatory.  Experiments seem to indicate effectiveness.


Eriobotrya japonica (Thunb.) Lindl.  Rosaceae.  SaDaYiXinDi

Li:  Pipa.  Li notes the name comes from the similarity of the leaf shape to the profile of a lute (pipa in Chinese).  Fruit, leaf, flower and bark all used.  Balanced and nontoxic; fruit sweet but leaf bitter.  Various uses, external and internal.

(Loquat syrup is a universally used Chinese medical food today, for its soothing, emollient, balancing, and general feel-good qualities, familiar to almost anyone with Chinese background or experience.  It does not seem to have been so used in traditional times, which is certainly interesting.  At least, Li and our other sources do not mention it.)


Eruca sativa Mill., Brassicaceae.  Jirjir.  Rocket, arugula.

Dioscorides:  II-170, euzomon.  Eaten raw “doth provoke Venery” (Gunther 1934:181), especially flowers and seeds.  Diuretic, digestive.  Seeds in sauces as mustard is used.

Levey:  Jirjīr.  Insanity, stomachic.  Many minor uses.

Lev and Amar:  Jirjīr.  Plant aphrodisiac; treats sexual weakness, strength of sperm, etc.  Also for nternal diseases, urinary tract, gas. Increases mother’s milk.  Seeds against insanity and stomach pains.  Wet and hot (Maimonides).

Kamal:  Gargir, baqlat ‘Ai’shah.  Seeds vesicant, diuretic, aphrodisiac, anti-caries.

Bellakhdar et al:  calefacient.

Nadkarni:  Known, but no significant medical uses.

(Whole plant stimulant, from glucosinolate chemicals, but not much value medicinally.)


Eryngium glomeratum Lam., Apiaceae.  Shindan

Dioscorides:  III-24, eryngion, E. planum, etc.  Leveas in brine as food.  Warming, diuretic, emmenagogue, cures gripes and infections, etc.  With wine for liver, venomous beast attacks, poison.

Avicenna:  Shaukah al-yaḥūdiyah.  Hot.  Diluent, dissolving.  Mothwash, coughing up blood, roots for vomiting.  Relieves vaginal discharge.

Bellakhdar et al:  sp. for calefacient.

Nadkarni:  E. caeruleum, nerve tonic, aphrodisiac (root).

Eisenman:  E. biebersteinianum and other spp., infusion for blood cleansing, sedative.  Infusion for edema, scrofula, gonorrhea, headaches, heart pain, and various tumors” (108), pertussis, anti-convulsant, coiughs, diuresis.  Roots treat poisoning and bites.  Recommended for anemia.  Little studied.

(Various spp. still widely used.  Aphrodisiac use made famous by Shakespeare in Falstaff’s cry “Let it rain potatoes,… snow eryngoes!”  Merry Wives of Windsor, V, v. 18-22.  Potatoes were also considered aphrodisiac at the time.)


Eupatorium cannabinum L.  Asteraceae.  A Fe De.

Dioscorides:  IV-41, eupatorion.  Leaves beaten with lard for ulcers.  Seed and leaves drunk with wine for dysentery, snakebite.  (The Maya of Yucatan have similar uses for closely related spp.)

Kamal:  ghafath ibn-Sina, etc.   Dilatory.  Dissolves scrotal tumors.  Infusian used.

Nadkarni:  E. ayapana, tonic expectorant, diaphoretic, antiperiodic.  Aperient.  For stomach, cough, ague.  Applied to ulcers and bites.

Li:  E. fortunei, lancao.  Leaf used; pungent, balanced to cold, nontoxic.  Pages of diverse uses.

(I am not sure what values this genus has, but Eupatorium spp. seem to be important in medicine everywhere they grow.)


Euphorbia granulata Forsk., Euphorbiaceae.  ‘ilk-al-ghzal; Euphorbia sp., Euphorbiaceae.  Farfiyun, farbiyun (Persian)

Dioscorides:  III-96, euphorbion, Euphorbia spp.?  (Description vauge and smacking of travelers’ tale.)  Sharp, burning sap extracted.  Drunk for groin pains, bones, etc., and snakebite.

Levey:  Furbiyūn, afarbiyūn.  Abscesses, fistulas, scrofula; ointment.  In a remedy for insantiy.

Avicenna: E. pityusa, shabram.  Hot and dry (very).  Used very widely for external conitions.  Also for teth; breaks up rotten teeth.  Treats eye swellings.  Harms stomach and liver, so used with care in mixtures.  Removes piles.

Graziani:  Furbiyun.  Ibn Jazlah used it for paralysis, numbness, kidneys, against miscarriage, stopping tears, and for dog bites and burning belly.  Modern Egyptian use in ointments for paralysis etc.

Lev and Amar:  afarbiyūn, farbiyūn.  Various spp.  Wounds, mumps, insanity, purging.  Hot and ddry.  Constricts woomb and prevents miscarriage.

Kamal:  E. officinarum, farbion, etc.  Emetic, cathartic, poisonous.  Juice vesicant, sloughing, rubefacient externally.

Bellakhdar et al:  E. resinifera, abortive, drastic, toxic; skin conditions and earache cure

Ghazanfar:  Many species, with many local names, for every type of external application.  E. hadramautica also for purgative.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  E. helioscopia and others.  Emetic, purgative (sap); externally, for paralysis, apoplexy, etc.

Nadkarni:  Huge range of species used for the usual reasons (emetic, purgative, cathartic, etc.).

Eisenman:  E. jaxartia, powdered root for wounds and syphilis.  Latex for fungal skin conditions, scabies, corns and warts.  A number of chemicals; some may be effective.  E. apulum, purgative; for tuberculosis.

Li:  Langdu includes many species, and yet more are used under other names.  Li clearly saw them as related, putting them near each other in his work.  Root usually used; bitter and pungent, balanced, toxic.  Large range of indications, many of them external. (Euphorbia spp. often have strong external action, irritating to actually blistering the skin but effectively killing parasites, treating fungus and infected swellings, etc.)


Ferula asafoetida Lam. (also given as Ferula foetida [Bunge] Regel, apparently the same sp.), Apiaceae.  Ashtu-ghar   Imported.  AnGuChang (from Arabic Anjudān—angudān in vernacular), HeiLiTiTi (Arabic ḥiltit, the gum;Yem. Hiltit, Egyp Hantita).  Also: A-wei.  Hu: 659.

The many Ferula species used medicinally in Asia are possibly confused in the HHYF.

Dioscorides:  III-55, panakes herakleion, Ferula opopanax or rel. Sap.  Warming, mollifying, for agues, spasms, convulsions, ruptures, pains, coughs, gripes, strangury, scabies, and almost everything else.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient.  Salve for head, boils, eyes, dog bites, etc.  Root shaved, on vulva, abortifacient or birth aid.  With honey on wounds eand sores.  III-56, panakes asklepion, poorly described, may be F. nodosa.  Flower, seed, on ulcers etc.

III-87, libanotis, one sort may be F. nodiflora.  Similar cureall to the others.

III-91, narthex, F. communis.  For griping and sweats; seed.  Green pith with wine for snakebite and flux.

III-95, sagapenon, F. persica.  Brief notes; similar uses to other spp.

III-98, ammoniakon, Ferula spp.  As following, plus use for thorax when licked with honey or eaten with juice of Ptissana.  Cures bloody urine, cleans eyes, etc.  Applied with vinegar for hardness in abdomen and joints.  Good for lassitudes and sciatic pains.

III-94, silphion, F. tingitana.  Cureall, recommended for almost everything.  Taken or applied as indicated for toothache, dog bites, poinsons including poisoned arrows, scorpion stings, etc.  Gangrene, carbuncles, corns, swellings, etc.  Taken for respiratory and throat problems of all sorts, including leeches in the throat; general health, etc.; also as for other Ferula spp.  This is the famous resin cureall that led to extinction of the best (Libyan) kind.  Dioscorides was writing at the height of the truly fanatical obsession with silphium and other Ferula spp. which led to Libyan silphium becoming the textbook example of a plant exterminated by overcollecting; see Koerper, Henry, and A. L. Kolls.  1999.  “The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage:  Marketing a Medicinal Plant.”  Economic Botany 53:133-143.

Avicenna:  Hot, dry, diluting (bloodthinning); relieves gas; purgative; dring.For body odor, hair growth, fungus, mouthwash, tumors and sores, ulcers, growth of flesh, rheumatism, epileps, headaches, earaches, eye conditions in general, clearing voice, asthma, shortness of breath, jaundice, diuretic, purgative, malaria, and even kills leeches in the throat!

Levey:  Ḥiltīt.  Cold affliction of phlegm, aphrodisiac, rheumatism, etc.  Throat and toothache.  Various forms.  F. marmarica  is one source of gum ammoniac,  used widely in the HHYF.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Quotes Oribasius:  mollifying, flatulent, etc. Apparently on his own, he adds: Deodorant, dispels evil-smelling humors.  Poltice.  Removes abcesses.  For rheumatism.  Aphrodisiac.  Cures hemorrhoids if boiled with pomegranate peel in vinegar and drunk.

Lev and Amar:  Hot and dry, purgative, ointment on bites.

Kamal:  Haltit.  Gum anticonvulsive, stomachic, antihelminthic, emmenagogue.  Enema for gas and convulsions.

Bellakhdar et al:  antiepileptic; F. communis antispasmodic.

Ghazanfar:  Ḥaltīt, ḥaltīta.  Antispasmodic, colic, expectorant, sedative; resin used, boiled or chewed.  Also to fumigate women after childbirth, as with mukul resin.  Resin with honey for menstruation.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Coughs, colds, stomach disorders, fevers, sore throat toothache (topically).  Apparently antifungal (modern bioscience cited).

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative, antispasmodic, expectorant, laxatic, antihelminthic, diuretic, aphrodisiac, emmenagogue, nervine, etc.  Unani uses for brain, digestion, vision, paralysis, epilepsy, convulsions, colic, etc.

Dash:  F. foetida digestive, stimulant, appetiser.  For colic and parasites.

Eisenman: F. foetida. Major folk medicine.  Anticonvulsant, vermifuge, nervous condition treatment; restorative and tonic in Chinese medicine.  These uses seem sustained by biomedical experiment.  Has been used in modern medicine as stimulant, etc.  Contains a huge range of bioactive chemicals.  F.kuhistanica,  resin for syphilis; external use for wounds, tumors, etc.  Antibactierial.  F. moschata, rare, tonic, etc.

Li:  F. sinkiangensis, F. fukanensis, awei.  Li is aware that the use of asafoetida was largely learned from the Middle East.  Pungent, balanced, nontoxic.  Kills worms, dispels gas, useful digestively in general.

Rossetti (2009):  Still common spice; medicinal uses not discussed, but excellent history of production, trade, and use in food.

(This famous cureall was used in American folk medicine within living memory.  The bad smell was supposed to scare away devils, among other things.)


Ferula galbaniflua Boiss. Et Buhse, Apiaceae.  Birjad (Persian)

Dioscorides:  III-97, chalbane, Ferula ferulago, Selinum galbanum, or similar plant; possibly F. galbaniflua.  Galbanum is the same. Emmenagogue, abortifacient; for coughs and respiratory problems, ruptures, convuilsions, poisons, etc.  For pains and fits, etc.  Variously mixed with potions.  Applied for pains.

Levey:  Various psychiatric complaints (madness, weakness…).

Avicenna:  Jāushīr, a small plant; kamāshīr, a stronger and apparently larger form.  Hot and dry.  Bitter.  Laxative, dissolving, gas relieving.  Emmenagogue and in larger doses abortifacient.  Used for asthma, cough.  Various external uses including as collyrium for eyes.  In general, a typical Avicenna cureall—put on all external conditions, taken for all minor internal ones.

Lev and Amar:  qinna, etc.  Insanity.  Modern uses suggest there were many more uses in early times.

Kamal:  Qana-washq, khalabani, qinnah, barzad, etc. Gum expectorant, anti-cough, anti-convulsive, emmenagogue.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, expectorant, antispasmodic, etc.


  1. persica, Apiaceae. Sagapenum

Dioscorides: Sagapenon.  various uses for this important Ferula resin.

Avicenna:  Sakbīnaj.  Hot and dry.  Dissolvent, diluting/blood thinning, warming, cleansing. Relieves gas.  Treats paralysis and dislocations.   Relieves some headaches and epilepsy.  Used fin eyes for dim vision, etc.  Used for chest, for abdominal pain, dissolving stones, etc.; emmenagogue and abortifacient.

Lev and Amar:  sakabīnāj.  Kidneys, glands, back pains, insanity, etc.  Hot and dry.

(Extremely important in medieval Europe as well as the HHYF, but oddly rare in the Arabic herbals.)


  1. schowitziana DC., Apiaceae. Sakbinaj.

Dioscorides:  III:81, this and/or F. persica, sagapenon, for pain of breast, ruptures, convulsions, coughs, epilepsy, spleen, paralysis.

Levey:  This sp. and/or F. persica Willd.  Sakabīnaj.  Kidneys, bladder, putrid flesh, pain in the back, sciatica, insanity.

Nadkarni:  Several other spp. noted.


Ficus carica L.  Moraceae.  Introd.  Wu-hua-guo, Hu:1407

Manniche:  Already used for constipation and related complaints!  Also in a number of remedies for heart and lung diseases.  (The heart remedies would work for stomach problems but not for heart ones, and surely “heart” just means “internal pains” here.) Suppository for anus pain. F. sycomorus used similarly.

Dioscorides:  I-183, syka.  Laxative.  Good for throat and bladder and kidneys, for asthma, epilepsy, dropsy (congestive heart failure).  With hyssop for a tea for thorax.  Good for respiratory problems generally, for inflammations, and much else.  For women, with fenugreek, rue, etc., for fomentations (unspecified).  With various substances for external use on almost every imaginable external condition.  Also a long list of preparations for internal conditions.  Juice used for coagulating milk; also as emmeanagogue, laxative, childbirth easing, plasters for gout and skin conditions, etc.

I-184, syka agria, wild fig.  Juice from pounded leaves for ulcers, etc.  Sprigs boiled with beef make it “soone sod” (Gunther 1934:91), which must mean “tender,” since that is what they actually do (a meat tenderizing enzyme is in the leaf shoots).  Similarly for curdling milk.

I-181, sykomoron, Ficus sycomorus.  Grows in Mediterranean islands;  Name sycomoron, “fig mulberry,” because it is a fig tree with mulberry-like leaves (Dioscorides’ explanation; basically correct).  Fruit for laxative but bad for stomach generally.  Sap for skin conditions, or drunk or applied for snakebite, etc.  Used for hard swellings and pains.

I-182, sykon en Kypro (“fig in Cyprus”), apparently a variety of the above, and so used.

Galen:  Laxative, cleaning; often used with medicinal herbs.  Harmful to inflamed liver and spleen.

Levey:  Tīn.  Skin and ulcers; poultice for swelling, etc.

Avicenna:  Tīn.  Hot, moist.  Cleansing, dissolvent, etc.  Usual laxative and cleansing uses, and a vast number of uses for soothing, relieving, etc., internally and externally.  Treats essentially anything, though evidently largely as a soothing agent.

Kamal:  tin.  Cooked for drink for smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, bronchitis, urinary affections, respiratory problems, etc.  Gargle for mouth and throat sores.  Sap laxative and external caustic.

Bellakhdar et al:  shariha, kermus, tin.  Laxative.

Ghazanfar:  ṭin.  Leaves, fruit and latex for various external applications.  Fruit tonic, laxative, diuretic; for kidneys, including kidney stones; for cough.  In Yemen, mixed with dates, raisins and honey for depression or nervous tension (pleasant enough that it might even work!).

Madanapala:  Añjīra.  Cold, sweet.  Alleviates some dosas, and blood.

Nadkarni:  Aperient, emollient, cooling, laxative, demulcent.

Li:  Wuhuaguo (“flowerless fruit,” the flowers being invisible inside the fig).  One old herbal knew that “if the fruit is not stewed within a few ays, it will evolve into an ant, which will fly away by penetrating the peel” (Li 2003:2819; the pollinator wasps’ young do emerge thus, from eggs laid in the fig).  Known to be an import, and not much used, but fruit and leaf used for hemorrhoids and appetite, and fruit, oddly, for diarrhea and dysentery.

(Figs are still a very standard folk and even biomedical laxative.)


Foeniculum vulgare Mill., Apiaceae.  Raziyanaj (Persian)  Introd.  LaZeYaNa.  A Di(Ni)Song, JiLa (Iran Anisun, Egyp Xilla).  Xiao-hui-xiang.  Hu, 659.

Both Dioscorides and al-Bīrūnī knew this plant, but said little about it.

Levey:  Bisbās.  Swellings and enlargements.  Scrofula, ulcers, fever, stomach, liver pain, eyes.

Avicenna:  Rāzīānaj.  Seeds used.  Hot and dry; cultivated is less hot.  Opens obstructions.  Strengthens eyesight.  Moist fennel (probably means the leaves) increases milk.  Treats nausea and stomach ache.  Diuretic and emmenagogue.  Treats urinary system.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Important in Al-Samarqandī’s text.  Now diuretic, purgative, stimulant, carminative, stomachic, emmenagogue; root purgative.  “In Persia today…it is one of the five ‘opening roots’ of the ancients; the others are parsley, celery, asparagus, and butcher’s broom” (173).

Lev and Amar:  shamār, rāyazānaj.  Weak eyes, headache, hemorrhoids, aphrodisiac, brain problems, cooling generally, etc.  Fennel seeds for children with incessant crying.  Put on sore eyes, navel problems of newborns, etc.  Maimonides used it in wine for the heart, holding it hot and dry.  Modern uses extensive and varied.

Evelyn (2012/1699:22):  “Aromatick, hot, and dry; expels Wind, sharpens the Sight, and recreates the Brain”

Kamal:  shamar.  Stomachic, diuretic, emmenagogue, carnimantive, anti-epileptic, soothing for colic.  Aphrodisiac and lactagogue.

Bellakhdar:  for liver and pancreas; dyspnoea.

Ghazanfar:  Shih, samār.  Decoction of leaves and seeds for couighs and carminative uses.  Stems for toothbrushes.  Seeds diuretic and for kidneys.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Colic, stomachache, flatulence, indigestion, rheumatism.

Madanapala:  Śatapuspā.  Fever, ulcers, colic, eyes.

Nadkarni:  Fruit stimulant, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, purgative.  Root purgative.

Dash:  Sweet, hot, appetiser.

Sun:  Fennel (huixiangcai茴香菜): bitter, spicy, mildly cold, astringent, and nonpoisonous. It is particularly important for treating cholera. It prevent sunstroke (bire辟熱) and gets rid of bad breath. If one boils smelly meat in water, add a little of it and the smell will go away. So it is called “the return of the good smell“. If the sauce is smelly, adding fennel to it will rid of the smell. Its seeds treat, especially, snakebites that have not healed for a long time. Crush and apply on the wound. It also treats nine kinds of swelling in the neck (lou瘺).

Li:  Huaixiang, huixiang.  Fruit used (minor uses for foliage).  Many uses, some so mystical that they defeated even the translators, others more related to the well-known (and still used) stomachic and digestive properties of the fruit.

Other apiaceous seeds may be confused here.


Fragaria grandiflora Ehrh., Rosaceae.  Firiz.  Strawberry.

Minor mention as food.  In spite of the ubiquity of this plant, and its value as food, if it has medicinal values they seem to have been entirely overlooked—unless one counts the Irish folksong that says “strawberry leaves make maidens fair” (in a face wash, that is)—except in Kyrgyzstan, which has enough uses to make up for the rest of the world’s neglect.

Eisenman:  F. vesca used in Kyrgyzstan; fruits and leaves, infused, for sore throat, jaundice, hemorrhoids, fatigues, diarrhea, uterine bleeding, etc.  Leaves on old skin ulcers.  Fruits for kidney stones, bile duct, gout, stomach conditions, constpoation, hyptertension and even vermifuge.  Crushed fruit on skin for eczema.  Dried fruit for diaphoretic; leaves for same, and diuretic.  Root decoction hemostatic.  Many of these uses appear sustained by modern experiment.


Fraxinus excelsior L.  Oleaceae.  Lisan-al-‘asafir.  LiSanNaASan(FeiEr)

Dioscorides:  I-108, melia, Fraxinus ornus, manna ash.  Juice of leaves drunk with wine, or applied, for snakebite; bark burned as ash applied for leprosy.

Avicenna:  F. ornus, shir khishk, man.  Neutral.  For cough, chest congestion, purging yellow bile.

Lev and Amar:  palpitation, purgative, aphrodisiac, for gases, stomach, pains, urination, memory; aids pregnancy.

Kamal:  F. excelsior, lisan al ‘asfur, fraksunus, etc.  Bark febrifuge.  Leaves sudorific.  F. ornus, manna mild aperient and cholagogue.

Bellakhdar et al:  F. angustifolia, lisan t-tir, lisan l-‘usfur.  Aphrodisiac, calefacient.

Nadkarni:  Bark astringent; leaves purgative.

(The common ash has no major medical uses.  Probably substitutes for manna ash, a mild laxative of long-standing use.)


Fumaria officinalis L.  Papaveraceae (Fumariaceae).  Shaytaraj, shitaraj (Persian).  SaiTiLaZhi

Dioscorides:  IV-110, kapnos, F. parvifolia.  Gives several alternative names.  Juice quickens sight and brings tears.  Used to prevent plucked eyebrow hair from regrowing.  Eaten for choleric urine.

Levey:  Shātiraj.  Various humoral disorders.  Popular today for various reasons.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Shāhtaraj, qufnus. Cites Galen:  Sharp, pungent, astringent, diuretic, good for gall bladder and stomach.  Helps eye and heart.  Rāzī adds that it kills lice and ticks, cures itch, strengthens gums and tongue, etc.  Juice reduces scab and itch, strengthens stomach, opens liver.

Avicenna:  shīṭraj (making it easy to confuse with Lepidium).  Hot and bitter.  Used on itching, skin disease, gums.  Strengthens stomach.  Laxative and diuretic.

Lev and Amar:  shāhtaraj.  Helps melancholy; diuretic; for skin, blood, stomach.

Kamal:  Shahatarg, shahatra.  Tonic.  Skin diseases.  Antipyretic.  Good for caries and jaundice.  Fluid extract used.

Ghazanfar:  F. parviflora.  Antihelminthic, laxative, for dyspepsia; externally, paste for skin rashes.

Nadkarni:  Diaphoretic, tonic, diuretic, antihelminthic, aperient, etc.  Used for sexually transmitted diseasess and leprosy, among other things.

Dash:  F. parviflora bitter, cold, for fever, burning, anorexia, fatigue, intoxication, giddiness.

Eisenman:  F. vaillantii, decoction for blood cleansing, diuretic, “coughs, jaundice, headache, fever, gonorrhea, uterine bleeding, erysipelas,” (118), etc.  Also bath for itch, rashes, pimples.  Biomedically, fumarine causes paralysis, catalepsy.  Inhibits cholinesterases.


Gardenia jasminoides Ellis, Rubiaceae The Chinese name for this plant is routinely confused in the HHYF with saffron, Crocus sativus, q.v.  Still, it may very well have been used.

Li describes many uses for it.


Gentiana lutea (and/or asclepidea) L., Gentianaceae.  Jantiyana.  ZhenTiYaNa

Dioscorides:  III-3, gentiane, gentiana.  Root warming, binding.  Drunk with pepper, rice and wine for venomous bites.  Also for pain of side; falls; ruptures and convulsions; liver and stomach problems.  Abortifacient.  Applied to ulcers, skin conditions, and inflamed eyes.

Avicenna:  Janṭiānā.  Hot and dry.  Laxative.  Syrup rubbed on twisted muscles and on bruises.  Used for conjunctivitis.  Internally for lungs, spleen, liver.  Diureti and emmenagogue.  Abortifacient.

Nadkarni:  G. kurroo, root, local equivalent to above; similar chemistry.  Tonic, antiperiodic, antibilious, astringent, stomachic, antihelminthic.

Eisenman:  G. olivieri, decoction of flowering herb for gastric conditions, malaria, teeth and gums and mouth; externally for ulcers and abscesses.  Syrup from boiling gentian with barberry roots for side pains, rheumatism, chest pain.  Biomedically, tests how sedative and anti-inflammatory action; chemicals identified.

Li:  Qinjiao, longdan; each name covers many species of gentian.  Roots used.  Bitter and nontoxic.  The former are the warmer ones, the latter the cooling species.  The usual proliferation of uses.

(Gentian remains a European folk remedy, used in many digestive liqueurs and drinks.)


Glaucium corniculatum Kurt, PapaveraceaeHorned poppy.

Dioscorides:  III:86.  For eyes.

Levey:  For eyes, erysipelas, gout.

Eisenman: G. fimbrilligerum, seeds crushed and roasted for hemostatic and tonic use for women after childbirth.  OIL ALSO EFFECTIVE.  Decoction of leves and flowers as tonic, stimulant; large does emetic and soporific, even to sasphyxiation.  Seeds laxative.  Biomedical experiments confirm, and show antiarrhymthmic action.


Glossostemon bruguieri (Desf.), Malvaceae.  Moghat (Arabic name). 

Uncertain identification.

Medicinal and food in Near East.  Not in our sources, however.


Glycyrrhiza glabra L., G. uralensis Fisch., & probably other spp, Fabaceae.  Native, but the Chinese sp. is obviously being used for the western one.

Levey:  Sūs.  In electuary for coughs; salve for itching; oxymel for humors; in oil for scrofula, hemorrhoids, etc.  Rob for tooth medicine, jaundice, cough, malaria, rheumatism, sciatica, pterygium.  Many other remedies in other authors.  As in China, it seems to be a general carrier and mollifier.

Avicenna:  Moderate, slightly hot and moist.  On burns and skin infections.  Root for eyes.  Internalliy, softens and clears trachea; good for lungs; decreases thirst and treats burning in stomach; used for gonorrhea and internal ulcers.  Treats fever.

Graziani:  Sūs.  Used in robs. Ibn Jazlah used it for leprosy, spleen ailments, scorpion stings.  Today in Middle East for acute indigestion.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  G. glabra made into a rob (thick syrup) for a very wide range of uses; major part of Al-Samarqandī’s pharmcopoeia.

Lev and Amar.  G. glabra, sūs and other names.  Various preparations for yellow bile, acute fevers, etc.  Skin, cough, chest, liver, scabies, hemorrhoids, mumps, teeth, pains, jaundice, even killing fleas.  Weight gain, facial skin improvement, sharpens eyes and other eye applications.  Lungs, liver, spleen, etc., indeed almost every ailment of every part of the body.

Kamal:  irq al-Sus, irsus, G. officinalis.  Laxative, flavor for medicines, demulcent in throat lozenges.

Bellakhdar et al.:  G. glabra, ‘arq sus, sore throat, cohlagogue, refreshing.

Ghazanfar:  G. glabra, rhizome and leaves, coughs, expectorant, idigestion, pain, purgative.

Nadkarni:  Tonic, cooling, demulcent, expectorant, diuretic, emmenagogue, gentle laxative.  Unani uses for liver, bladder, lungs, nerves, etc.

Eisenman:  Decoctions and extracts for cough, chest, etc. G. uralensis roots diuretic, laxative, carminative, for pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, ulcers, poisoning.

Li:  Gancao.  Usually this species, but term includes other spp.  Roots used.  Fully ten large pages on this plant, the universal harmonizer, smoother, side-effects mollifier, and general additive of Chinese medicine, so important that the great Tao Hongjing compared it to “the imperial instructor—who is not the monarch, but the monarch follows his instructions” (Li 2003:1229).  Its role as harmonizer means that it is usually used in combinations, for essentially any type of condition.  (This was still true in Chinese medicine in the 1960s.)

(Used as a general vehicle, soothing  and harmonizing; hence its use in almost every possible condition in both the Middle East—see Lev and Amar—and China.)


Gomphocarpus fruticosus L., Apocynaceae (Asclepidaceae).  Kushan

Not in our sources, but this milkweed is used today in Africa as a sedative and painkiller and source of seed fluff (Uphof, etc.).  However, one suspects a misidentification here.


Gossypium sp., Malvaceae.  Cottonseed is tentatively identified as one item mentioned in the Index.

Avicenna:  Quṭn.  Seeds for chest and as laxative.

Lev and Amar:  quṭn; seeds for purulent wounds, sexual desire; oil for hair.  Plant for heartbeat, insanity, swellings, memory, diarrhea, burns skin diseases, hemorrhages.

(Seeds toxic; an effective male contraceptive but too dangerous to use.  Otherwise apparently no biomedical value.  They are now detoxified for food use.)


Gypsophila struthium L., Caryophyllaceae.  Kundus (Gr)

Levey:  kundus.  In remedy for insanity.  Al-Samarqandī used it in a plaster for various purposes.

Lev and Amar:  kundus.  Insanity, skin, diuretic, purgative.

(It is rarely mentioned and obscure in the sources.)


Heliotropium supinum L .  Boraginaceae.  ZuFa, FaLaFuRong

Dioscorides:  IV-193, eliotropion mega, H. europaeum.  Plant boiled, drunk for phlegm, choler.  Drunk and applied for scorpion stings (sympathetic magic evidently; the flowering head is scorpioid, as noted by Dioscorides).  Hung around neck to cause barrenness.  Seed drunk with wine for malarial fits, or smeared on for warts and other growths.  Leaves applied for gouts and other conditions, and as emmenagogue and abortifacient.

Al-Bīrūnī:  ṣāmaryūmā.  Heliotropium spp.  Scorpion bites, malaria, poultice for warts.  Decoction clears stomach of phlegm and bile through catharsis.

Ghazanfar:  Several local species, for poultices, for bites, stings, and various skin, eye, and other external conditions.

Lebling and Pepperdine: H. ramosissimum, mouthwash or paste for mouth sores.

Nadkarni:  H. eichwaldi, H. strigosum, and other minor spp., snakebite, stings, various external uses.


Helleborus albus L.  Ranunculaceae. HaErBaJi, Mo, MuAXi

Dioscorides:  IV-152, sesamoeides, Helleborus cyclophyllus.  Purge, with white hellebore (i.e. Veratrum, q.v.)

al-Bīrūnī:  toxic, medicinal.

Lev and Amar:  Kharbaq.  Diuretic; also for skin diseases, warts, epilepsy, madness, black bile, toothache, eyes.

Kamal: kharbaq (for Helleborus in general) used for mania, amenorrhea, ascites; now used only in veterninary medicine.  White hellebore deadens pain; used in ointment.

(Highly toxic.  The alkaloid can be hallucinogenic, hence possibly having some effect in madness; possibly not the desired effect.  There is confusion in the literature with Veratrum album; the latter stimulates the heart in very small regulated doses, thus treating dropsy and serving as diuretic in that case; thus the diuretic use, above, may refer to Veratrum.)


Helleborus niger L.  HiLiJi; Helleborus officinalis Salisb., Ranunculaceae.  Khirbaq, khirbaq-abyad (probably a mistake; name usually means white hellebore), khirbaq-sapid (Persian).  (See also Veratrum viride, white hellebore.)

Dioscorides:  IV-151, ‘elleboros melas, Helleborus officinalis, black hellebore.  (Probably includes H. niger.)  Roots for purging by vomiting or diarrhea.  For epilepsy, melancholy, arthritis, fits, paralysis, etc.  Pessary for emmenagogue and abortion.  In ear for ear problems; applied to skin for skin conditions; to teeth for toothaches and mouthwash.  Cataplasm for dropsy.  Planted near vines, it makes their wine purgative!  Sprinkled about house; thought to preserve from evil spirits [as rue still is in Latin America and other places—a use of rue not mentioned by Dioscorides].  If one sees an eagle while digging it, one will die.

V-82, oinos elleborites, hellebore wine.  Brewed with wine must.  For constipation, or to vomit (including voluntary vomiting at banquets).  Many brews and uses noted.  The inevitable emmenagogue and abortifacient uses noted.

Avicenna:  kharbaq aswad.  Extremely toxic; used to kill rats—“not suitable for cowards” (p. 535)!  Hot, dry, dissolvent, diluting, cleansing.  Renews youth and vigor.  Those wishing to take it should abstain from heavy food for three days.  Used for skin conditions, scabies, etc., wounds, ears, eyes.  Internally, evacuates black and yellow bile and phlegm.

Nadkarni: Hydrogogue, cathartic, emmenagogue, antihelminthic.  Poison.  Local anaesthetic.  Used for a wide range of conditions, including epilepsy, mania, melancholia, etc., as well as on skin and for worms.

(The dangerous stimulant alkaloids in hellebore have banished them from use today, but they were important in folk medicine throughout history.)


Heracleum panaces Willd. ex Steven, Apiaceae.   Hogweed.  Possible but very tentative identification for Zūfāra, which is glossed as Panaces asclepion in one source, but that is a term from Pliny for an uncertain plant, possibly the above.  Not scored in table.


Hordeum vulgare.  Poaceae.  Oddly and significantly, barley is hardly mentioned in the HHYF, in spite of the enormous importance of barley water in Hippocratic-Galenic medicine.  A few references (e.g. p. 345) mention it as a food to eat with medicines, as in Greek medicine.

From ancient Egypt (Manniche 1989:108) and especially from Hippocrates onward through time, it was a sovereign food for the sick.  Averroes, echoing Hippocrates, says:  “Barley water is inferior to wheaten, but is cooling and readily digestible, and its coldness is of the first degree.  Barley water is more medicinal than bread, it is excellent in hot and dry diseases, since it cools, moistens, tempers, and wonderfully generates a laudable humour, nor does it inflate or remain in the stomach…” (Kamal 1975:86).  Similarly, Al-Bīrūnī goes on at some length from Dioscorides, Galen, etc. on the advantages of barley water.

Avicenna:  Cold and dry.  Water used on freckles, pimples, etc.  Poultice made with quindce and vinegar for gout, and other poultices for chest, etc.  Barley water used for chest, but is “not suitable for stomach” (p. 98), a rather amazing point given the importance of this item from Galen and Dioscorides right down to my own Midwestern childhood (the old Galenic uses were still very much alive).  It was, however, used for fevers (as in the Midwest!).

Levey:  notes that Al-Kindī uses it for memory, dental medicines, etc., and barley water to make hair and beard grow.

Nadkarni:  Tonic and astringent decoction, as well as the usual use for invalids.

Dash:  Yava in Sanskrit.  Sweet, cold, laxative, aphrodisiac, cures diseases of urine, rhinitis, asthma, cough, etc.  This use as a cureall recalls Greek medicine.

Li:  Da mai (naked barley, kuang mai).  Minor uses.

Barley water was made by boiling barley for a long time in a large amount of water.  Pearl barley (barley with seed coats milled off) was used for illness and convalescence from early times well into the 20th century (as this writer [ENA] remembers from personal childhood experience).  Pearl barley, boiled in soup, was one of the medicines most enthusiastically adopted by China, and is still sovereign in Chinese medicine as a cooling agent.


Hosta plantaginea, AgavaceaeYuzan.  Dubious identification.

Li:  Root is sweet,pungent, cold and toxic.  Used for mastitis, sterilization of women, detoxification of snakebites and insect bites and stings, helping with pulling teetch, etc.

(A common Chinese ornamental plant, extremely beautiful and sweet-scented but of little traditional medical note.)


Hyoscyamus niger L.  Solanaceae.  Native.

Dioscorides: IV-69, ‘Yoskyamos melas, leukos, meloides, respectively identifie in Gunther as H. niger, H. albus, H. aureus.  Descriptions a bit equivocal.  First two cause frenzies or narcosis, and not normally used.  Third [evidently meaning the second above] with white flowers is gentler.  Juice from plant or seeds hard to store, but can be mixed with wheatmeal and dried for storage.  Juice used for pains, in various preparations, for various areas of the body; also respiratory problems excessive menstruation, gout, swollen genitals, swollen breasts of nursing women, etc.

I-42, seed oil for poorly specified conditions.

Levey:  Banj (derived from Indian bhang).  Cold ailments, insanity, epilepsy, melancholy.

Avicenna:  Banj.  Cold and dry.  Soporific.  Externally for pain, swellings, earache, eyes.  Internally for gout pain, coughing up blood, pain in uterus.  Poisonous.

Nasrallah:  Deadly poison, especially seeds.  Cold and dry.

Graziani:  Binj, banj.  Medieval Arab uses for toothache, stings of poisonous animals, swellings, stomach disorder.  Maimonides used it for poinsonous and painful stings.

Lev and Amar:  banj, shawkarān, saykarān.  Also H. niger.  For palpitation, crying, toothaches, earache, bleeding, eyes, spitting blood, women’s diseases.  With hellebore for cold, insanity, epilepsy, blck bile.

Kamal:  bang, bang aswad.  Sedative, narcotic,anti-epileptic, relaxant, painkiller, anti-colic, mydriatic.

Bellakhdar et al:  H. niger and H. albus, both sikran.  Narcotic, toxic, antihemorrhoidal, dental analgesic; magic.  Atropa belladonna and A. baetica [closely related to Hyoscyamus and worth relating], zbib leydur, aphrodisiac, memory stimulant.

Ghazanfar:  H. gallagheri, zgaf, for hair growth.

Nadkarni:  Digestive, astringent, antihelminthic, as well as the narcotic effect.

Eisenman:  Analgesic.  Lef juice for tumors, earaches.  Water infusion of seeds for convulsions; smoke from burning seeds for toothaches.  Plaster of leaves on abscesses. Biomedical action includes use of atropine for bile ducts, stomach ulcers, intestinal spasms, etc., and mydriatic.  Scopolamine formerly used as nervous system depressant; too  toxic for much current use.

(Another plant with dangerous tropane alkaloids.  Antispasmodic, analgesic.)


Hypericum perforatum L., Hypericaceae.  Fariqun (Gr)

Dioscorides:  III-171, ‘yperikon, Hypericum crispum, H. barbatum.  Resin diuretic; as pessar, emmenagogue. With wine for malaria; seed for sciatica.

III-172, Askyron, H. perforatum.  Fruit drunk with hydromel for sciatica.  Expels choleric problems.  Applied to burns.

III-173, androsaimon.  H. perfoliatum and/or H. ciliatum.  Same uses.

Avicenna:  hīyūfārīqūn (from the Greek).  Hot and dry.  Attenuating, diluting, dissolving. Externally on large, cold, hard swellings; biurns; large wounds; malignant ulcers; dusted on soft ulcers.  For hip and joint pain.  Internally as diuretic, emmenagogue.

Nadkarni:  Astringent, aromatic, antihelminthic, diuretic, emmeenagogue, purgative.  For diarrhea, hemorrhoids, etc.

Eisenman:  Commonly used.  Decoction used as “astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, tonic, and hemostatic, and is used to treat kidney diseases, heart diseasese, diarrhea, and hemoptysis” and externally for wounds (138).  Still used for most of those uses in contemporary medicine in Central Asia.  H. scabrum, similar uses; antimicrobial activity demonstrated in laboratory experiments.

(Traditional use in Europe as antidepressant recently confirmed by experiment and wide use, but less used now due to problematic interactions with commercial drugs.)


Hyphaene thebaica, Araceae.  Listed in some sources as producing a gum used as or for mukul, but in the HHYF mukul is surely the gum of a Balsamodendron (Commiphora), q.v.  Thus this tree is probably not really in the HHYF.


Hyssopus officinalis L., Lamiaceae.   ZaFaSi.

Dioscorides:  III-30, ‘hyssopos.  Notes there are two sorts.  Gunther identifies it (or one type) as Thymbra spicata, with figure of an Origanum sp.  [I (ENA) believe at least one type is Hyssopus sp.]  With green figs for stomach, purgative.  Applied, with fig and nitre, for spleen, dropsy; with wine for inflammations.  Decoction with figs for throat.  Relieves toothache.  Smoke for ears.

Levey:  Zūfā.  In oxymel for malaria, jaundice, etc.

Avicenna:  Zūfā yābis.  Hot and dry.Dissolvent.  Usual minor uses for hot dry drugs; also, internal use toimprove complexion.  Boined down with vinegar for toothaches.  Vapors for ear.  Poultoice with borax and fig on spleen.  Orally for swellings.  With caraway and orris root for worms, phlegm, etc.  Laxative.

Lev and Amar:  zūfā yābis.  Hot and dry (at least to Maimonides).  Chest, lungs, coughs, stomach, asthma, jaundice, blood lcots in eyes, diphtheria, toothache, earache, dropsy, bites, tears.

Graziani:  Zūfa.  Ibn Jazlah used it for lungs, cough, hard swellings, spleen, and vermifuge.  Rāzī used it, citing Dioscorides, for swellings, vermifuge, chest.  (Note lack of total overlap with the English Dioscorides.)

Kamal:  Zofa, isof.  Tops and leaves stimulant, carminative, tonic, expectorant, anti-catarrhal.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, stomachic, expectorant, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, carminative; used for hysteria, colic, coughs, asthma, sore throat, bronchitis, uterus, etc., and even for worms.

Eisenman: H. seravschanicus, infusion “expectorant, anti-inflammatory, astringent, tonic, antihelminthic, to heal wounds, and to treat bronchial asthma, gastrointestinal diseases, dyspepsia, rheumatism, anemia, stenocardia, neurosis, scrophua, meteorism and hyperhydrosis…applied to the mouth to treat stomatitis and bad breath, and externally to heal persistent wounds” (140).  In short, the Central Asian cureall.  Biomedically demonstrated antibiotic action.

(Widespread European use for many conditions.   Biomedical value established for many of these.  Has soothing effects.)


Imperata cylindrica P. Beauv.  Poaceae.  XiLi

Ghazanfar:  Ḥalfa.  Rhizome boiled for drink for painful joints.

(It is somewhat heartening to know that this notorious pest of south China and southeast Asia could be good for something medical.  It is still widely used in folk medicine.  It is also used for thatch, paper-making, cosmetics, etc.)


Inula conyzioides DC., Asteraceae.  Shabanaj, shafanaj (Persian)

Manniche: I. conyza expelled fleas, and, after death, the crocodiles of the spirit land.  (Perhaps crocodiles in the other world are no worse than fleas.)

Li:  I. japonica, I. britannica, xuanfuhua.  Authorities differ strongly on humoral values.  Disperses phlegm and hardness; uses minor.


Inula helenium L., Asteraceae.  Rasan (Persian).  LaXin.

Dioscorides:  I-27, elenion.  Elecampane.  Root warming.  Decocted for diuretic and emmenagogue.  Root taken in honey for cough, ruptures and convulsions, swellings, venomous bites, stomach.  Leaves boiled and applied for sciatica.

III-136, konyza, I. viscosa, I. saxatilis, I. Britannica (three types mentioned).  Leaves for snakebite and the like.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient (taken or applied).  For strangury, gripes, rashes, epilepsy, fits, etc.  In herbal bath for womb problems including menstrual problems.

Levey:  Rāsin.  For stomach and rheums.

Avicenna:  Rāsin.  Hot and dry.  Root used externally for pain, but causes headache.  Internally in syrup withy honey, expectorant and purifying; relieves sore throat and cough.  Thins blood.  Diuretic.

Lev and Amar:  Diuretic; for coughs, bites, stings, menstruation, poisons; intestines,digestion, cleansing lungs, strengthening mind.  Hot and moist.

Kamal:  Rasan.  Persian Qanas.  Root stimulan; for skin, bronchitis, amenorrhea.

Bellakhdar et al: I. viscosa, reconstituant.

Nadkarni:  For bronchitis and rheumatism.

Eisenman: I. britannica.  Infusion or decoction of roots for cystitis, diabetes, jaundice, catarrh, bone tuberculosis, rheumatism, hemorrhoids; vermifuge, hemostat, etc.  Anti-inflammatory, astringent.  I. grandis, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal conditions; vermifuge.  Young stems, debarked, for restorative.   Anti-oxidant.  I. helenium, same uses plus diuretic, emmenagogue, etc.  External use for eczema and scabies.  Root tincture in vodka for gastritis, ulcers, nerves, heart disease, hypertension, etc.  Biomedical uses for respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions; ulcers; expectorant, diuretic, etc.  Effective vermifuge and skin parasite killer.  Sesquiterpene lactones inhibit cancer lines.

(The anti-cancer effect of the sesquiterpene lactones of this and related species has been considerably investigated, but nothing significant has come of it so far.)


Ipomoea turpethum (L.) R.Br., Convolvulaceae.  Turbud (Sanskrit)

Levey:  Turbad.  Purgative, widely used and recommended in medieval Near East.

Avicenna:  Turbud.  Produces dryness; used for nerves and phlegm.

Graziani:  Mentioned; no use given.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Standard remedy in this work.  Root a strong purgative.  Arabic name, turbid, turbud or turbad, is from Sanskrit; a clear, early Indian influence.

Lev and Amar:  Dry; purgative.

Ghazanfar: I. pes-caprae, seeds purgative.

Nadkarni:  Roots cathartic and laxative; a “black” form is more drastic, to the point that it is no longer used.

(Odd that this common medicinal plant—an effective cathartic and laxative—is not found in more of the authorities.  I. aquatica is used medicinally in China, but is so different a plant that it is not worth comparing here.)


Iris lactea Pall. Var. chinensis  (Fisch.) Koidz.  Iridaceae.  Native.  SuoShanGen (“Susan root”).  HHYF term evidently includes other spp., probably I. ensata, I. florentina, I. germanica and other spp.

Dioscorides:  I-1, iris, I. germanica and/or I. florentina. Dioscorides notes the name comes from the rainbow, because of the varied flower colors.  Root warming, extenuating.  For coughs, gross humors.  Drunk in hydromel to purge away thick and choleric humors, cause sleep, provoke tears, heal stomach-ache.  With vinegar for venomous bites, fits, etc.  With wine, emmenagogue.  Infusion for sciatica, fistulas, sores.  With honey for abortion, but application not clear.  Applied to hard swellings, etc.  Various uses for skin and external ailments.

I-66, irinon, iris oil.  Complex recipe for an oil with many herbs.Mollifying and warming, etc.

Levey:  Sūsan: lily, iris, etc.  Lily oil for swelling in ears, hemorrhoids, etc.

Avicenna:  Sūsan for iris; īrsā’ for orris root.  Hot and dry.  Drying cleansing.  Usual uses of hot dry drugs for skin conditions, sweelings, wounds, ulcers.  Treats nervous breakdown; oil removes fatigues.  Internally with vinegar or wine for convulsions, etc.  Enema for pain and sciaticsa.  Camomile oil, iris oil, for fatigue; dill oil for cold.  Root boiled for mouthwash.  Treats breathing problems.  Laxative.  Abortifacient.  Treats most internal pains.  Sitz baths and suppositories used for lower-body conditions; suppository expels yellow and black bile and phlegm.  Treats fevers and insect bites.  In short, this plant is a real cureall, to a degree rarely allowed by Avicenna.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Apparently this is the īrsa or īrīsā he describes.  “Sawsan” is partial equivalent.  Orris is calorifacient, demulcent, lenitive, flatulent, deobstruent, detersive, purifier, etc.  Juice resolves phlegm.  Decoction for scirrhus, scrofula, pustules, ulcers, etc.  Regenerates flesh.  Sternutatory.  Used in toothaches, ear problems, nostrils, wounds, gargling, hydrops, hemorrhoids, gripes, etc.  Emmenagogue and much more.  Basically a cureall, used in all conditions.

Lev and Amar:  I. florentina or I. mesopotamica. ’īrisā, sūsān, sawsan.  Kidney stone, wounds ears,  palpitation, purgative, menstruation, abortion, eyes, etc.  Cough, phlegm, sleeplessness, stomach pains, stings, bites, men’s and women’s problems, skin, wounds, earaches, mouth sores, hemorrhoids, eliminating wetness, etc.  Another all-purpose herb.

Graziani:  “Lily or Iris,” sūsan.  Dioscorides for drawing out blood, inflammation of eyes, breast (note difference from English version!).  Today in Egypt for detersive, liniment, emmenagogue.  Lily in Iran for labor pains and headache.

Kamal: I. florentina, sawsan, irisa, qos-quzah (“rainbow”).  Rhizome purgative.

Bellakhdar:  I. germanica, I. pseudoacorus, I. florentina, reconstituant, antirheumatic.

Dash:  I germanica, bitter, pungent, for insanity, epilepsy, evil spirits (rakshas).

Li:  I. pallasii, lishi, and I. tectorum, yuanwei, various minor uses.


Ixeris denticulata (Houtt.) Stebb (Youngia denticulata)., Asteraceae.  KeXiNi

A lettuce relative.  The species identification is highly uncertain.  Not mentioned in Li or other sources.  Not scored in table of origins.


Juglans regia L., Juglandaceae. Walnut.  Jawz.

Dioscorides:  against poisons, dog bites, worms, internal infections, gangrene, etc.

Avicenna:  jauz.  Hot, pungent.  Vinegar and honey drink treats being sick from walnuts (presumably from eating the fruit as opposed to the nut).   Gum for hot ulcers.  Oil for deep,m feveish ulcers.  Bark for throat inflammation, etc.  Nuts difficult to digest, but all right if preserved or fresh-peeled.  Not for hot stomach, however.  Various external uses of different arts of the plant.

Lev and Amar:  Cholera, body blemishes, hemorrhois, kidneys, cough, stomach, liver. Unripe fruit for eyes, draining urine, etc.  Shell for limbs and gums, and usable in regulating menstruation.  Nut on skin.  Leaves for ears, kidnesy, stomach, worms, lice, etc.  Resin strengthens stomach.

Eisenman:  Decoction of nuts to treat high blood pressure, heart, moth; from fruit husk, for external use on ulcers, eczema, dermatitis; tea of leaves drunk for diabetes, vermifuge, skin diseases, gastrointestinal conditions, tuberculosis; decoction for scrofula and rickets. Root bark slightly laxative.  Biomedical use in area for skin conditions including bacterial sores; antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory action; leaves effectoive.  Omega-3 fatty acids in nuts beneficial for arteriosclerosis.

Sun:  Walnut (hutao胡桃): sweet, cool, astringent, nonpoisonous. One cannot eat too much. Otherwise it will arouse phlegm, make people sick, or make them vomit liquid or food.

Li:  Hutao (“Iranian peach”—yet walnuts are probably native to China as well as Iran; presumably the large edible and medicinal variety came from Iran, as, of course, the English name “Persian walnut” also tells us).  Sweet, neutral or hot or cold (!), warm, nontoxic.  Fattening.  Moistens muscle.  Tonifies qi, nourishes blood, moistens dryness, dissolves phlegm. Reinforces gate of life (mingmen, “length-of-life gate”) and helps the three burners; Li adds a long monograph on these mysterious organs and their relationships.  Relieves pain, hernia, dysentery, etc.  Kills worms, treats poison; good on skin for leprosy, scabies, tinea, etc.  Large number of formulas given.  Separate discussions for green rind, and for bark of the tree.

(Common in Near Eastern medicine.  In China, used very widely today, including as a brain strengthener because the nut looks like a brain.  This bit of sympathetic magic is probably widespread.  The extremely astringent, tannin-rich husk [fruit], bark and gum are used extensively in Avicenna’s healing, and are in fact very effective by any standards.  The omega-3 fatty acids make this one of the most beneficial foods in this time of excessive consumption of omega-6 fats.)


Juniperus.  See under Thuja orientalis.  Very widely used medicinally around the world, actual juniper is not certainly mentioned in the HHYF; references appear to be to Thuja.  Possibilities of juniper use should not be discounted.  The well-known toxic, antibiotic, abortifacient, and astringent uses of many juniper spp. are well known in Central Asia (Eisenman covers four species) and China.  A serious study of Cedrus, Juniperus, Tetraclinis, and Thuja in Near Eastern medicine is sorely needed to remove confusion of names, record actual uses (by genus and species), and compare with the well-known and quite dramatic biomedical values of these plants.


Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl., Cucurbitaceae.  Incl. var. clavata and var. depressa Ser.  Both native

Avicenna:  ūbūṭīlān.  Used on wounds, but Avicenna is very skeptical of its value.

Lev and Amar:  widely used in various prescriptions, but probably mostly as a carrier.  Fevers, liver, bile, earache, fever, headache, throat, cough.  Diuretic.

Dash:  Bitter; alleviates dosas.

Sun: Bottle gourd (tianhu甜瓠)[6]: sweet, balanced, smooth, and nonpoisonous. It mainly treats emaciation and thirst (xiaoke消渴), noxious ulcer, festering and aching in the flesh of the nose and mouth. It leaves are sweet and balanced. They primarily helps resisting hunger. Bian Que said, “If one has beriberi (lit. foot qi, jiaoqi 腳氣) or is weak and swelling (xuzhang虛脹), he should not eat it, or his illness will never end.”

Gourds (gua) [possibly bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, but the quote implies he may be thinking of winter melon] are sweet, cold, smooth, and nonpoisonous. They hold back thirst. The Yellow Emperor said, “In the ninth month, don’t eat frosted gourds (winter melon, Benincasa hispida). It is towards the winter and will cause cold, hot, or warm illness (han re ji wenbing寒熱及溫病).” When one starts to eat it, it causes nausea. After one finishes with it, it remains in the heart as water and it cannot be digested. Otherwise it returns to the stomach (fanwei反胃). If one eats gourds that sink into the water, he will have cool illness (lengbing冷病) and will not be cured in life.

Li:  Hulu.  Very important plant in Chinese culture, but medicinal uses few and minor, for various parts of the plant.

(Cooling in Chinese medicine; astringent; fairly effective diuretic; still a minor but well-known plant in Chinese folk medicine.)


Lagoecia cuminoides L., Apiaceae.  Qardmana, qardamānā.  JiErMaNa

Mediterranean herb and occasion cumin substitute (Uphof).  Not in our sources, except for translation of name in Lev and Amar.


Lamium purpureum L., Lamiaceae  Muntinat

Mediterranean; styptic, diuretic and purgative (Uphof) but not in our sources.  Possibly a misidentification, very likely for another Lamium species or a close relative, since the genus is common, widespread, medicinally used, and actually bioactive in many cases.


Launaea angustifolia, (Desf.) Kuntze (syn. Sonchus, angustifolia, Zollikofera angustifolia).  Asteraceae.  Saliyy.

The only mention of this species in our sources is in Mandaville; he reports that in Arabia the herb is called marār from its bitterness, and has no use.  Kong et al. identified the Arabic name saliyy as this species under the now long obsolete name Zollikofera.  This is almost certainly a misidentification.  Presumably they relied on some very early herbal that used that name. Some other Launaea species rate trivial mentions in Near Eastern herbals.


Laurus malabathrum, Lauraceae.  Sādhaj hindī (“Indian malabathrum”; it is indeed from India but is not a malabathrum, though related)

Levey:  For tears.  (Levey thought it might be a spikenard.)

(A common enough Indian drug that even though rarely mentioned it is probably correctly identified here.)


Laurus nobilis, al-ghār

Dioscorides:  I:78, daphne.  Scorpion sting, ears, liver, inflammations.

Avicenna:  Bark hot and dry.  Seed warming, relaxant.  Oil useful for baldness, etc.  Bark/seed extracts and oil for swellings, nerves, head, headaches, ears, chest, liver, spleen, abdominal pain.  Oil causes nausea but stimulates menstruation.  Withhoney and vinegar for diarrhea..  Bark can be abortifacient.  Treats stings and scorpions.

Levey:  In clyster for kidneys.  Seed in formula for vermifuge and for air purifying.

Nadkarni:  Astringent, stomachic, aromatic, stimulant, said to be narcotic (wrongly).  Emmenagogue and for leucorrhea, etc.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Ghār.  Minor uses.

Lev and Amar:  ghār, rand.  Stomach, hemorrhoids, palpitations, liver, spleen, kidneys, bites, poisons, worms, etc.  Hot and dry.

(The stimulant yet soothing volatile oils are effective for symptomatic treatment of the less serious conditions above.)


Lavandula spp., notably L. stoechas L., Lamiaceae.  Ustukhundus.  WuSiTuHuDuXi.

Dioscorides:  III-31, stoichas.  Decoction for chest pains.  Added to antidotes.

Avicenna:  Usṭūkhūddūs, apparently from stoechas.  Hot and dry.  Bitter, dissolvent, opening, cleansing, somewhat constricting, strengthening, anti-decaying.  Boiled down, relieves nerve pain, cold diseases of nerves, etc.  Necessary for patients with cold diseases of nerves.  Good for melancholia and epilepsy.  Can induce vomiting, especially in those with excess bile.  Strengthens urinary organs; purges phlegm and black bile.

Graziani:  Azhar al-Khazān.  Modern uses in India and Egypt as carminative, resolvent, antispasmodic, stimulant.

Lev and Amar:  isṭūkhūdūs.  Eyes, including things like lice on eyelid (it would work, being strongly insecticidal).  Malaria, wounds, hair, lengthening life, strengthening heart, asthma, infections, swellings, etc.  Maimonides considered it hot and dry.

Bellakhdar et al:  calefacient, nervous diseases, antitussive.  L. x abrialis for urinary and gynecological problems, and colds; also cosmetic uses.  L. multifida gastro-intestinal, antiseptic, colds.  (My observations confirm that this useful genus is exceedingly popular in Morocco.)

Ghazanfar:  L. dentata, L. officinals, L. pubescens, carminative, for headaches, colds;  L. dhofarensis, stomach, kidneys, nerves.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  L. dentata.  Khuzama.  Gas, urinary problems.

Nadkarni:  Unani/ Near Eastern uses as resolvent, deobstruent, carminative; for colic an chest.  One unani source calls it the “broom of the brain”—it expels brain crudities, strengthens the intellect, etc.  Also stimulant, carminative, emmenagogue, etc.

(Various species of lavender are used throughout the world medicinally; they are powerfully antiseptic.  The scent is so universally liked, and found soothing and cheering, as to make one wonder about evolved attraction, and many would agree that it sweeps away worries—purges black bile and treats melancholia, as Avicenna put it.  Experiments confirm that simply smelling it soothes the brain.  This has led to extensive farming of lavender, for the scent and sometimes for flavoring food, in France, Morocco, the United States, and elsewhere.  Lavender oil is insecticidal, which explains the name, cognate with “laundry”; the plants are still widely used to keep insects from eating stored clothing.)


Leonurus artemisia (Lour.) S. Y. Hu, Lamiaceae.  Yimu Cao, motherwort.  Native.

Dioscorides:  IV-176, pyknokomon, L. marribuastrum?  Seed causes grievous dreams.  With meal as plaster, dissolves swellings and draws out thorns.  Leaves, poultice for skin infections.  Root for constipation and choler.  At least some of this sounds wrong for Leonurus; identification needs checking.  (Accordingly, this plant is scored Chinese in our count.)

Eisenman: L. turkestanicus, uncommon; decoction for heart, stomach, nervous system.  Tea and infusion for hypertension, hysteria, epilepsy, tachycardia, stomach, female conditions; soprific, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, laxative.  Biomedical possibilities include sedative and relaxing uses.

Li:  L. heterophyllus, chongwei; L. pseudomacranthus, zancai.  Grouped together.  Former used for childbirth and some miscellaneous minor uses; latter a mere appendage. (L. artemisia is still used as a menstrual aid, etc.)


Lepidium latifolium L., Brassicaceae.  Shitarāj.  ShaYiTaLaZhi.

Manniche:  Seeds found archaeologically.  (Medical use seems likely.)

Dioscorides:  II-205.  Plaster for sciatica; leaves, beaten with root of elecampane.  Hung around neck for toothache.

II-185, kardamon, L. sativum.  Seed warming, sharp, bad for stomach but used to kill worms and produce abortion.  Emmenagogue and aphrodisiac.  Recognized as similar to mustard and rocket seeds.  Presumably applied, it cleanses skin problems.  Drives away serpents, stops falling hair, applied to carbuncles, etc.  Used for a range of conditions; seed; also foliage, less effective.

The Greek name was transferred to the spice (see Elettaria) early, but survives in altered form as the scientific name Cardamine for a large genus of cresses closely related to Lepidium.

Levey:  Shīṭaraj, Vitiligo.  Ḥurf,  L. sativum.  Skin, ulcers, etc.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Jarjīr; cites “arzūmūn” as the “Roman” name.  Two varieties, the main one clearly a Lepidium, the other not.  Cites Dioscorides for the first as calling it aphrodisiac, carminative, diuretic, detersive.  Note that some of these uses are indeed in the English version, others not.

Avicenna:  Shāhṭaraj, L. latifolium. Interestingly, not shīṭaraj, which Avicenna uses for Fumaria.  Hot, dry, bitter.  Rub with vinegar.  Much more on:  Ḥurf, thūm, L. sativum.  Hot and dry.  Dissolvent.  Used on swellings, boils, ulcers, mites, ringworm, chronic skin diseases, joint pains, etc.  Taken for lungs and asthma.  Heat for stomach and liver.  With honey as poultice for spleen enlargement.  “Stimulates sexual desire, expels worms, promotes menses and causes abortion” (p. 487).  In short, a typical Avicennian cureall.

Nasrallah:  Seeds hot; abortifacient.  Treat asthma, headaches.  Expectorant, stimulant.  Can repel insects.  Leaves similar but moister and thus less hot and less effective.

Lev and Amar:  Shītaraj.  Skin conditions, gout, spleen.

Graziani:  “cress,” qurdumanā, eaten in Persia and elsewhere.

Lev and Amar: L. latifolium, shīṭaraj.  L. sativum, rashād, ḥurf.   Skin; ulcers, weakness, teeth, gums, mumps, intestiness, emmenagogue. Wounds, bites, stings.  Possibly for abortion.  For pains, worms, hard stomach, spleen, etc.

Bellakhdar et al:  L. sativum.  Brocho-pulmonary infections; childbirth difficulties; tonicardiac; revulsive.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  L. sativum, rashad, hilf, etc.  Seeds.  Blood cleanser; coughs; seeds or leaves eaten to sepeed up healing of broken bones; childbirth, eaten especially after delivery, with other nutritive spices, for recovery.  Many remedies here.  Also diabetes, hair loss, indigestion, kindney stones, sore throat, stomachache.

Nadkarni:  L. sativum, seeds aperient, diuretic, alterative, tonic, demulcent, aphrodisiac, carminative, galactagogue, emmenagogue.  (In short, about like every other spicy seed in Indian medicine.)  Leaves somewhat stimulant, diuretic.

Eisenman:  L. perfoliatum, minor uses, including ground seeds for nerves.

Li:  Several spp. grouped as tingli.  Seeds used as purgative, etc.

(Seeds and foliage of this mustard-like plant are very high in glucosinolates, which are safe yet strongly stimulant and carminative.  The term Shīṭaraj is used in Indian and possibly Persian medicine for Plumbago rosea, rose-colored leadwort [Levey and Al-Khaledy 1967:191], which may have been taken—rather strangely—as a substitute for Lepidium.  There is no way of knowing for certain if this is done in the HHYF.  One assumes that the HHYF follows orthodox usage, however.)


Lepidium sativum L., ḥurf.  See above.


Levisticum officinale Koch., Apiaceae.  Kāshim. Lovage in English.

Dioscorides:  III:51, ligystikon.  Digestion, edema, urine, stomach.

Levey:  Coughs, earache.

Avicenna:  Sīsāliyūs, kāshim.  Hot and dry.Internally for gas, abdominal pain, epilepsy, asthma, chest mucus, digestion, worms, urinary and uterine pain.

Lev and Amar:  kāshim barrī.  Coughs, earache, bruises; intestines, dropsy; expels

worms; induces menstruation.

(This well-known apiaceous plant is indeed effective for relieving mild stomach problems.)


Libanotis sp., Apiaceae.  ZhaErNaBu

Dioscorides:  III-87, libanotis, two types.  Cachrys libanotis, Ferula nodiflora, Prenanthes purpurea suggested.  Poultice for hemorrhoids and the like.  Dry roots with honey for ulcers and gripes, and the inevitable use against venomous bites.  With wine, diuretic and emmenagogue; dispels swellings.  Applied, for sight. Helps epilepsy chest, rutures, convulsions, gout, etc.—more or less the usual things that every plant seems good for, to Dioscorides.


Linum usitatissimum L.  Linaceae.  KeTanBu(?).  Hu-ma-zi.  Hu:100

Dioscorides:  II-125, linon.  Flax.  Seed for inflammations, internal and external; with honey and oil.  Raw, as cataplasm with figs and nitre, for sunburn and skin conditions.  With lye on hard swellings.  A large number of other minor external uses.  Aphrodisiac, with honey and pepper.  Used in herbal bath for womb inflammations.  Clyster/suppository for bowel conditions and constipation.

Avicenna:  Hot.  Neutral between moist and dry.  Cleansing; produces gas.  Paste for freckles.  Various preparations for swellings, joints, head, chest, etc.  Rinse or sitz bath for uterus.

Graziani:  Ibn Jazlah used it in ointment for keeping body from heat and keeping it soft and moist; evidently linseed oil is meant.

Lev and Amar:  kattān.  Seed or oil used; hot and dry.  Seeds for chickenpox, skin, stomach, coughs.  Oil for embroactions, for various reasons.

Kamal:  kittan. Ground seed demulcent; presscake for poultices.

Bellakhdar:  zerri’at l’kettan.  Laxative, emollient, antitussive.

Ghazanfar:  Seeds for constipation, joint pain (externally applied), urinary disorders, venereal diseases.

Nadkarni:  Demulcent, expectorant, diuretic; seeds hot and dry, aphrodisiac.  Flowers for cordials.

Dash:  Sweet, for strength and skin.

Li:  Ya ma.  Oil on leprous and other sores.

Flax has probably been known in China since the Han Dynasty (Liu et al. 2011), but this is not certain, since early records call both it and sesame hu ma, “Iranian hemp.”  It was not grown as a fibre crop in China till the 20th century.

(Flaxseed oil is a good oil for the skin, as well as high in omega-3 fatty acids.)


Liquidambar orientalis Mill., Altingiaceae (Hamamelidaceae).  Resin.  Imported.    Cai(Mi)A. Ma’yah or something similar in the Arabic. Morocco:  ‘l-Mia.  Su-he-xiang.  Hu:547.  Translated “rose maloes” in many cases.  This is said to be derived from a Malay word (Stuart 1911).

Nadkarni:  Storax; stimulant, expectorant, diuretic, antiseptic, disinfectant, astringent.  Unani:  tonic, resolvent, astringent.

Li:  Suhexiang.  The resin.  Imported (he thought, wrongly, from southeast Asia; it probably came via that region, hence the Malay name used in East Asia).  Sweet, warm, nontoxic.  Powerful treatment for toxins, worms, noxious agents generally.  He used the resin of the native L. taiwanensis, feixiangji, for various illnesses.

(Gum still widely used.)


Loranthus europaeus L., Loranthaceae.  Muwizaj (Persian).  MaiYuZaZhi

Dioscorides:  III-103, ixos.  This and/or Viscum sp.  With wax and resin on swellings and skin conditions.  With frankincense on old ulcers, suppurations, etc.  With quicklime, or agate, or “Asiatic” stone, for speen.  Unslaked lime and wine-lees increase its strength.

Li:  L. parasiticus, L. yadorik, relatives.  Sangshangjisheng.  Whole plant for various minor uses including bleeding and debility.

Avicenna: Viscum album, dibq, moist literally but hot and dry humorally.  Minor external uses; softening.  Used for swellings of spleen.


Lupinus termis Forsk., Fabaceae.  Turmus.  DaErMuSi.

Dioscorides:  II-132, thermos emeros, Lupinus sp.  Seed meal with honey or vinegar, or leaves, eaten or in tea with rue and pepper, for vermifuge and for nausea.  Various external uses for gangrene, ulcers, sores, skin conditions in general.  Pessary, with myrrh and honey [presumably to soften down its poisonous qualities], for menstruation and for abortion.

Levey:  Turmus.  Spots, abscesses.

Avicenna:  ālūsan, tarmus.  Hot and dry.  Bitter. Externally for pimples, wounds, swellings, tubercular lymph glands, etc.  Taken with vinegar and honey for many of these as well as used externally.  Boiled-down (soup?) for gangrenous conditions.  Poultice for sciatica.  Flour on head ulcers.  Internally with vinegar, honey, rue, and/or pepper for nausea etc.  Various uses for worms, etc.  Can even be abortifacient, orally or “as a device with common rue and pepper or with honey” (684).  Useful for rabid dog bites (whether externally or internally used is not stated).

Kamal:  Lupinus albus, turmus, diuretic.

Bellakhdar et al:  L. albus, termas, semqala beyda, hypoglycemiant; for liver disorders.

Nadkarni:  L. albus, termas in Hindi as well as Arabic, antihelminthic, diuretic, tonic.


Lycium afrum L., Solanaceae.  Hudud.  HaQiQi.  The Arabic name apparently covers both this sp. and Rhamnus infectorius, the latter being more obviously medicinal, and thus probably the one intended in the HHYF.

Dioscorides:  lykion, Rhamnus infectorius.  Medical qualities of this plant are so different from Lycium that summary seems worthless, especially since it is one of those curealls that he used for everything.  He notes an “Indian Lycium” (Gunther 134:72) that may be a true Lycium.  It was used, however, more like the Rhamnus, for inflammations of the spleen, diarrhea, emmenagogue, purgative.

Avicenna:   ‘ūsaj, L. shawii.  “the view of some that desert thorn counters the ill-effects of sorcery and the evil eye when it is hung over doors and windows” (p. 356).  This of course means Avicenna believes no such thing.  More realistic use as poultice for fevers and inflammations.

Levey:  Ḥuḍaḍ.  Scrofula, lesions, preventing miscarriage.  Also as ‘ausaj, for pustules.

Lev and Amar:  khawlān, ‘awsaj.  Various species and the Rhamnus used for eyes, as well as gums, coughs, spleen, diarrhoea, swellings, dog bites, etc.

Graziani:  Lycium sp.  Hudad, used by Ibn Jazlah for swelling, eyes, leprocy.

Bellakhdar et al:  L. intricatum, ‘ud l-gerteg, for women’s sterility and for itch.

Ghazanfar:  L. shawii, stems boiled for diuretic, laxative, tonic; berries for colic and for eyes.

Sun:  L. chinense, Chinese wolfthorn leaf (gouqiye枸杞葉): bitter, balanced, astringent (se澀), and nonpoisonous. It restores the body from being weak and increases the essence and marrow (jingsui精髓). The proverb says, “If you leave home for one thousand li, don’t eat luomo蘿摩[7] or wolfthorn.” This is because they are very strong in the Dao of yang and then will assist the qi of yin and soon cause diseases.

Li:  L. chinense and occ. L. barbarum, gouqi.  Fruit, leaf and root.  Usually, the dried fruit is used, being a cureall.  The roots of very old plants can take on the form of an animal; one estimated to be a thousand years old looked like a dog, and was therefore offered to the Emperor Huizong of Song as a medicinal prodigy.  Li even quotes a bit of “doggerel” about this event.

(L. chinense (and probably L. barbarum) is actually more a medicinal food, or “nutraceutical,” than a drug; its biomedical value lies largely in the fact that its berries and leaves have almost the highest concentration of vitamins and minerals known in any natural product.  It has thus been used  for thousands of years, pragmatically and empirically, as biomedicine uses vitamin-mineral supplement pills.  It is especially valued for convalescents and women recovering from childbirth.  Handfuls of the dried berries go into the soups made for women “doing the month” of rest and high-nutrient eating after parturition.)


Mallotus philippensis Muell., Euphorbiaceae

Levey:  qanbīl.  Red glands on fruit used for ulcers.  Antihelminthic.

Nadkarni:  Many names and uses; widespread, important.  Cathartic, antihelminthic, aphrodisiac, purgative, etc.  Powder (“kamala powder”) a standard vermifuge in India.

(This appears to be another Indian influence in the HHYF.)


Malus communis DC (Pyrus malus L.), Rosaceae.  Tuffāh..  (domestic apple)

Avicenna:  Sweet and thus relatively neutral; unripe, cold (sour); ripe warmer.  Tasteless and unripe apples have no medicinal value.  Fruit a mild stomachic and heart strengthener; leaves more valuable—used (evidently in tea) with apple extract for skin conditions.  Avicennia recognized the value of apples for diarrhea as stomach soother and binder—still standard medical use (see the BRAT diet—bananas, rice, apples and tea—for diarrhea).

Lev and Amar:  Eyes, bites, etc.  Cold and dry.

Sun:  Crab apple (linqin林檎, rinkin, Malus asiatica): sour, bitter, balanced, astringent, nonpoisonous. It ends thirst. It makes people want to spit. It cannot be taken too much. Otherwise it will make the mai weak.

Apple (Malus pumila, naizi奈子): sour, bitter, cold, astringent, nonpoisonous. It makes people endure hunger and is good for heart and qi. It cannot be eaten too much. Otherwise it will cause flatus (luzhang臚脹). If one has been sick for a long time, his situation will become even worse after eating it.

Li:  M. micromalus, haihong, haitangli:  sour, sweet, balanced, nontoxic.  M. asiatica, linqin:  For fever.  Sour, swet, warm, nontoxic.


Malva rotundifolia Desf., MalvaceaeKhubbaz.

Dioscorides:  III-164, alkea, Malva alcea, mallow.  Drunk with wine or water for dystentery and ruptures.

Galen:  Wild mallow (Malva sp.).  Moist, moderately heating, viscid, glutinous, digestible.  Thick juice.  [The plant is very mucilaginous.]

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Usual uses.  Today for coughs, chest and purging.

Lev and Amar:  M. sylvestris mentioned but nothing given for it.

Kamal:  M. sylvestris, kubbaza, khubbayzah (the modern vernacular is khubez).  Leaves soothing, emollient [as they are almost everywhere, and effectively, as I know from experience]; used for poultices.  Used in enemas for acute enteritis.

Bellakhdar et al:  M. sylvestris, baqula, kubbeyza: laxative emollient.

Ghazanfar:  M. parviflora, seeds and leaves for demulcent and fevcer and ulcers; external.

Nadkarni:  Leaves mucilagionus, emollient as poultice.  Seeds same; also demulcent; power taken for coughs, uncerated bladder, hemorrhoids, similar conditions.  Other spp. also used.

Sun:  [See taxonomic note for Li.]  Mallow (dongkuizi冬葵子): sweet, cold, nonpoisonous. It mainly cures coldness, hotness, or weakness in the five internal organs and six hollow organs (wuzangliufu五臟六腑). It breaks the five kinds of urinary problems (wulin五淋). It is helpful for discharging urine. It also cures the difficulty of producing milk by women. It cures blood stoppage (blocking; xuebi血閉). If one takes it for a long time, it will strengthen the bones and make the muscles grow, lighten the body, and lengthen life. In the twelfth month, gather the leaves, which are sweet, cold, smooth, and nonpoisonous. It is good for spleen. If one takes it for a long time, it is good for the stomach qi. Its heart [usually this would mean central shoot and bud, but they are harmless and a common Chinese food, so woody lower stem is probably meant here] harms people. With every kind of medication, eating the heart is contraindicated. The heart is poisonous. The Yellow Emperor said, “If one takes frosted mallow that has previously been preserved without cooking it, it will cause five kinds of liquid illnesses (liuyin流飲)[8]. When the liquid accumulates too much, it will make him vomit. ” [I.e., it ferments too much.]  When mallow and carp (liyu鯉魚) or fish in general (zha鮓) are taken together, this harms people. In all four seasons, when the earth is prosperous (tuwang土王), avoid raw mallow. It will cause indigestion and arouse chronic diseases.  [Probably this means that if the mallow flourishes too much because of good growing conditions, it should be avoided; indeed, mallow, though highly nutritious, can become hard to digest and over-rich in nitrates if overgrown.  Mallow is another plant notable for high levels of vitamins.]

Li:  M. parviflora, tukui.  Same species complex as M. rotundifolia (the small mallows are all closely related and taxonomically almost impossible to separate or sort out).  Trivial, mostly magical uses.  However, a common food.

(The small mallows represent a species complex, with M. rotundifolia, M. parviflora, and M. sylvestris, among others, poorly distinguished.  These, like the Chinese lycium, are exceedingly high in vitamins and minerals, and thus have the same use in nutrition—de facto vitamin-mineral supplements.  They fill this role in Arab culture especially, but were a major vegetable and nutrition aid in China too, especially in early times.  They were a standard vegetable in ancient China, a low-status food in medieval China, and a famine food more recently—thus do less choice vegetables sink down the status hierarchy.  Incidentally, kui now includes sunflowers and is often so translated, but sunflowers were introduced from North America in the last couple of centuries.)


Mandragora officinarum L.  Solanaceae.  Luffah.  LiFaHei

Manniche:  Probably shown in art, and, if so, surely used for tranquilizing etc.

Dioscorides:  IV-76, mandragoras, Atropa mandragora, mandrake.  Male and female varieties noted.  These are obviously different species, but the dscriptions make it hard to pick these out.  For sleep and pain relief.  Expels black choler and phlegm, but is deadly in overdoes.  Used in eyes and other topical applications.  Pessary emmenagogue and abortifacient.  Used for snakebite.  Large number of other related uses.  Use in love magic noted.

V-81, oinos mandragorites, mandrake wine. Root bark brewed with wine must.  Causes sleep and relieves pain.

Avicenna:  luffāḥ, yabrūj.  Cold and moist.  Anesthetizing.  Used for swellings, abscesses, tubercular lymph glands.  Power with vinegar for deep-red inflammation with fever and pustules.  Poiultice on arthritis and eoephantiasis.  In wine for sleep; anal suppositories are also soporific.  Excessive use or even smelling cuases a stroke.  Causes vomiting of bile and phlegm.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient.  Poisonous.  Sirāj al-quṭrub, M. autumnalis: Hot and dry, though not very.  Opening, but constricts vessels, so helps stop bleeding; “best drug for healing wounds” (p. 359).  Poultices used.  Internally for vomiting blood.  Enema for intestinal ulcers.  Antidote for scorpion stings.  “Said” to tranquilize scorpions in the wild.

Levey:  Sāsak.  In a remedy for insanity and epilepsy.  Luffāh., in collyrium and in insanity remedy.  Narcotic, at least in other medieval sources.

al-Bīrūnī:  Usual material and folkore, as above.

Lev and Amar:  Leprosy, skin diseases, eyes, snakebite, headache, swellings, mumps, wounds, pains, stings, insanity, epilepsy, sleeping.  Toxicity recognized.  Anesthetic.  Maimonides notes use for tightening vagina to simulate virginity, and holds it cold and dry.

Kamal:  yabruh, mandraghorah, sirag al qutr, sabizak-Ibn al-Baytar, etc.  Narcotic, sedative, anaesthetic.

Bellakhdar et al:  M. autumnalis, bayd l-gul, narcotic.

Nadkarni:  Sedative and anaesthetic; dangerouslyi toxic.

(Powerful, dangerous alkaloids probably as important as the alleged manlike shape of the root in making this a valued but feared drug in early times.)


Marrubium vulgare L., Lamiaceae.  Farāsiyūn.

Avicenna:  Farāsiyūn. Hot and dry.  Cleansing, dissolvent, etc.  For earache, eyesight, chest and lungs, laxative, emmenagogue.

Lev and Amar:  Farāsiyūn.  Earache, hearing, eyesight, lungs, womb, chest, liver, spleen, rabid dog bites; emmenagogue.  All this from Ibn Sīnā.

Bellakhdar et al: Marrubium vulgare, merryut, notably important:  diuretic, hypoglycemiant, hair-care, antihelminthic, anti-tinea, antipyretic, anti-jaundice, antidiarrheal, emmenagogue, and cosmetic.

Ghazanfar:  Expectorant.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, expectorant, resolvent, antihelminthic, alterative; for respiratory and digestive conditios, jaundice, tuberculosis, rheumatism, amenorrhea, etc.

Eisenman:  M. anisodon, decoction for chronic catarrh, thrat, toothaches.  Biomedical use as sedative and heart aid.

(Bitter, astringent; standard cough remedy well within my own memory and experience, only replaced by better biomedical remedies in the last very few decades.)


Matricaria chamomilla L.; Anthemis nobilis L.  Asteraceae.  Chamomile.

Dioscorides:  III,137, various chamomiles for febrifuge etc.

Galen:  Laxative, resolvent.

Levey:  Fuqqāh. Al-ard..  For fever, eyes, muscles.Carminative, stimulant, etc.

Related Anthemis nobilis, bābūnaj, used similarly and for spleen, liver, stomach.

Lev and Amar:  M. aurea, bābūnaj.  On skin; poultices, lotions, etc. for usual reasons. Also eyes.  Hemorrhoids, settling liver and stomach, strengthening limbs.  For urinary stones, menstruation, urination, sweating.

Nadkarni:  Babuna and cognates.  Antiseptic, antiphlogistic.  Antispasmodic.


Melilotus officinalis (L.) Lam., Fabaceae.  Iklil-al-malik  YiQiLiLuMuLuJie

Dioscorides:  III-48, melilotos, but apparently referring to clover, Trifolium.

Levey:  iklīl al-malik.  Liver, stomach, fever, etc.

Avicenna:  M. arvensis, iklil al-malik.  Somewhat hot and dry.  Constricting, dissolvent.  Tonic for organs.  Externally on inflammations, ulcers, skin, ears, inflamed eyes, sore anus or testicles.  Internally, diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient.  (This indicates how desperate people were for abortifacients; the amount needed for coumarin—the toxic principle in question—to accomplish this would be cattle-feed quantities.)

Nasrallah:  hot; diuretic.

Lev and Amar: M. albus, iklīl al-malik. Eyes, skin, wombs, bits, poisons, stones, fever, liver, etc.

Kamal:  Iklil al-malek, handuq, nafl, ghosn al-ban.  Used in eyedrops.  Seeds stop diarrhea in children.

Bellakhdar et al:  M. indica, azrud, hair care.

Ghazanfar:  Otrah.  Astringent, narcotic; poultice for pain.

Eisenman:  Infusion for catarrh, migraines, hypertension, bladder and kidney pain, menopause.  Externally in compresses, plasters, wash, for various wounds and infections.  Biomedically, coumarins in this plant suppress nervous system action and—as is well known—inhibit blood clotting.

Li:  Many close relatives used for various purposes.

(Coumarin, which interferes with blood clotting, makes this a dangerous remedy.)


Melissa officinalis L., Lamiaceae.  Badranjubuyah (Persian)  BaDeLanZhiBoYa

Dioscorides:  III-118, melissophyllon, lemon balm.  Leaves with wine, or applied, for scorpion stings, dog bites, etc.  Herbal bath, emmenagogue.  Put on teeth for pain.  Clyster for dysentery.  Leaves drunk with nitre for mushroom poisoning and gripes.  Uses for ulcer, gout, etc.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Minor uses; today in Persia as carminative and tonic.

Lev and Amar:  bādharnabūyah (the source of the HHYF name), bādīrnabīh.  Plant reelieves snakebite, abscesses, cough, respiratory problems, lung diseases.  Seeds a component of a drink that cleans the heart.  Cures black bile, stings, etc.  Many minor uses including sexual energy, eliminating phlegm, aiding digestion, etc.

Kamal:  Torongan, ibn al-baytar, hashishet al-nahl, habaq torongani.  Stomachic, cardiac, carminative, anti-epileptic.  Infusions for fainting and indigestion.  (Most of these uses are still in folk practice in the European world, including sniffing to treat depression.)

Lebling and Pepperdine:  For stomach; also tiredness and run-down condition.  Reported in medical literature as antiviral and improving mood.

Nadkarni:  Minor; for swellings, bowel complaints.

Eisenman:  For migraines, insomnia, women’s conditions, goiut, dizziness, anemia; for cardiovascular disease, and as analgsic, sedative, hypotensive, diuretic, digestive, toxicosis.  Biomedically, most of these uses are confirmed, albeit not very dramatically.  One Central Asian study found use in Alzheimer’s disease [though this should not be taken very seriously].  Essential oil anti-oxidant.

(The limoniol and other volatile oils have a strongly soothing and stomachic function.  Even the scent is relaxing and relieves worries and sadness; experience with myself and many others confirms the old writers on this.  The many volatile oils in this plant have well-demonstrated relaxing effect when smelled, and whether this is a “psychological” or a “biological” effect, it works.)


Mentha aquatica L., Lamiaceae.  Futanj-maiyy.  FuDaNaZhi (M. sp.)

Dioscorides:  III-42, ‘edyosmos agriosProperties similar to following; less good.

III-41, ‘edyosmos emeros, M. sativa (?).  Warming, binding, drying.  Juice of leaves stops bleeding, kills roundworms, provokes lust.  Sprigs in pomegranate juice stop hiccups, vomiting, choler.  Applied in plaster for skin conditions, headaches, etc.  With salt on dog bites.  Juice for ear pain.  Applied as birth control agent (?).  Good for stomach.

Levey:  Ḥabaq nahriyy, mint.  Fevers, jaundice, pains.  For smell.  Now stomachic, etc.  Faudanaj, fautanaj, faudhanaj, M. aquatica and other mints, for poultices for spleen, liver, stomach, binding sinews, oxymel for humors.

Al-Bīrūnī:  many comments on mints, under the usual names, esp. na’na’, but no serious medicinal comments.

Avicenna:  Na ‘na ‘, pūnah.  Hot and dry.  Pungent and bitter.  External uses: boiled down with wine for removing black spots; poultice with flour for abscesses, headaches.  Heals fractures and ruptures.  Bath for itches.  Internally for leprosy, worms. Digestion, coughing up blood, jaundice, purging phlegm; for appetite, etc.  Aphrodisiac.  “The pre-coital use of mint as a suppository prevednts pregnancy” (743; see following entries).  Emmenagogue.  May kill sperm and prevent nocturnal emissions.  Removes black bile.  Tonic.

Nasrallah:  Hot, dry, sharp, stimulates appetite and digestion, relieves bloating and headaches, etc.  Good for heart and for sexual performance.  Contraceptive (women using as suppository).

Lev and Amar:  M. sativa, nammām, na‘nā.  Convulsions, tetany, fever, colic, spleen, liver, stomach, sinews, bites and stings, cleanses menstrual blood, strengthens lungs, soothes hiccup, and even claimed to prevent preganncy and contribute to sexual ability.  Hot and dry.

Kamal: M. aquatica, n‘nai’ al-mazare’; M. piperita (a hybrid possibly not yet existing in Dioscorides’ time), ma‘na’, na‘na’, saisambar.  Aromatic, carminative, stomachic, anti-convulsive, emmenagogue, rubefacient; for colic, flatulence, headache, rheumatism etc.  Mints smelt for nausea.

Ghazanfar:  M. longifolia, na‘ana, for coughs, breathing, stomach, chills and fevers.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  mint species in general, for abdominal pain, stomach, throat, colds, colic, headache, insomnia, menstrual pain.  With other spice foods for mother after delivery, to restore strenghth.

Nadkarni:  M. arvensis, and mints in general (including M. aquatica as well as M. sylvestris and others), aromatic, carminative, stimulant, antispasmodic, stomachic, emmenagogue.  M. x piperita antiseptic, also, and used for external as well as internal preparations.

Eisenman:  M. asiatica, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic; for wounds, gastritis, dysentery, diarrhea, colitis, tuberculosis, respiratory tract, coughs, toothache, gall bladder.

Sun:  Mint leaves (Mentha spp., fanheye蕃荷葉): bitter, spicy, warm, nonpoisonous. Can be frequently taken. These make the qi of the kidneys recede. They make one’s breath pleasant and clean. It is especially good for dispelling noxious poison (xiedu邪毒) and it eliminates tiredness (laobi勞弊). If one is thin and tired, he should not take it frequently, or it will arouse the illness of losing weight and feeling thirsty.

(Mints are still used worldwide for stomach, skin, throat, coughs, colds, and many other minor purposes.  Very effective for stomach, throat, etc., and by wide agreement—if not medical proof—as a mood-improver, even when merely smelled.  They are grown in a very large percentage of the world’s gardens, and in the aggregate are probably the most widely grown medicinal herbs in the world.  They are a major commercial crop in the United States and elsewhere, for medical and flavoring uses.)


Mentha haplocalyx Briq., Lamiaceae.   Native.  SaDaBu.  Satar, Zatar (Yemen; the Arabic word zahtar, “thyme” by extension “mixed herbs”).

Li:  Bohe.  Pungent and nontoxic; disagreement about other qualities.  For fevers and digestive complaints.  Expels both yin and yang poisons, and toxins generally.  Many other uses, but the cooling and digestive functions are obviously well recognized.


Mentha pulegium L., Lamiaceae.  Futanj (Persian)

Dioscorides:  III-43, kalaminthe, M. sylvestris, calamint.  Three types; one clearly M. pulegium; another, described as having longer leaves and being less effectual, is surely M. sylvestris.  Warming, sharp.  Helps snakebites (and even drives away snakes), urine, ruptures, convulsions, gripes, and the rest of the standard Dioscorides catalogue.  Emmenagogue, abortifacient, and kills worms (virtually guaranteeing that M. pulegium is the primary reference here).  Juice dropped in ears to kill worms there.

Kamal:  filayah, fulayah; fawtang, fawthang.  Stimulant, carminative, emmenagogue.

Bellakhdar et al:  Fliyyo. Against chills; cure for broncho-pulmonary infections.  M. rotundifolia (timijja, marsita, timersit) anti-hemorrhoidal and against chill. M. viridis, na’na’, liqqama refreshing and against headache.  (It is not clear what species are really involved.  Spearmint, na’na’, a hybrid or variety of the above and/or M. aquatica, is famously the signature herb of Morocco, used not only in food and medicine but as the universal tea, drunk sweetened on all occasions.)  Calamintha officinalis, menta (loanword), for pulmonary infections, refreshing.   (Many of these uses are widespread in the Mediterranean and the whole complex is worth reporting here.)


Menyanthes trifoliata L., Menyanthaceae.  YiTiLiFei (?)

Kamal:  Itraifel.  Emmenagogue, tonic, antipyretic, diuretic, anti-caries.  Leaves used.

Li:  Shuicai.  Sweet, slightly bitter, cold, nontoxic.  Helps sleep, but also may keep awake; Li knew it poorly and was not sure of its values.


Mesua ferrea L., Clusiaceae.  Narmushk (Persian)

Avicenna:  nārmushk.  Hot and dry.  Diluting, dissolving.  Used for cold stomach and liver.  Similar to nard.  (Another Persian-Indian drug notably lacking in more western sources but picked up by Avicenna.)

Madanapala:  Nāgakeśara.  Hot;  For bad smells, serious skin diseases, erysipelas, poisons.

Nadkarni:  Flowers astringent,stomachic, stimulant,  carminative; unani use for heart, expelling winds, antispasmodic, diuretic.


Meum athamanticum Jacq., Apiaceae.  Spignel.  Muwwa

(This common medicinal herb, used like other medicinal Apiaceae as stomachic, carminative, etc., is strangely absent from the classic herbals, though mentioned in the HHYF.)


Moringa oleifera Gaertn., Moringaceae.  Not.  Ban.  Bang.

Manniche:  M. pterygosperma and/or M. aptera Gaertn. oil for stomach ache; enema for anus; mixed with other things to apply to sore gums; refreshing ointment; used in poultices, eardrops, mosquito repellent, etc.

Levey:  M. pterygospermaGaertn.  For hair oil, teeth and gums, nosebleeds, ointment.

Kamal:  Hab al ban, gos al-ban, al-habbah al-ghaliah (“costly seed”), yasar.  Ban or ben oil produced from seed.  Used in perfumes and cosmetics, as well as for lighting etc.

Lev and Amar:  M. peregrina, bān.  Oil strengthens teeth and gums, acts against nosebleed and aging, strengthens senses and sexuality.  “Treats leprosy skin diseases, toothache, boils, spleen and liver troubles, rheumantism; it is an emetic and a purgative” (p. 356).

Ghazanfar:  M. peregrina, source of ben oil.   Oil for headache, fever, abdominal pain, constipation, burns, back and muscle pains, and for childbirth.

Nadkarni:  Notably important in India.  All parts used.  Antispasmodic, stimulant, expectorant, diuretic.  Fresh root acrid and vesicant; internalliy stimulant, diuretic.  Gum bland.  Seeds acrid and stimulant.  Bark emmenagogue, abortifacient.  Flowers stimulant, tonic, diuretic.  Unani conisder the flowers hot and dry.  Plant is cardiac and circulatory tonic and antiseptic.

(M. oleifera is famous throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia as a medicinal and nutritional aid, but does not seem to have reached China by Li’s time.  It is there now.  It is widely planted, and recommended by aid agencies, as a food and medicinal crop.)


Morus sp., Moraceae.  Mulberry.

Mentioned as a food in one place.  In China it would be M. alba L., but the Near Eastern one is usually M. nigra LBoth, especially the latter, are common foods, but of little medical note.

Avicenna:  M. alba, M. nigra.  Tūth  Sweet, hot, moist (white sp.).  Minor external uses;soothing.  Sour ones not good for stomach.  Salted and dried ones very constipating, so used for dysentery.  Batrk purifying and purgative.

Eisenman:  M. alba, leaves for angina; fresh leaf juice for toothaches; fruits and juice for “oral and throat bumps, dysentery, anemia,… diuretic, hemostatic” (175), rashes, scarlet fever.  Biomedically, some very tenative results for blood pressure, leukemia cells, blood sugar.  Leaves contain tannins, coumarins, and other  bioactive chemicals.

Li:  M. alba.  Sang.  Sweet, cold, nontoxic.  Various differences of opinon ecorded on this.  Tonifying, treats strains and extremes, nourishes.  Helps lung and intestines.  Disperses stagnation of blood.  Many meedical prescriptions, for root, bark, etc. as well as fruit.


Muscus spp.?  AzhiNa.

Dubious identification.

Li:  Various mosses used but unclear as to full range of taxa.


Myristica fragrans Houtt., Myristicaceae.  Rou-dou-kou.  Hu: 973.

Dioscorides:  I-110, maker, mace.  Called a bark.  Drunk (as tea) for spitting blood and dysentery.

Levey:  Bisbāsah.  Mace.  Strengthens breathing.  Jauz bawwā, nutmeg, for teeth, breathing.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Jauz buwwā.  Antipyretic, antiphlogistic.

Avicenna:  Jauz būwwā’.  Mace is bizrkitān.  Hot and dry.  Mace is constricting of tissues and improves body odor.  Nutmeg used to scent breath.  Mace used in ointment for swellings; nutmeg for eyes.  Mace strengthens stomach and liver, nutmeg strengthens liver, spleen, stomach.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Bisbās, mace, appears in compounds.  Strengthens spirits.  Today tonic, stomachic, liniment, internal and external aromatic.

Lev and Amar:  jawzbuwā, basbāsa, jawz al-ṭīb.  Breathing, colic, coughs, colds, sexual desire, etc.  Hot and dry.

Bellakhdar et al:  guzt sh-sherq, s-sibisa, besbasa.  Aphrodisiac, stimulant, calefacient, anti-hemorrhoidal, vaginal infections.

Madanapapa:  Jātīphala.  Hot.  Digestive, carminative.  For vomiting, parasites, rhinitis, cough.  Mace used similarly.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative; nutmeg narcotic in large doses.  Oil rubefacient, stimulant, aperient.  Mace is carminative and aphrodisiac.  Wood astringent.  Unani use as stomachic, aphrodisiac, and for many conditions from diarrhea to fevers.

Dash:  Pungent, hot, aromatic.  Cures poisoning.  For diarrhea and urinary troubles.

Li:  Roudoukou.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Nut used, as elsewhere.  Warming, digestive, antidiarrheal.  Most of the various virtues seem to reduce to this.

(The warming, stimulant, carminative, and stomachic qualities of nutmeg and mace are widely known; the narcotic use perhaps too widely known!  Nauseating in large doses.)


Myrtus communis L., Myrtaceae.  Murd (Persian from Greek), ās (Arabic/Persian).  MuErDi.

Manniche:  Various dubiously identified conditions.  Mixed with other ingreidents.  Usually external, as for penis, chest, stomach, swellings, limb stiffness, indeed almost any body pains; also hair ointment [it would alleviate several scalp conditions].  Internally for cough.

Dioscorides:  I-155, myrsine, myrtle.  Berries given to those who spit blood etc., juice for same and for stomach and other conditions including scorpion stings.  Fruit used to make hair dye.  Herbal bath for womb fluxes (leucorrhea?), and for various skin conditions.  A large and repetitive catalogue of external uses, for every imaginable condition.

Galen:  Fruit astringent, constipating, cold.

Avicenna:  ās.  Cold, dry, though “box myrtle” is hot.  Stops diarrhea, prspiration, bleeding, etc.  Boiled-down tea poured over broken bones helps them set.  Syrup good for diarrhea and pain.  Good with olive oil on inflammations, wounds, ulcers, etdc.  Fruit used for joints.  Stops nosebleeds (fruit? Juice?).  Helps eyes, chest, etc. Paste of fruit strengthens stomach.  Fruit diuretic and helps with inflammations of urethra.  Many other uses—something of a cure-all.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Long history of uses, going back to Talmud as well as Dioscorides and down to many modern uses.  In India astringent, for epilepsy, stomach and liver diseases, etc.

Lev and Amar:  ‘ās, marsīm.  Usual uses for eyes, stomach, hemorrhoids, etc., but also for dyeing hair black and other cosmetic uses.  Also, oil on spider bites and on glans penis, etc.  Reported even for hearing and kidney stones.  Cold and dry.

Kamal: Juz al-tib.  Mace is bisbasah.  Carminative; good for rheumatism.

Bellakhdar et al:  r-rihan.  Hair-care, antidiarrheal.  For gastro-intenstinal disorders.

Ghazanfar:  Yās.  Introduced and cultivated in Arabia.  Leaves for colic, couighs, fevers, headache, nosebleeds.  Various topical uses on blisters, stings, ulcers.  Insecticide.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Stimulant, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, etc.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, astringent.  Leaves antiseptic and rubefacient.

Li:  Wide range of Myrtaceae used in China, for all purposes, but not this sp.

(The species is effective as antiseptic; slightly toxic.)


Narcissus tazetta,  Amaryllidaceae.  Chinese sacred lily.  Shuixian.  Uncertain identification.

Avicenna:  Narjis (Persia nargis).  Cleansing, drying.  Powdered root for swellings, whole root with vinegar for skin spots.  Used on wounds, nerves, joints, head, chest.  Root causes vomiting but treats pain in uterus and bladder.

Li:  Combats pathogenic wind.  Root bitter, slightly pungent, slippery, cold and nontoxic.  Many minor medical uses, from “removing a fish bone stuck in the throat” (vol. II, p.1437) to fragrant otions, dispelling heat and fever, etc.


Nardostachys jatamansi DC, Caprifoliaceae (Valerianaceae).  Imported

Dioscorides:  I-6, nardos, nard.  Warming, drying.  Stop various fluxes and nausea, flatulation, liver and kidney problems, etc.  Applied for inflammation of vulva.  Good for eyelids.  Mixed in antidotes.

I-75, nardinon myron, nard ointment.  A complex mix for unspecified uses, presumably those above.

Graziani:  Sunbul.  Used by Ibn Jazlah for swellings, sweat, brain strengthening relieving chest pain and palpitations, and for stomach.  Today in India and Egypt for convulsions, hysteria, epilepsy; Iran and Iraq for nervous disorders.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  For stomach.

Lev and Amar:  sunbul, nardin, nard.  Hot and dry; opens obstructions in urinary tract, heats kidneys, arouses sexual desire, protects against miscarriage, regulates heartbeat, cleanses womb.  Also for headache, eyes, poisons, bites, stings, bladder, etc.  Strengthens heart and stomach.

Kamal:  nardin, sunbul-rumi, sunbul, sunbulat al-tayib, ith-khir, nardision.  Root/rhizome stimulant, good for brain. Liver, spleen, kidneys,  Nerve tonic, antiepileptic, digestive, sedative.

Madanapala:  Māmsī.  Cold.  Good for alleviating excess of dosas; for blood, burning syndrome, erysipelas, skin.

Nadkarni:  Root bitter, aromatic, antispasmodic, diuretic, emmenagogue, sedative, tonic, carminative, deobstruent.  Unani uses:  tonic for heart, liver and brain; removes obstructions; diuretic, emmenagogue, etc.

Dash:  Bitter, cold, pungent, fragrant, cures poison and burning.

Li:  Gansongxiang (includes N. chinensis).  Sweet, warm to balanced, nontoxic.  Rhizome used. Various uses.


Nigella sativa L.  Ranunculaceae.  Seeds.  Shūnīz

Avicenna:  Shūnīz.  Hot and dry.  Pungent, cleansing, gas relieving, purifying.  Externally with rue for swellings of liver and other problems.  Mouthwash; can add pine bark.  Taken for breathing, asthma; liver; stomach relief; worms.  Also for paralysis of face, so relevant to stroke treatment.

Levey:  Shunīz.  In salve for itching, and for insanity.

Lev and Amar:  Shūnīz, qizḥ. Colds, worms, leprosy and othger skin problems, nose infections.  Increases semen and sexual energy. Against poisons and stings, bites, etc.  Hot and dry.  Insecticidal and good on skin.   Treats paralysis and facial spasms.

Ghazanfar:  Seeds for conjunctivitis (drops with rose oil); seeds eaten for stomach and breathing; with ginger and other plants on paralyzed limbs.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Acne, topically with honey.  Taken for asthma, childbirth (with milk etc.); sniffed for colds; oil with tea of anise, cumin, sugar and peppermint for colic (which would be very effective!).  Coughs, diabetes, heart, kidney stones, nausea, rheumatism, stomachache, toothache.  A Saudi Arabian cureall.  Noted that modern medicine holds it effective as bronchodilator, antioxidant, etc.

Madanapala:  Various names; none seems standard.  Flatulence, vomiting, etc.

Nadkarni:  Seeds armoatic, diuretic, diaphroetic, antibilious, stomachic, stimulant, carminative, digestive, antihelminthic, emmenagogue (in short, like all other medicinal seeds, Indian medicine uses this quite promiscuously).

Eisenman:  Toothaches, gsatric and intestinal diseases, pains; diuretic, soporific, vermifuge.  Biomedically, some minor antibiotic effects; helps heart fiunction by increasing cardiac output, but other studies show it reduces heart rate.  Wide range of bioactive compounds.

(Many plants in this family are extremly toxic to humans but have strong antibiotic and possibly other activity.  The many chemicals in this species should be investigated.)


Ocimum basilicum L.  Lamiaceae.  Biranj-mashk, falanj-mushk.d  Luo-le.  Hu:1061

Dioscorides:  III-50, akinos, O. pilosum (possibly a mistake for O. basilicum), basil.  For stomach ache.  Stops menstrual flow.  Applied on skin.

I-59, okiminon, basil macerated in olive oil.  Applied. Used like marjoram oil.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry.  Cleansing, purging, relieves gas, thins blood, constricts tissues.  Can be either laxative or constipating, because though it generally constipates it can purge.  Wild basil expels yellow and black humors.  Seeds stop black bile.  Used, mostly the wild form, for a very wide range of items: uclers, gout, etc., and facial paralysis.  Used for pains, eyes, heart, chest, sticky matter in stomach, piles, etc.

Levey:  This sp. and probably others. Rheumatism, eyes.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Bādrūj.  Astringent, cathartic, resolvent, maturative, flatulent.  Decays fast.  Promotes bad humors (leading to dim eyes, etc.).  Seeds used for mental derangement.  External applications for inflammations, nosebleed, etc.  On teeth for pain.  Thyme can substitute, for at least some uses.  Shāh safaram, apparently Persian name for same plant, for heat, headache, irritation; soporific; seeds against diarrhea.

Nasrallah:  scent cheering (a belief still current and widespread)

Lev and Amar: rheumatism, eyes, etc.  Maimonides:  appetite, sexual aid, cleans breth, relieves depression.  Many other uses from other authorities, including bleeding, stings, digestion, etc.  Modern uses for skin, wounds, itch, scent, heart medicine, diuretic, etc.  Brain, nose, hemorrhoids.

Kamal:  Rayhan, huk, habaq.  Stimulant, antispasmodic.

Bellakhdar et al:  l-hbeq.  Against mosquitoes.  Used for sinusitis, tachycardia, hemorrhoids.

Ghazanfar:  Reḥān.  Cataracts, colds, abdominal pain, diarrhea.  Keeps hair from turning gray (paste of leaves).   Topical uses of leaves on wounds etc.  Aphrodisiac.  Many cosmetic and social uses.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Topically on ant bites and cuts, tea for colds and coughs, in formulas for indigestion and insomnia, tea for stress.

Madanapala:  Vatapatrī.  Hot, astringent; cures diseases of female genitalia.  Seeds constipative.

Nadkarni:  Usual herbal uses as carminative, stimulant, aphrodisiac, diuretic, etc.

Dash:  Bitter and hot.  Cures parasites, difficult skin diseases; relieves scorpion bite.  O. sanctum for cough, hiccup, asthma, poison, skin.

Sun:     Basil (Ocimum basilicum, luole羅勒): bitter, spicy, warm, balanced, astringent, and nonpoisonous. It eliminates the water remaining in the body (tingshui停水) and dispels poisonous qi. It cannot be frequently taken, or it will make the circulation of qi in the body difficult (se rongwei zhuqi澀榮衛諸氣).

Li:  Luole.  Interestingly, in his volume on vegetables rather than among the herbs.  Foliage or seed used.  Various minor uses.

(The plant is rather uncommon in China, though fairly well known in the north and west.  The enormous use and value of basils in west, south, and southeast Asia forms a striking contrast to their trivial role in China.  Basil is an effective stomach and sore throat treatment, widely used; many species are used, worldwide; the Native American peoples of Mexico have independently discovered the value of the local wild species, O. micrantha, and use it very widely.)


Olea europaea L.Olive.  Oleaceae.  Za’itūn, zaitūn; the oil is zait, and zaitūn just means “oil plant.”

Dioscorides:  II-105.  Oil, probably of the wild form (“O. oleaster”—not a valid scientific name), for eyes, erysipelas, herpes, carbuncles, ulcers, etc.

Levey:  Leaves for sprue, gums, etc.

Avicenna:  zaytūn.  Oil from unripe olives is cold and dry, from from ripe is hot and moist (giving some clue to how the codings are determined—the green-olive oil is sour, astringent and biting, “drying,” while the ripe is fatty, lubricating and moistening).  Wild olives make more medicinal oil.  Used on all skin conditions.  Enema for sciatica.  Used for all the usual lubricating and soothing purposes.  Leaves, in tea, used for sores, infections, teeth, eyes, etc/

Lev and Amar:  zayt (the oil).  Eye, skin, general external soothing (hair, head, bites, stings, wounds, teeth and gums, joints, burns, scratches, etc.).  Internally for intestines, stomach, etc., and even for worms.

Ghazanfar:  Itm.  Resin, fruit, leaves, and bark all used, for many applications.  Olives with salt and dates are made into a paste for broken bones.  Leaves for poultice for boils.  Juice of fruit for eyes.  Leaves and bark for rashes.  Ash of leaves on blisters and ulcers.  Bark made into a tea for constipation.  Twigs used for toothbrushes.

(Olive oil is, of course, unsurpassed for soothing and oiling the skin, and recently the extra-virgin oil has been found to have some heart and other beneficial effects from the antioxidant chemicals in the juice.)

Many medical uses are found in Varisco and Johnstone (2011).


Onopordum (Onopordon) macracanthum Schousb., Asteraceae.  BaDiAWaErDi.

Avicennia:  O. arabicum Strong and biting medicine.  Mouthwash for toothache and sore uvula. Tea of root for excessive menstruation.  Boiled down extract for suppository or bath for anal swellings.

The related O. acanthium of Europe and the Middle East is recorded in Wikipedia as having minor medical uses.

Eisenman:  O. acanthium, “used internally to treat inflammation of the bladder and urinary system, bronchial asthma, pertussis, scrofula,… colds, hemorrhoids, as a blood cleanser,” etc.  Infusion of top of stem in flowering drunk for nerves, colds, inflammation of respiratory system.  Put in baths for frightened children.  Biomedically, cardiotonic, hemostatic, styptic, diuretic, and bacteriocidic properties and raises arterial pressure…tonic…” and other uses (178).

(This rather little known thistle would seem like the perfect cureall, if Central Asian medicine is correct—but Wikipedia devotes much more attention to controlling its thorny, weedy presence.)


Opopanax chironium (L.) Koch.  Apiaceae.  Jawshir (Persian).  ZhaWuZhiEr, ShaHaMuHanDaLi, ShaHeiMiHanZanLi

Dioscorides:  III-55, panakes (panax) herakelion, Ferula opopanax or Opopanax hispidus [the figure looks more like Ferula].  Sap and roots; bitterest is best.  Warming, mollifying, attenuating.  Drunk, often with wine, good for agues, rigors, convulsions, rputures, pain in the side, coughs, gripes, dysuria, scabies.  Like almost everything else Dioscorides uses, it is emmenagogue and abortifacient (also the root, topically) and is topically applied on all sorts of skin and eye conditions, including bites of mad dogs.

Seed taken with aristolochia or wormwood for menstruation, etc.

Levey:  Jawāshīr.  Rheumatism, phlegm, melancholy.  Other uses in old sources for antispasmodic, emmenagogue, etc.

Lev and Amar:  jāwshīr.  Eyes, convulsions, tetany, fevers, colic, penile erections, rheumatism, phlegm, black bile.  Detersive.  For abscesses.

Kamal:  Gawshir (Farsi, “cows’milk”).  Juice for pharyngitis, bronchitis, brain disease, paralysis.  Used on skin wounds.

Nadkarni:  Gum stiumlant, antiseptic.


Orchis chusua.  Apparently a misidentification (not scored in counts below).

Avicenna: various orchid uses.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  An orchid may be mentioned in one recipe.


Origanum majorana L., Lamiaceae.  Marzanjūsh (Arabic and Persian; the general dried-herb name sa‘tar is used for this as well as thyme, etc.).  MaErSangGuoZhi.

Origanum maru L., Lamiaceae.  Marmahuz. MaErMaHuEr

Theophrastus:  II, p. 295, diktamnon, O. dictamnus.  A great deal of lore on three different kinds of Cretan dittanies.  Eases labor of women, and pain in general.  Goats shot with arrows eat it and it makes the arrows fall out.

Dioscorides:  III-32, origanos ‘erakleotike, Origanum vulgare.  Warming.  Tea for posionous bites and antidotes to poison hemlock, etc.  Eaten with figs for convulsions, ruptures, coughs, etc.    Emmenagogue.  Usual topical applications.  With onions, sumac, etc., kept 40 days in burning summer heat, makes a medicine that brings on vomiting.

III-33, Origanum onitis?  O. sipyleum?;  III-34, O. vulgare, wild; various confused drawings; all seem used more or less similarly; short, confused accounts.

III-37, diktamnon, O. dictamnus, dittany.  Retails with evident disbelief Theophrastus’ tale about the goats.  Used for pain of spleen.  Root hastens birth and helps with snakebite.  Various other uses similar to above.

I-58, sampsychinon, an oil of this and many related herbs pounded and infused in olive oil.  For drawing out menstruation and afterbirth, and abortifacient.  Applied for pain relief.

Avicenna:  O. majorana and O. vulgare (oregano): hot and dry.  Usual all-purpose minor uses for sores, swellings, stomach, diuretic, emmenagogue.  Also vermifuge.  Avicenna mentions dittany, but here identified (perhaps wrongly) as Dictamnus albus, a completely different plant from O. dictamnus.  Hot and dry.  For pain, menstrual problems, urination.  Abortifacient.

Levey:  Marzanjush.  Liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys; ear infections with suppuration.  Eyes.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Dittany, mishkatarā mashīr, occasional.  O. maru, marw, seeds mentioned; marmāh.ūz, herb used; apparently Al-Samarqandī thought they were different plants, though the names are usually synonyms.

Graziani:  Marzanjūsh, mardaqush.  Headaches, constipation, scorpion stings (Ibn Jazlah).  Ibn Butlān used it for chest pains and cough. Egypt today for vulnerary, nerve disease, cephalic, emmenagogue, sternutatory.

Lev and Amar: O. maru, O. syriaca, za’tar, sa’tar, for gynecological, kidney and urinary problems; for anemia; etc.  Note that the general name za’tar (like the Hebrew ezov) also covers wild thyme and similar wild herbs, but Lev and Amar are confident that these—primarily the latter—are the species called for in the Genizah documents.  O. majorana, mardakūsh, marzanjūsh, for various women’s complains, kidneys, urinary tract.

Kamal:  Bardaqush, marzangush, habq al fil-Ibn al-Baytar, a’bqar, etc.  Stimulant, tonic, stomachic, sneezing, carminative, anti-inflammatory.  O. vulgare, za-tar, antiseptic, antirheumatic, externally on ulcers etc., internally for worms and antisepsis.  Includes thymol, which is powerfully antiseptic.

Bellakhdar et al:  O. compactum, za’tar.  For all diseases, gastro-intestinal antiseptic, mouth hygiene, antiacid.  O. majorana, merdeddush, against chills and fevers.

Nadkarni:  Plant stimulant, carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, tonic.  Oil used for stimulant, especially digestive.

Eisenman:  O. tyttanthum, for appetite, digestion, inflammation of respiratory tract, nerves.  Externally in compresses for abscesses, bath for rickets and scrofula in children.  Water extracts of plant for gastritis, bronchitis, pneumonia, etc.  Tea for tympanites, lryngitis, stomatitis, angina, etc.  Biomedically for hypertension, atherosclerosis, kidney, liiver, and epilepsy; sedative; expectorant; regulating intestinal action; diaphoretic tea, etc.  O. vulgare, for the usual reasons, including insomnia, gastritis, etc.; as expectorant; as anti-spasmodic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory.  Essential oils do show antibiotic effect.

(Modern biomedicine agrees with the stimulant, carminative, and tonic parts of this.  The plant is rich in volatile oils with medicinal effects.)


Oryza sativa L., Poaceae.  Rice.  ‘Aruzz.  Dao.  One mention of husks, probably a Chinese substitution for some Near Eastern husk preparation.

Nadkarni:  Pages of products and medicinal uses.  Soothing, especially to stomach or rice-water as enema.  Invalid food.  Rice poultices are used for all sorts of purposes, being soothing, available and cheap.  Nothing said about medicinal uses of husks.

Li:  Vast range of broadly similar uses (soothing, poulticing, etc.).  No medicinal use of husks.

Significantly, this basis of Chinese food is otherwise missing in the HHYF.


Osmanthus fragrans Lour., Oleaceae.  Native.

(Not in Li, but, in modern China, the flowers are very commonly used to flavor tea or to make a tea by themselves, and now often considered cooling and otherwise medicinally valuable.)


Paeonia suffruticosa Andr.  Paeoniaceae (Ranunculaceae).  Fawaniya.  Native.  SaLiHa  Egyp. Ubsalib, Iran Assalib

Dioscorides:  III-157, paionia arren, P. corallina; paionia theleia, P. officinalis.  Dioscorides recognizes male and female varieties.  Roots given to women after childbirth to eliminate afterbirths; also for menstruation (apparently both too much and too little) and cramps.  Helps kidneys, stops diarrhea, etc.  Black roots for nightmares and “suffocations of ye womb” (Gunther 1934:383).

Avicenna:  Fāwāniā, from the Greek, is one name.  Several others discussed.  Treats epilepsy—by being hung around the neck or over him; Avicenna has seen this work.  When the suspended plant was removed, the condition returned.  Used as snuff for insanity and epilepsy, also.  Also for gastric irritation, protecting stomach, jaundice, liver obstructions.  Regulates discharge of menses and helps with placenta, etc., after birth.  Good for kidney and abdominal pain.  Can remove stones, at least in children.  With honey wine for hysteria due to pain in uterus.

Kamal:  P. officinalis, ‘anzarut, sarqoqola, etc.  Powder for purulent conjunctivitis, wounds, ulcers.

Ghazanfar:  P. officinalis, Aphrodisiac and tonic.

Li:  Mudan.  P. lactiflora and P. veitchii are shaoyao and are next to mudan in Li’s book.  Cortex of former, root of latter, widely used for countless purposes.


Papaver somniferum L., Papaveraceae.  A FeiRong, LaLaHua, for the resin; ShaoNiZi for seeds; Ying-su-ke.  Hu973

Manniche:  Rather shakily identified in a tranquilizing remedy; seeds used.

Dioscorides:  IV-64, mekon roias, P. rhoeas.  Sleep, healing inflammations, etc.

IV-65, mekon agrios, mekon emeros, P. somniferum, opium poppy.  Obvious use for sleep and pain, used internally or externally; also for inflammations and rashes, coughs, diarrhea, menorrhagia,

IV-66, mekon keratites, Glaucium luteum.  Sciatica, liver, urinary problems (infections?), purging, etc.  Externally on ulcers etc.

IV-67, mekon aphrodes, Silene inflata.  Purges by causing vomiting.

IV-68, ypekoon, Hypecoum procumbens.  Use similar to poppy.

Galen:  seed produces lethargy.  Not nutritious.

Levey:  Used in combined medicine for insanity.  Wild poppy, presumed P. rhoeas, nār-kīwā, provided an oil used in clyster for kidneys and for bringing back blood to face.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Afyūn: Detailed discussion of opium, used for the usual reasons.  Khashkhāsh (the normal Arabic name for poppy):  Cures cough.  Opium-bearing kind narcotic to point of danger.

Avicenna:  Notes many kinds.  Khashkhāsh, seeds; afyūn, opium.  Cooling and dry.  Usual anaesthetic uses, but also seeds used for coughs, congestion, vomiting, stomach, etc.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Usual uses; important.

Nasrallah:  Black and white seeds known.  Opium known and widely used; cold, dry, sdative, treats coghs and humidity and diarrhea.

Lev and Amar:  afyūn.  In addition to the obvious uses for sleep and diarrhea, used for jaundice, loss of teeth, etc., and in gargles and other preparations.  Root of plant used for pains of thigh, liver, head.  Seed for cough, liver, intestines.  (Glaucion corniculatum, māmīthā, for the usual minor matters:  eyes, pains, soothng, etc.  Cold and dry.)

Kamal:  khashkhas (the seeds), abu-al-nom.  Sedative, anaesthetic, soporific.  Fruiting head, cooked, for stomach ache, meteorism, pains, including toothache.  A formulation by Mesue the Younger uses roses, gum arabic, starch, tragacanth, liquorice juice, spodium, and saffron with poppy syrup for tuberculosis, pleurisy, and the like (Kamal 1975:519).

Bellakhdar et al:  P. rhoeas, belle’man, shqayeq n-ne-man, measles, children’s fevers.  P. somniferum, korkasha, analgesic, children’s insomnia, hiccups.

Ghazanfar:  Coughs and insomnia.  Dried capsules ground and mixed with rose water, applied to forehead, for nervous tension.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  P. rhoeas, coughs.

Madanapala:  Khasatila, seeds.  Aphrodisiac, strengthening, constipative.  Ahiphena, presumably gum or whole plant, constipative.

Nadkarni:  usual narcotic and sedative uses.  Causes constipation.  For a vast range of purposes, in many preparations, but basically for sedative reasons.

Eisenman:  P. pavoninum, for heatstroke, eyes.  Other poppies used for tea for coughs.  These are not very close to the opium poppy.

Li:  Yingzisu.  Seed sweet, plain, nontoxic; food and minor medical uses.  Capsule and drug used for coughing and especially for diarrhea and dysentery (called “wonder drug” for this, and still is, in modern biomedicine).  Narcotic uses not noted (not important in China in Li’s time).

(Opium remains as good a drug for treating some types of diarrhea as medicine can offer.  Causes constipation if much used.)


Pedicularis sp.  Orobanchaceae (formerly Scrophulariaceae).  Mentioned in Index; otherwise not in the HHYF.  Species of this genus are used in folk medicine in various parts of the world.


Peganum harmala L., Zygophyllaceae.  Muli (Gr), MuLi

Dioscorides:  III-53, peganon agrion, Peganum harmala.  Seed beaten up for dullness of sight; applied with many other ingredients.

Levey:  ḥarmal.  Insanity, epilepsy, baldness, hemorrhoids, etc.

Avicenna:  ḥarmal.  Hot and dry.  Minor uses, much like those of Ruta.

Lev and Amar:  ḥarmal.  Emetic, aphrodisiac, diuretic; for intestinal diseases, hemorrhoids, nerves, epilepsy, insanity, colic, sciatica, arthritis.

Bellakhdar et al:  harmel.  Toxic, hair-care, antihelminthic, antirheumatismal, antalgic, antidiarrheal; for bowels and nervous diseases.

Ghazanfar:  H.armal.  Leaves rubbed on joints for rheumatic pain.  Tea antihelminthic.  Tea of blossoms for stomach.  Seeds for same, or topically with black pepper for joint pain.  Seeds used as narcotic and for removing kidney stones.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Alterative, purifying, aphrodisiac; seeds used.  Also emmenagogue, diuretic, vomitive.

Nadkarni:  Alterative, antiperiodic, stimulant, emmenagogue, abortifacient.  Purifying, aphrodisiac, antihelminthic.  Seeds narcotic, anodyne, emetic, emmenagogue.

(Important mind-altering drug in Iran and elsewhere; possibly one of the “soma” plants of the ancient Aryans.)

Eisenman:  Decoction or infusion for “olds, malaria, fever, syphilis, neurasthenia, and epoilepsy, and…as a mouthwash… smoke…for headaches…epileptic diseases…mixed with chil pepper to treat syphilis, and it is used as a diuretic and diaphoretic” (187).  Biomedical uses as soporific; harmine alkaloid a strong nervous system drug, causing deperssion or hallucinations.  Peganine has effectcs on cholesterol metabolism. Other chemicals await further study; contains many alkaloids.

(Well-known psychoactive plant, possibly the “soma” of the Aryans.”)


Penaea mucronata, sarcocolla.  See Astragalus.


Petroselinum hortense (=P. crispum (Miller) Nym.), Apiaceae.  Asaliyun

Dioscorides:  III-76, oreoselinon, P. sativum (=P. crispum).  Diuretic and emmenagogue.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry. Dissolving.  Cleanses ulcers and similar problems.  Used for chest and lungs.

Graziani:  Karafs.  Ibn Butlān used it as diuretic, emmenagogue, anti-constipation.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Today as carminative, aromatic, tonic.  Seeds of this and related apiaceous plants noted by Al-Samarqandī as used for the usual reasons.  Levey and Al-Khaledy mistakenly equate it with celery; the plants, uses and words and quite different.

Kamal:  baqdunis.  Roots sudorific, stimulant, diuretic, emmenagogue.  Leaves as hot applications for inflammatory conditions, mastitis, haematomas.  Fruit carminative (effective, like almost all apiaceous spices).  Active ingredient apiol, antipyretic and emmenagogue.

Bellakhdar et al:  hypnotic.

Ghazanfar:  Leaves and seeds for diarrhea and stomachache.  (Effective.)

Nadkarni:  Minor in India.  Diuretic, etc.


Peucedanum ammoniacum H. Bn. (Dorema ammoniacum D. Don), Apiaceae.  Ushshaq.  Gum ammoniac. WuCaJi, WaShaJi

Dioscorides:  III-92, peukedanon, P. officinale.  Root sap anointed with vinegar and rose oil for lethargy, frenzy, vertigo, epilepsy, headaches, paralysis, convulsions, earaches, and so on.  Smelled for womb strangling and swoons.  Drives away serpents.  Root decoction drunk (and applied?) for ulcers, scales on bones, etc.

Avicenna:  Ushaq.  Hot and dry.  Dissolving and drying.  Opens vessels; laxative and absorbent.  Externally for wounds, tubercular lymph glands.  In eyes for cleansing, etc. Internally for joint pain, asthma, labored breathing, ulcers of diaphragm, hardness of spleen and liver, worms, mesnstruation, abortifacient, and other minor uses.


Levey:  Gum from this plant and Ferula marmarica.  For fistulas, abscesses, eyes, insanity.

Avicenna: said it cools the blood, cleanses, helps with tumors.  Modern uses as laxative, abortive, emollient, resolvent.  Widely used in Persia.

Kamal:  P. oreoselinum, atrilal, “ibex parsley, devil’s carrot, crow’s leg.”  Seeds used for leprosy.

Lev and Amar:  Eyes, pains, worms, etc. Purgative.  Hot and dry, but cools blood, etc.  Disinfects.

Nadkarni:  Used for liver and spleen; oil.

Li:  P. praeruptorum, P. decursivum, qianhu.  Root important.  Various dispersing and regulating uses.  P. japonicum, fangkui, much more important and highly regarded.  Various uses from digestion to mania!  In all species, commentators disagree about qualities, even toxic vs. nontoxic.


Pharbitis nil (L.) Choisy & spp., Convolvulaceae.  Native.

Li:  This and P. purpurea are qianniuzi.  Seed.  Various quality ascriptions.  Several pages of uses, especially digestive.


Phoenix dactylifera L., Arecaceae.  Date.  Tamr.

The HHYF mentions something that seems to equate with sukk, an Arab medicine including date, but this is tentative enough that we have not seen fit to do a full search on dates.  But, also, terms for jujube in the HHYF probably mean dates, and “ten-thousand-year jujube” certainly does.

Avicenna:  Nakkhl (tree), raṭab (ripe fruit), other names for every part and aspect.  Cold and dry.  Unripe dates cause indigention.  Various medical uses for both flesh and kernewl—ash of latter has many external uses.

Lev and Amar:  Aphrodisiac and for diarrhea, but little used, though often mentioned, in Near East medicine.

Li:  Wulouzi.  (Also, in Chinese colloquial, various such as fan zao “foreign jujube” and qian nian zao “thousand-year jujube”—a neat reverse of the English name “Chinese date” for jujubes.)  Minor use as tonic.


Phyllanthus emblica L. (=Emblica officinalis Fr.), Euphorbiaceae. AmiLa, from Perso-Arabic amlaj, in turn from Sanskrit āmālaka.

Levey:  Depression, breathing, stomach, liver, etc.; usually with musk or other items, in mixed medicinal preparations.  For happiness and strengthening the heart.

Avicenna:  Amlaj, suk.  Hot.  Cites Indian physician on this.  Opening, dissolvent.  Aphrodisiac.  Expels black bile and phlegm.  Good on piles.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Myrobalans are very important to Al-Samarqandī, but not well distinguished.  This would have been major.  The rise of myrobalans from early times to the HHYF indicates the rise of Indian influence.  Belleric myrobalans with milk made a remedy used by Al-Samarqandī.

Madanapala:  Āmalaka.  Cold; aphrodisiac.

Nadkarni:  Fruit refrigerant, diuretic, laxative.  Carminative and stomachic.  Dried, astringent.  Flowers cooling and aperient.  Bark astringent.  Unani uses as heart and brain tonic, and to prevent humors in stomach and intestines; for diarrhea, fevers.

Dash:  Fevers, appetiser.

Li:  Anluoguo.  Barely known.  One report of fruit and leaf for minor uses.


Picnomon acarna (L.) Cass., Asteraceae.  Badaward (Persian)

European/Near Eastern plant, not mentioned in our sources.


Pimpinella anisum LApiaceae.  Anīsūn.

Dioscorides:  III:56.  Antidotes, headache, ears.

Galen:  Diuretic, aphrodisiac, general antidote.

Levey; Levey and Al-Khaledy:  In an electuary for liver, kidneys, etc; in eye medicine; stomachic; for rheums.  Current uses as stomachic, carminative, stimulant, emmenagogue.

Avicenna:  anīsūn.  Hot and dry.  Opening, biting, acrid.  Relieves stomach ache and gas.  Relieves headache (smoke of seeds); powder with rose oil in ear.  Treats chronic eye problems.  Lactagogue, diuretic, aphrodisiac,  Laxative for kidneys; stimulates uterus and helps women after blood loss (presumably vaginal hemorrhage).  Treats chronic fevers.

Lev and Amar:  Palpitations, eyes, inflammation, etc.  Maimonides used it for heart strengthening.  Brain, sexual medicine, emmenagogue, fever, etc.  Hot and dry.  Modern uses include stomachic and carminative (as in European folk medicine), emmenagogue, etc.

Ghazanfar:  Anasīn.  Fruit digestive.  Mixed with cumin and fennel for women after childbirth, to increase milk and ease pains.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Strengthens a mother following childbirth, along with fenugreek, nigella, wheat, dates.  For colic.  Chewed or in various formulas for cough, headache.  Boiled and drunk for indigestion, stomachache, stress, toothache, and menstrual cramps.  For insomnia.

Nadkarni:  Usual apiaceous-seed uses as stimulant, carminative, diuretic, stomachic.

(Still used widely, throughout the world, for coughs and as carminative and stomachic; very effective.)


Pinellia ternata (Thunb.) Breit., Araceae.  Native.

Li:  Banxia.  Tuber.  Pungent, cool to warm (depending in part on processing), toxic.  Several pages of uses, many for phlegm and respiratory affections, but also digestive and some other uses.


Pinus koraiensis Sieb. Et Zucc., Pinaceae.  Native

Li:  Haisong.  Seeds used.  Sweet, warm to hot, nontoxic.  The uses center on nutritional value.  Used classically as a food to prolong life; said to make one an immortal if eaten enough.  Li notes that “Whenever Taoists talk about Songzi [pine kernels], they always mean Haisongzi” (2003:2804).

(The use for nutrition for longevity is partly sympathetic magic—pines live for centuries—but partly also because pine kernels are a concentrated source of high-quality protein, minerals, and unsaturated oils.  They are a perfect supplement or, better, replacement for the dismal traditional North Chinese diet of grain and low-protein, low-mineral vegetables.  Taoist and Buddhist adepts, especially, ate ascetic diets, and were at major risk for malnutrition.  People living on such diets would indeed feel better and live much longer if they ate large quantities of pine kernels.)


Pinus spp.  P.  massoniana Lamb. & spp.  Resin.  JiFuTi

Dioscorides:  I-86, pitys, P. halepensis; peuke, P. maritima, P. cembra (and/or other evergreens?).  Bark ground and eaten; binding (constipating).  Used for cataplasm for ulcers, sores, etc., or eaten for boils.  Aids in childbirth.  Drunk, presumably in tea, it stops the belly and is diuretic.  Leaves in cataplasm for inflammations and wounds; sodden in vinegar for toothache; leaves or cone drunk in a tea for liver.  Soot for eyelids and eyes.  I-87, pityides, seeds; I-88, strobiloi, cones, ground, taken for coughs.

These species are closest to P. massoniana, except for P. cembra, which is closer to koraiensis.

(Gunther identifies IV-166, pityosa, as P. halepensis, but the description and picture cannot possibly apply to a pine.  It has flowers, among other incompatible things!)

Galen:  Pine cones eaten!  But not well digested, unsurprisingly.  Possibly he confused them with pine seeds.

Levey:  ṣanaubar.  Various spp.  Seed for electuary for throat.  Rātinaj, resin of pines and other conifers.  Ulcers.

Avicenna:  P. gerardiana, ṣanūbar, pine; large pine seeds, ḥabb al-ṣanūbar.  Resin is rātiyānaj.  Small seeds, jillauz.  Resin hot and dry.  Bark constricting.  Resin, and dust of bark for wounds and sores.  Seeds for lungs, pus, cough.  Gargling with boiled-down bark evacuate phlegm.  Pine smoke for falling eyelashes, etrc.  Various internal uses, but bark irritates stomach.  Seeds candied, for use in stomach and reprodiuctive health incliuding volume of semen.  They can cause constipation; bark definitely does.  Eating too many seeds can cause abedominal pain, but help with urination.

Lev and Amar: P. pinea, ṣanawber, bladder, kidneys, drying wetness, coughs, phlegm, paralysis, skin, spasms, jaundice, etc.  Resin also used.  Needles in a medication to strengthen the penis and constrict the glans.

Kamal:  P. pinea, snonobar (snubar, snobar—this specifically means pine nuts).  Resin for respiratory and dental conditions; diuretic.

Bellakhdar et al.:  P. halepensis, tayda, dbag, for tuberculosis, skin abcesses.  Pinus sp., u-mennas, er-rzina, cosmetic.

Madanapala:  P. gerardiana, nikocaka, aphrodisiac, nourishing, for strength,etc.  P. roxburghii, śrīvāsa, presumably seeds, for head and eyes; laxative.

Nadkarni:  Various pines used.  P. gerardiana seeds stimulant, nutritive, tonic, aphrodisiac.  Pinewood is aromatic, antiseptic, deodorant, stimuant, diaphoretic, refrigerant, rubefacient, carminative; sapwood, oil, resin of P. longifolia and presumably other spp. used.

Dash:  P. roxburghii for earache, etc.

Li:  Song, pine in general; this species the common one of south China, replaced northward by P. tabuaeformis and others, westward by P. yunnanensis and others.  (The very different P. koraiensis is found only in the far northeast, near Korea.)  Resin and foliage for various purposes.  Seeds used, but very small and dry, not a food like those of P. koraiensis.

(Pine oils used medicinally as antiseptic, skin treatment, etc. well into modern times, worldwide.  I remember them from my childhood.  Seeds advocated throughout early Chinese history as the best food for longevity.  The pine lives long, and some sympathetic magic is clearly involved here, but the main reason for this tradition is obviously that pine seeds supply the protein, oil, and minerals that China’s traditional grain diet so conspicuously lacked.  Common experience with eating pine seeds lies behind the tradition.)


Piper cubeba L., Piperaceae.   Imported/introd.

Avicenna:  Kabābah.  Fāghirā for the fruit alone.  Opening, thinning.  Dissolving, constricting.  Useful for mouth ulcers, etc.  Laxative.  Used for cold stomach and liver, and indigestion from coldness.  Cleanses urinary tract, dissolves stones.  “Coital pleasure in women is enhanced by the local use of saliva secreted by chewing cubeb” (p. 332).

Levey:  Kabbābah.  Gums, mouth, throat, teeth.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Tanbūl.  Astringent, tightens gums, desiccant, carminative.  Chewed with areca nut.

Lev and Amar:  kabāba, qūbība.  For throat, mouth, diuretic, liver.

  1. betel, tānbūl, for teeth, gums, skin.

Kamal:  kababah, kababa-sini, al-fulful thu al-thanab “tailed pepper,” hab al-arus.  Stimulant, diuretic; for gonorrhea, leucorrhea, urethritis, etc.  P. betel, tanbul, tamul, used as stimulant, appetizer, aphrodisiac.

Bellakhdar et al:  kebbaba.  Bladder and uterus diseases, urinary disorders, aphrodisiac, calefacient.

Madanapala:  Kankola.  Hot.  For heart disease.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative, expectorant.  P. betel used for these and many other purposes.

Dash:  Pungent, bitter, hot.  Appetiser.  Cures bad taste and “sluggishness in the mouth.”

Li:  Bichengqie.  Pungent, bitter, warm, nontoxic.  Digestive for many purposes.  In mixes for several other conditions.


  1. longum L., Piperaceae. Bi-ba. Hu 973

Theophrastus:  II, p. 315:  this and P. nigrum for heating; this one stronger.

Dioscorides:  II-189, piperi, “long” noted as particularly sharp and biting, otherwise used like nigrum.

Levey:  Dār filfil.  In electuaries, eye powders, arthritis drug, etc.  Stomachic.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Dār-i-filfil.  Cleans out uterus, etc.

Avicenna:  Dār filfil.  Hot and dry.  Dissolvent. Heals cold diseases.  For gout.  With juice of roasted goat liver for day blindness (probably extreme sensitivity to light).  Digestivve.  Aphrodisiac.  Root for abdominal pain.

Lev and Amar:  dār fulful and variants.  Eyes, palpitation, purgation, tonic, indegestion, hemorrhoids, stomach, colic, sexual medicine, etc.  Hot and dry (Maimonides).

Madanapala:  Pippalī.  Very hot.  Aphrodisiac, rejuvenating, purgative.  For dyspnoea, cough, fever, skin, urinary diseases, piles, abdominal conditions, spleen, colic, rheumatism.

Nadkarni:  Stimulant, carminative, alterative, aphrodisiac, diuretic, vermifuge, emmenagogue.

Dash:  Cures cold diseases.  Aphrodisiac, laxative.  For asthma, cough, rejuvenation, etc.  Root for a number of digestive conditions.

Li:  Biba.  Pungent, very warm or hot, nontoxic.  Digestive uses including cholera and other diarrheas; various other uses.  P. betle, jujiang, follows it in Li; root, leaf, spike all used; pungent, warm, nontoxic, for coughing, digestive purposes, other minor uses.

(This important medicinal plant, universally used in old Asia for its very “hot” and stimulant qualities, has fallen dramatically from favor since chile reached Asia.  P. longum is “hotter” [more piquant] but less flavorful than black pepper, so chile replaced it almost totally in cooking, and to a great extent in medicine.  Often, the very name was transferred to chile, its original meaning being forgotten, e.g. Malay/ Bahasa Indonesia lada.  Could lada be the source of or cognate with Chinese la, Cantonese laat, “piquant”?)


  1. nigrum L., Piperaceae. Hu-jiao. Hu 659

Dioscorides:  II-189, piperi.  Warming, dissolving, etc.  Cleans eyes.  Drunk or anointed for malarial attacks, poisonous bites, abortion.  Pessary for birth control.  Taken for chest, coughs, etc.  Gripes, pains, etc.  In sauces for provoking appetite.  With pitch, applied for scrofulous conditions, and with nitre for white skin infections.  Root warming.

Levey:  Filfil.  Pain of gum and throat, collyrium, happiness, stomachic.

Avicenna:  Filfil.  Hot and dry (very).  Used for skin, tubercular lymph glands, eyes, coughs, sore throat, digestive, appetizer, diuretic; birth control; bowles.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  This and the other pepper spp. are important in Al-Samarqandī’s drugs, for the above reasons.

Lev and Amar:  Filfil, fulful.  Cureall:  bladdertones, inflammations of tongue and gums, teeth, crying, laughing, cold, heat, paresis and weakenss of sexual organs, aphrodisiac, deafness, earache, hedche, joints, epilepsy, ulcer, colic, vision, etc.  Hot and dry.  Against insects.  Topically on skin.  Even said to prevent pregnancy.  Basically a cureall.

Kamal:  felfel aswad.  Carminative, counterirritant, stimulant, antiperiodic, antipyretic, anthelminthic, aphrodisiac, rubefacient.

Bellakhdar et al:  l-bzar lekhel, labzar labyed.  Aphrodisiac, calefacient, reconstituant, antitussive.  P. retrofractum, first 2 same.

Ghazanfar:  Filfil.  In honey for earache.  Stomachic, jaundice cure, reduces phlegm.  Tonic, stimulant.  Topically for eyes, for vision.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  In mixed spice foods, especially for women after childbirth, where it appears to be a universal restorative.

Madanapala:  Marica.  Hot.  Digestive stimulant.  For colic, dyspnoea, parasites.

Nadkarni:  Acrid, pungent, carminative, antiperiodic; externally, rubefacient, stimulant.  Widely used in many preparations.

Dash:  Digestive, for parasites.  Cures cold diseases.

Li:  Hujiao.  Pungent, warm or hot, nontoxic.  Digestive, respiratory, general heating uses.  Strongly heating rather than warming, so used with caution.  In Li’s book, followed by cubeb pepper in the “fruits” section, while long and betel peppers are together in the “herbs” section, though the uses are similar and Li must have seen the relationships.

(Pungent, stimulant, carminative, and antiseptic value of volatile oils is widely known and still useful.)


Pistacia terebinthus L., Anacardiaceae.  Butm.

Dioscorides:  I-177, pistakia, P. lentiscus.  Nuts eaten or ground and drunk with wine, for stomach and for snakebite.

Avicenna:  P. terebinthus, buṭm.  Several other names.  Hot and dry, but changeable in degree, according to condition and part of the plant.  Cleanses skin conditioins, treats paralysis.  Oil for facial paralysis.  Treats ear, eyue, pains, other external uses.  Internally for spleen and liver.  Diuretic and somewhat aphrodisiac.    P. lentiscus, maṣṭakī.  Hot and dry.  Dissolving; dissolves phlegm.  Usual external uses for a hot, dry drug.  Strengthens stomach and liver, respores appetite.  Strengthens kidneys, intestines.  Used for diarrhea and dysentery.  For coughing up blood, also prolapse of uterus and anus (its drying, constricting action).  P. vera, fustuq (Persian pistah), laxative, good for stomach.  Oil for liver pain.

Graziani:  P. lentiscus, mastakā, medieval uses as stomachic, obstructions, nausea.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Mastic from P. lentiscus very important in Al-Samarqandī’s remedies.

Lev and Amar:  P. lentiscus, maṣṭakā.  Diet for weight increase.  Diarrhea.  Malaria, black bile, phlegm, obstruction, wind, pleurisy, trembling, eyes, etc.  Constipative.  Expectorant, analgesic, etc.  Also used in food.  P. atlantica, but.m, ‘ilk (resin).  Oil for kidneys, internal conditions, colds, birth pangs.  Resin for various dressings.  Hot and wet.  Benefits stomach.  P. vera, fustaq, fustuq, resin for same or similar uses.

Kamal:  bottom [butm], fustuq, habbah khadra.  Fattening.  Expectorant, diuretic.  Galls used for ashthma and chest diseases.  P. lentiscus for diarrhea, incontinence, moth conditions, etc.  P. vera, food only.

Stol (1979):  Nuts of P. terebinthus and P. vera eaten since ancient times in Iran and elsewhere in the Near East; mentioned in cuneiform texts (apparently P. terebinthus).  Medicinal uses for terebinth resin also go back to cuneiform texts.  Ancient Egypt also used resins from Pistacia spp. as aromatics.

Bellakhdar et al. (1991):  Modern Moroccan use of P. atlanticus for stomach-ache, fever, cosmetics; P. lentiscus for oral hygeine and heart, emmenagogue, stomachic, diuretic, astringent.

Ghazanfar:  P. lentiscus, mistakah, mustaka, resin for fevers; applied on wounds; chewed as breath freshener; taken for coughs and chest cramps.  Topically on swellings.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  P. lentiscus mastic.  Mastaka, etc.  With, or instead of, other incense gums, as incense for drying up womb after childbirth.

Madanapala:  P. vera, pistā, aphrodisiac, nourishing, etc.

Nadkarni:  P. lentiscus, stimulant, diuretic.  P. terebinthus, astringent, restorative; resin used.

Li:  P. vera, ayuehunzi, seed, pungent, warm, astringent, nontoxic; for genitalia and thus used in sexual medicine (and pleasure).  Also for dysentery, cold, general nutrition (the last of these explains the sexual value; most of the Chinese sexual nutraceuticals actually work by providing concentrated protein and mineral nutrition in an easily-digested form).


Plantago asiatica L. & P. psyllium.  Plantaginaceae.  Seeds. Native. BaZiLiHaTuNa, Iran Barihang

Dioscorides:  II-153, arnoglosson, P. major; arnoglosson mikron, P. lagopus.  Leaves drying and binding, so applied for essentially all types of wounds, sores, and skin conditions, up to and including dog bites and mouth sores.  Taken or as clyster for dysentery, etc.  Taken for epilepsy, tuberculosis and asthma.  Taken or as pessary for womb conditions.  Seeds taken to stop diarrhea and spitting blood.  Root for mouthwash, or chewed, for mouth sores and toothache.  Root and leaves for bladder and kidneys.  “Some say” (generally a sure-fire indicator that Dioscorides disbelieves what follows) that three roots in wine help tertian, four roots quartan, malaria, and that amulets help scrofulous conditions.

Avicenna:  Lisān al-ḥamal.  Cold and dry.  External for the usual sores, ulcers, skin diseases, and pains.  Treats earache and mouth.  Treats epilepsy.  Treats coughing up of blod.  With lentils for asthma.  For liver, kidney obstructions.  Extract or enema for internal ulcers and cholera.  Stop bleeding piles.  For kidney and bladder pain.

Levey:  P. albicans L., shawīk.  Scrofula, boils, ulcers, hemorrhoids, tooth care, wounds.

  1. psyllium, qat.ūnāa, for coughs, mouthwash, head, sciatica, back pains, rheumatism.

Avicenna: bazr qaṭūnā, P. ovata.  Husk of seed used.  Cold and moist.  Causes constipation, so used for diarrhea.  Put on swellings, herpes, inflammation, nerves, rheumatism, headaches, chest.  Used internally for bilious thirst.

Lev and Amar:  P. afer, dūfus, other names.  P. major, lisān al ḥamal.  Crying in infants; kdney stones; women’s diseasese; eyes.  Various minor conditions.  Infection of large intestine; oedema.  Hot and dry.

Kamal:  P. major, lisan al-hamal, mesis, massas, musas, zummarat al-Ra’i. Roots and leaves astringent, refrigerant, diuretic.  P. psyllium, hashishet al-Garaghith, bizr qatuna, burghuthi ibn al-Baytar, hunayn-physilion.  Seeds for poultices, dressings, fomentations, sedating drinks, inflammations, vomiting, urinary troubles, skin conditions, eyedrops.  (Just about everything except the standard modern use for constipation!)

Bellakhdar et al.  Plantago sp., messasa, for ripening of abcess, analgesic, local anti-inflammatory.

Ghazanfar:  Seeds for diarrhea, dysentery, fevers, tonic.  Leaves on ulcers and abscesses.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  P. major, laxative, and for dysentery and diarrhea.  Poultices for boils.  Seeds used.

Nadkarni:  P. ispagula and other spp., including asiatica, but primarily ispagula:  Seeds cooling, demulcent, emollient, laxative, diuretic.  Mucilaginous seeds as laxative particularly important.

Eisenman:  P. lanceolata.  Decoction diuretic and for cystitis, gastric conditions, tuberculosis, headaches, snake bites; antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, expectorant, used to treat all sorts of ulcers, wounds, internal inflammation, malaria, etc.  Biomedically, seems effective as hemostat and anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, possibly other uses.  Many chemicals isolated.  P. major, similar uses, and diarrhea, bladder inflammation, expectorant.  Also has many compounds under investigation.

Li:  P. asiatica, P. depressa, cheqian.  Seed, root, foliage; sweet, cold, nontoxic.  Diuretic, laxative, cooling; other uses.  Foliage has external uses for poultices etc.

(Seeds still a major laxative, especially those of P. psyllium.)

Meserve:  P. major.  “Leaves made into a plaster for ‘Siberian Sore.’”  (Meserve 2004:73).  Also to stanch blood, etc.  She presents a great deal of comparative material.


Platycodon grandiflorum (Jacq.) A. DC., Campanulaceae.  Native.

Li:  Jiegeng..  Root cold, bitter, pungent.  General tonic with many uses; a major Chinese drug.


Plumbago sp.  Plumbaginaceae.  Shitarāj.  Usually, and presumably in the HHYF, this Arabic name means Lepidium, q.v.  (Thus not scored.)

Madanapala:  Citraka, P. zeylanica.  Digestive,stimulant, carminative.  For sprue, skin, edema, piles, parasites, cough.

Nadkarni:  P. rosea alterative, gastric stimulant; P. zeylanica, root, same uses.

Dash:  Same uses in Tibet as in Madanapala; he cites to the Tibetan sources, so the copying is presumably old.


Polygonum multiflorum Thunb., Polygonaceae.  Native. Tuber.  BaHaMan.

Dioscorides:  IV-5, poygonon arren, P. aviculare, knotgrass.  Binding, refrigerating.  Used for blood spitting, fluxes, choler, strangury.  Helps with venomous bites and with malaria.  Pessary for vaginal flow.  Dropped in for earache.  Applied with wine for ulcers of genitalia.  Applied for wounds, inflammations, and related conditions.

II-191, ydropeperi, P. hydropiper.  Leaves and seeds applied to destroy swellings and the like.  Used to season food.  Root useless.

Al-Bīrūnī:  P. bistorta.  Leaves for dog bites, ulcers, cankers, pustules, inflammations.  P. hydropiper, zanjabīl, aphrodisiac, stomachic, dries out phlegm.

Avicenna: P. aviculare.  Haft band, Narsiān dārū, etc.  Poultices for many external purposes and for uterus and intestineal ulcers.  Extract for ear worms, ear ulcers.  Useful for coughing up of blood.  Cooling.  P. hydropiper, filfil al-ma‘.  Warming, but not much use.

Kamal:  P. bistorta, leflafah, godwar rokny.  Root astringent; contains tannins; hemostatic, and for diarrhea, gonorrhea, angina, exudations.

Nadkarni:  P. aviculare, expectorant, diuretic, tonic, astringent, antiseptic, antiperiodic; usually decoction of root used.

Eisenman: P. aviculare, for stomach spasms, intestinal infections, diarrhea, tonic, hemostat, etc.; decoction or infusion.  Bath for skin infections and fungus, wounds, etc.  Infusion on head for hair growth.  In milk for convulsions.  Biomedically, incresaes blood coagulation, decreases blood pressure, etc.  Used as hemostat for women.  P. coriarium, astringent, tea for diarrhea.  Biomedically seems to be effective.

Li:  Heshouwu.  Bitter, astringent, slightly warm, nontoxic.  Wide range of uses.

Fully a dozen other species are mentioned in Li, and this certainliy does not exhaust the range of species used in China.  The dozen have different uses and names.  The genus has long been very important as food, spice, and medicine throughout eastern Asia.

In the HHYF, bahman—normally a word for Centaurea behen—is identified in the Chinese text as this sp.


Polypodium vulgare L., Polypodiaceae.  Basbayah, baspayah, basbayaj, basfayaj  BoSiBaNaZhi(Persian), BaXSiFaYiZhi in tr, or Fu or HaMaMa.

Dioscorides:  IV-188, polypodion.  Root for purging, with foods, or powdered.  Also for phlegm and choler.  Root applied for certain sores.

Levey:  Basbāyij.  Teeth.  Modern uses noted as aperient, alterative, deobstruent, etc.

Lev and Amar:  basbāyaj, basfāyaj.  Roots cleanse intestines, liver, spleen; reduce swseelings.  Teeth.  Purifies blood and gall bladder. A sthma.  Can cause diarrhea.  Reduces swellings.  Said to be hot and dry.

Nadkarni:  Minor use of P. quercifolium for fevers and diseases and P. vulgare for aperient and alterative.


Polyporus officinalis Fr., Polyporaceae, and/or Boletus purgans Gmel., Boletaceae.  Ghariqun (Gr).  Probably the former here.

Kamal:  P. fomentarius, soffan.  Powder astringent for bleeding.

Nadkarni:  P. officinalis, astringent, emetic, purgative.

Li:  P. umbellatus, zhuling.  Sweet, plain, nontoxic.  Important for several serious conditions from fevers to leukorrhea.  (Still an important medicine in 21st century China; astringent and drying qualities.)


Populus diversifolia Schrenk, Salicaaceae.  Resin.  NaTiLong.  Hu-tong-lei.  Hu 890

Dioscorides:  I-109, leuke, P. alba, white poplar.  “It is reported” (a very skeptical phrase for D.) to be contraceptive if drunk with a mule’s kidney, and leaf tea drunk after menstruation for same!  (Gunther 1934:59.)  More seriously, bark drunk in tea for sciatica and strangury.  Leaf tea for earache.  Buds mashed with honey for dullness of eyes.

I-113, aigeiros, P. nigra, black poplar.  Leaves with vinegar applied for gouit.  Resin for various medicines.  Seed with vinegar for epilepsy. An amber-like resin drunk for diarrhea.

Levey:  Probably P. alba, ḥawwar.  Leprosy.

Avicenna:  P. alba, aṭā, gharab.  Pungent, drying.  Powdered for cuts and fresh wounds.  Rinse for gout.  Ear drops, ec.  Gum for eyes.  Used for coughing up blood.

Graziani:  “Hawarī — resin of the poplar [probably P. nigra] used by Ibn Jazlah to strengthen the eye, ease urination and as a contraceptive” (1980:203).

Kamal:  P. nigra, balsam for piles.

Bellakhdar et al:  P. alba and P. nigra,  wraq ssefsaf, stomach and bowel complaints; swallowing air.

Nadkarni:  P. nigra, minor use of resinous buds for hemorrhoids, bark for colds.

Li:  Resin, hutonglei, salty, bitter, very cold, nontoxic.  Reduces heat.  Good for toothache and throat pain.  P. davidiana, baiyang, bark and twigs have minor uses.  They too are cold and nontoxic.  The bark is used, among other things, to stanch bleeding and reduce sores, for which it works in biomedical terms.

(Leaves contain salicylic acid; gum very soothing, still used.)


Poria cocos (Schw.) Wolf (Wolfiporia cocos), Polyporaceae.  Native.

Li:  Fuling.  Sweet, balanced, nontoxic.  Many forms, preparations, and uses; a very important, versatile medicine.


Prunus amygdalus Batsch., Rosaceae.  Badam (Persian).  (Ku) BaDan

Var. amara, KuBaDan.  ShanBaDanRen.

Dioscorides:  I-176, amygdale, almond.  Root or nut of bitter var. mashed, applied to face, for sunburn.  Applied (nuts?) also for menstruation, headaches, etc., with vinegar and rose; with wine, for ulcers etc.; with honey for dog bites.  General for soothing:  chest, kidneys, etc.  Diuretic; for stone; etc.  Keeps off drunkenness, eaten before drinking.  Nut kills foxes.  Gum for binding and heating; drunk for many of above conditions.  The sweet almond is much less medicinal than the bitter.  Green almonds eaten to dry up stomach (they are extremely high in tannin).

Galen:  Cleaning, thinning.

Avicenna:  Sweet is moist (neutral) but bitter is hot and dry.  Almond, mostly bitter, used for liver, spleen, internal organs.  Sprains and uclers  treated with the oil.  “Bitter almond dissolves kidney stones.”  (p. 26.)  Many uses of both, and oil, for poultices, etc. Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Lauz.  Oil for stomach and intestines.

Lev and Amar:  Gaining weight; oil—cold and moist—for heart, stress, fevers, cancer, erysipelas, inflammations.  Bitter almond for stones in bladder, stomachic, liver, spleen, ears, etc., and aborting dead fetus; in prescriptions for headaches, pain, and indeed almost everything, up to and including dog bites.  This accords with modern uses in the Near East and China as an all-purpose emollient, soothing agent, lubricant, etc. (I can confirm this from experience).

Kamal:  no uses noted, but peach (P. persica, khokh, durraq) used for laxative.

Bellakhdar et al:  P. amygdalus var. amara, luz harr, hypoglycemiant, tonic.

Nadkarni:  Demulcent, stimulant, tonic, emollient.  Bitter almonds add laxative quality.

Li:  Badanxing (lit. “the badan type of apricot kernel”—badan being the Persian name of the almond).  Account follows the account of the true apricot.  Li knew the almond came from the Middle East, but noted it is now grown in China.  Sweet, warm, balanced, nontoxic.  For coughs and digestive problems.


Prunus armeniaca L., Rosaceae.  Native.

Dioscorides:  I-165, armeniaca, apricot.  For stomach.

Avicenna: Cold, moist.  Drink; made into soothing syrup, with honey, etc.  Seed oil on piles.  Water in which fruit (this with others) is boiled was used for fever.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Used by Al-Samarqandī for syrups, etc., largely as a vehicle for giving other medicines.

Lev and Amar:  barqūq (the source of the English word, via Spanish albaricoque), mishmish.  Leaves for mouth sores, tonsils, throat.  Fruit for itching stinging, thirst, burns, stomach, skin, ains, swellings, worms.  Maimonides thought it was a bad food.

Kamal:  mishmish.  Oil noted but not for medicinal use.

Bellakhdar et al:  ‘elk meshmash.  Aphrodisiac.

Nadkarni:  Fruit minor use as tonic, locally.

Sun:  Apricot kernel (xingheren杏核仁): sweet, bitter, warm, cool, good laxative, diuretic (li利), poisonous [from hydrocyanates]. It is important for treating rising breath caused by coughing, thundering in intestines (changzhong leiming腸中雷鳴), the swollen throat (houbi喉痹), intestinal gas (xiaqi下氣), ulcer caused by giving birth or cutting (chanrujinchuang產乳金瘡), the illness of a cold heart running like a pig (presumably a heart beating with a fast, erratic rhythm like a running pig;  hanxin bentun寒心奔豚), fright illness (jingxian驚癇), anxiety and heat under the heart (xinxia fanre心下煩熱), the illness of the wind qi coming and going (fengqi qulai風氣去來), and chronic headache (shixing toutong時行頭痛). It also relieves hunger (jieji解肌)[9] and anxiety under the heart (xiao xinxia ji消心下急).  It rids toxins from dog bites (shagoudu殺狗毒).  It should be picked in the fifth month [when apricots are ripe]. If there are two kernels in one pit, they hurt people and should be discarded. When the apricot is still unripe, it is very sour. The kernel in it is not hard. Collect it and expose it in the sun till it is dry. Eat the dry kernel and it is very effective for ceasing thirst and ridding poisons of cool or hot nature. Bianque 扁鵲said, “Apricot kernels cannot be taken over a long time. Otherwise, it will make the person blind, cause his eyebrows or hair fall, and arouse all kinds of chronic illnesses. ”  [This would be due to the hydrocyanic acid liberated by chewing them; chewing releases an enzyme that acts on hydrocyanic glycogens in the seed.  The seeds are still an extremely common medicine in China, used for throat and respiratory conditions among other things.  They are usually powdered and cooked to eliminate the poison.]

Li:  Xing.  Usually the seeds (xingren or xingheren “apricot seed kernels”) used, though minor uses for fruit.  Kernels, ground, are the sovereign remedy for coughs.  Many other uses, even for epilepsy.  Many other Prunus species are discussed at length in Li.

(Today the kernels, powdered, are used in milk, with sugar, especially for children, to treat cough, sore throat, and the like; ENA shamelessly used this milk drink all the time in east Asia, in spite of its identification with child culture, because it works so well for the purposes.)


Prunus domestica L., P. salicina Lindl., Rosaceae.  Resin.  Native.  SanE.  Probably includes P. institia.

Dioscorides:  kokkymfelia, P. domestica, damson.  Laxative, but a Syrian plum has the reverse effect.  [Presumably a local high-tannin fruit of some kind.]  Leaves or fruit gargled for mouth sores.  Gum breakes stone if drunk with wine.  Anointed with vinegar for skin eruptions of children.

Levey:  Ijjās..  P. domestica or possibly apricot and pear.  Infusions.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Plums in general; laxative.  Enormous detail about local varieties.

Avicenna:  P. domestica, ijjāṣ.  Cold and moist.  Gum mixed with vinegar for sores and ringworm.  Minor uses; expels yellow bile.  Wild plums very constricting.

Lev and Amar:  P. domestica.  ‘ijjāṣ. Constricting fruits.  Mild.  Cold and moist.  Cathartic.  Resi for various binding and resolving and skin conditions.  Plum fruit relieves headache, throat pains, nausea, vomiting, blockages, etc.  Leaves eliminate worms (they have enough cyanide, tannin and fibre that this might work).

Kamal:  P. domestica, laxative.

Madanapala:  Āruka.  Digestion, urinary problems, plies.

Eisenman:  P. sogdiana, a Central Asian plum close to P. cerasifera, above-ground parts used; laxative, stimulant to appetite and digestion.  Gum for coughs.  Roots and bark for diaphoretic, anti-pyretic, and anti-inflammatory use.  Not tested biomedically.

Sun:  Plum kernel (liheren李核仁): bitter, balanced, nonpoisonous. It mainly treats the symptom of falling down dead (jiangpuji僵僕躋), gores, and bone ache. Its fruit (plum) is bitter, sour, a little bit warm, astringent, nonpoisonous. It rids obstinate heat (gure固熱), harmonizes the Middle Jiao, and is good for the heart. It cannot be eaten too much. Otherwise, it will make the person weak. The Yellow Emperor said, “Plums cannot be taken with white honey (baimi白蜜). That will erode the five internal organs (wunei五內).”

Li:  P. salicina.  Li.  (Yes, our herbalist is named Plum!  It is, in fact, one of the commonest surnames in east Asia.)  First of fruits, coming just before the apricot.  Many, but minor, uses for all parts of the plant and fruit.

(Laxative effects of prunes are well known worldwide, and the tannins in the leaves and bark are very effective on minor skin conditions.)


Prunus mahaleb L., Rosaceae.  Mahaleb cherry.  Malab.  MaHaLaBi

Avicenna:  Miḥlab.  Hot and dry.  Cleansing, dissolvent.  Sour cherry with honey water for brief loss of consciousness (this app. refers to P. cerasus).

Lev and Amar.  Maḥlab.  Hot and dry.  Minor uses.

Nadkarni:  Tonic, stomachic, diuretic.

Eisenman: P. padus, Eurasian bird cherry, fruits astringent, for diarrhea etc.  Bark, leaves, flowers also used.  All contain glycosides.

(The kernel of this wild cherry is an important medicinal food in the Near East; tonic, stomachic, soothing, as for Nadkarni; oddly missing from our Arabic sources.)


Psoralea bituminosa L., Fabaceae.  Itrifal  (Recently reclassified as Bituminaria bituminosa C. H. Stirton, but familiar name used herein for convenience)

Dioscorides:  III-123, triphyllon, P. bituminosa.  Seed diuretic, emmenagogue; used also for pleurisy, epilepsy, dropsy, etc.  Helps with venomous bites.  Used for malaria.

Avicenna:  ṭarīfūlīūn, from Greek trifoliium.  Somewhat hot.  Used for urine and poisons.

Ghazanfar:  P. corylifolia L.  Seeds cooling.  Many topical and internal uses related to this; mostly topically, as paste on body for fevers, on chest for breathing, etc.

Nadkarni:  P. corylifolia, seeds diuretic, diaphoretic, antihelminthic; wide uses.

Li:  P. corylifolia, buguzhi.  Bitter, pungent, very warm, nontoxic.  Range of uses, with no obvious pattern.


Pterocarpus indicus Willd. and/or P. marsupium Roxb., Fabaceae.

Nadkarni:  Gum (kino) astringent; for digestion, toothache, etc.  Bark powdered for same.  Leaves externally used as paste on boils, sores, skin diseases.  Wood of P. santolinum astringent, cooling, tonic.


Punica granatum L.  Punicaceae.  Introd.  Shi-liu.  Hu 540.

Dioscorides:  I-151, rhoa, pomegranate.  Good for stomach.  Seed of sharpest (which are the most medicinal) ground and sprinkled on food for stomach looseness.  In rain water for blood-spitting, or as bath for dysentery and childbirth problems.  Juice for sores of many kinds.

I-152, kytinoi, pomegranate flowers.  Similar uses.  Binding and drying.  Put on teeth and gums for problems.  “Somme relate” (i.e., do not believe what follows) that taking three flowers prevents eye griefs for a year (Gunther 1934:81).

Levey:  Jullinār (this is the familiar “Golnar” or “Gulnar” so common in Iranian writings, often as a girl’s name).  Flower.  Liver, stomach, pains in spleen, and variously for limbs, throat, abscesses, teeth, gums.

Avicenna: rummān.  Julnār is wild pomegranate.  Persian, anār.  Cold and dry, but wild is hot and moist.  Syrup for yellow bile.  Seeds with honey on malignant ulcers.  Flowers on wounds.  Wild form in poiultices for sprains, fractures, etc.  Pomegranate with honey for toothaches, earaches, nose.  Powdered seeds with honey on oral inflammations, ulcers.  Many minor uses for eyes, chest, throatt, stomach, etc.

Lev and Amar:  rummān.  Flowers jullanār.  Syrup used for various soothinguses.  Oil of flower in water for eyes.  Flowers in gargling and rinsing solution.  Juice for diarrhea (tea of the skin works better).  Juice also for fevers, cancer, erysipelas, sweelings, elephantiasis, etc.  Peels and seeds used but no specifics survive. More generally, juice or fruit for thirst, stomach aches, liver.  Maimonides notes the peel for wounds, stopping diarrhea; cold and dry, though sweet is hot and dry.

Kamal:  rumman.  Rind for diarrhea, leucorrhea, hemorrhage, pharynx.  Root starch powdered, cooked in milk, for tonic for weak or syphilitic patients.

Bellakhdar et al:  qshur romman.  Antiulcer, vaginal antiseptic, hypoglycemiant (presumably modern use).  For gastro-intestinal disorders.

Ghazanfar.  Fruit, especially rind, antihelminthic, and for diarrhea, jaundice; topically for skin rashes and vision.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Rumman.  Usual uses for stomach and topically on burns and skin problems; also taken for diabetes, heart, sinus.  Value as antioxidant and astringent, and possibly for cancer, noted from recent medical literature.

Madanapala:  Dādimī.  Alleviates dosa problems.

Nadkarni:  Astringent, antihelminthic.

Dash:  All stomach diseases; digestion; cold conditions.  Cardiac.

Sun:  Pomegranate (anshiliu安石榴): sweet, sour, astringent, and nonpoisonous. It ends hotness and thirst in the pharynx. It cannot be eaten too much. Otherwise it hurts the lung.

Li:  Anshiliu.  Sweet and/or sour, warm, astringent, nontoxic.  Used, especially the rind of sour fruits, as a cure for diarrhea and dysentery.    Powdered rind or flower stanches wounds and otherwise useful. Various minor indications, including flower decoction to turn graying hair black.  (This would work if some iron got in the mix; the tannins in the plant would make a black dye with iron.)

(The universal old-time use against diarrhea is still standard, and biomedically verified; the tannins stop diarrhea and seem to kill dysentery germs.  The fruit is very high in antioxidants and is now recommended for all sorts of conditions; evidence is slim but suggestive. Modern Near Eastern and Chinese uses of flower, rind, and root bark, as in HHYF, for vermifuge, etc.  Here as in HHYF it is used for almost anything where a strongly astringent herbal would help.)


Quercus infectoria Oliv.  Fagaceae. Galls made by Cynips gallae-tinctoriae.  MaZu. Iran Mazu.

Dioscorides:  I-146, kekides, oak galls.  Binding, and used for any condition needing that.  Put on swellings, gum diseases, ulcers, toothaches, wounds, etc.  Dye hair black when macerated in vinegar or water.  Sitz bath for women for vulvar discharges.  Good for dysentery, etc.

Also oak uses:  I-142, drys, Q. aegilops, dyer’s oak.  All parts astringent; inner bark best.  Acorn cup lining is good.  For dysentery, blood-spitting, etc., and as pessary for leucorrhea and/or similar condition.

I-143, balanoi, acorns.  Same uses.  Also eaten for venomous bites.  On wounds and sores.

I-144, phegos, Q. aesculus; prinos, Q. coccifera, kermes oak.  Root bark dyes hair black.  Leaves help swellings.

Lev and Amar:  Various minor purposes for powder; gargling, etc.  Hemorrhoids, skin, teeth, sores, wounds, drying in general.  Maimonides notes sexual medicine uses for constricting vagin (the tannin would do this), hardening penis, increasing sperm.

Bellakhdar et al:  Q. suber, Q. ilex, hair-care (the tannin adds much to a hair wash), bowel and colon infections.

Nadkarni:  Galls for obvious astringent uses.

Li:  Galls of this and other oaks, wushizi, bitter, warm, nontoxic, powdered for use for dysentery, external conditions, and black dye; the tannins make it effective for all these.

Several other oak species are used similarly, the acorns in particular being employed.

(Very concentrated tannins in the galls make them extremely effective for the above uses involving drying, constricting, washing.)


Raphanus sativus L. Brassicaceae.  Native.  Lai-fu for introd type.  Hu 659 seeds, roots

Dioscorides:  II-137, raphanis, radish.  Root for vomiting, etc.  Cataplasm for spleen.  Various external applications.  Seed for several minor conditions, used externally or internally.

I-45, oil of seed for skin conditions.

Galen:  With fish sauce as purgative.  Root usually eaten; leaves sometimes.

Avicenna:  Fujl.  Wild radish is afyūs. Roots hot, seeds hotter.  Oil hot and dry.  Usual minor external and internal uses, but bad as a food because it causes belching and is laxative.

Lev and Amar:  fujl.  Mouth, throat, skin, deafness and earache, headache, fever, skin conditions, poison.  Maimonides notes use of seeds for sexual health—strengthens, heats, increases activity.  Hot and dry.

Kamal:  fugl, figl. Stomachic.  Diuretic, galactagogue.  Oil from seeds used in ear.  Juice for dissolving gallstones.  Eaten for scurvy.

Bellakhdar et al:  Calefacient.

Ghazanfar:  Leaves with salt and honey for ears.  Ground seeds on skin for spots, pains, baldness.  Eating seeds for lactation and for kidneys.  Root reduces phlegm; eaten before breakfast.

Madanapala:  Mūlaka.  Hot.  Appetite, voice, dyspnoea, throat, eyes, rhinitis.

Nadkarni:  Seeds and leaves diuretic, laxative; seeds emmenagogue. Seeds used for gonorrhea.

Dash:  Constipative.  Pungent, hot, can cure poison.

Li:  Laibei, luobo.  Many uses, including some fascinating folklore with songs and stories.  Usually described as warm, though in modern China it is one of the coldest foods, used against heats of all kinds.


Rhamnus infectorius.  Rhamnaceae.  Ḥazaz

Avicenna: Snuff for facial paralysis.  Treats eyelid swellings.

Nadkarni:  several species (not this one) for purgation and astringent uses.

Eisenman:  R. cathartica, usual laxative uses  Infusion of fruits in vodka to treat rehumatism.  Decoction of branches for ulcers, and extern ally on woiunds.  Tea for catarrh.

(Rhamnus spp. are standard purgatives everywhere, holding their own even today.  The Near Eastern species was no doubt used for that purpose, but is barely mentioned in HHYF.)


Rheum palmatum L. & other  spp.  Polygonaceae.  Native

Dioscorides:  III-2, ra, rha, R. rhaponticum, rhubarb.  [Note the scientific name is “rha ponticum,” the “rha” plant from the Pontic area.]  Root drunk for bloating, stomach conditions, pains, convulsions, and essentially any and all illnesses.  Binding and heating.

Avicenna: Rheum ribes, R. officinale.  Ribās, rīwand.  Cold and dry.  Used externally for bubonic plague.  Massages and poultices for various external uses, including treatment of beatings.  Internally for disease of liver stomach, etc.  Also for cholera.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Long tradition of rhubarb as very important in Near Eastern medicine.

Lev and Amar:  Rheum spp. probably including R. officinale.  Rībās, rāwand (these often treated as two separate things, presumably different spp. of Rheum).  Cathartic.  For liver including jaundice.  Strengthens stomach, helps with vomiting and regulating heartbeat and appetite.  For hemorrhoids, smallpox, pains, internal ailments, internal organs, plague, eyes, etc.

Nadkarni:  R. emodi, R. officinale, other spp.  Stomachic, tonic, cathartic, purgative.  Standard cure for constipation and bowel complaints.

Eisenman:  Rheum maximowiczii, decoction for diarrhea.  Juice used for malaria.  Young petioles and stemps for tonic, antipyretic, etc., and to prevent anemia and detoxify.  Inreases appetite, treats gastritis and liver and gallbladder, tuberculosis, hemorrhoids, constipation (as well as diarrhea!), etc.  Biomedically, well-known astringent; said to be diuretic, improve liver function, etc.

Li:  Dahuang.  This and other species.  Bitter, cold, nontoxic.  This major drug has a vast range of uses for basic regulation of the system.  Its fame spread throughout Eurasia in premodern times, to the point that 18th-century Chinese strategists assumed it was necessary to Europeans and thus usable to get a purchase on them (by manipulating availability).  Purgative and digestive, in particular.

Meserve:  R. undulatum, “cathartic” (Meserve 2004:80).

(I have observed Rheum nanum gathered for medical use in Mongolia; it is a widely used herb there.)


Rhus coriaria, R. chinensis Mill. & other spp., Anacardiaceae.  Includes galls from Melaphis chinensis (Bell) & spp.  GaZeZum A GaGeu Ta  [Note that the word “sumac” is a straight Arabic loan into English.]

Dioscorides:  I-147, rous, Rhus coriaria, tanning sumac.  Leaves binding, and dye hair black. Clyster for dysentery; also drunk or as sitz bath.  Various external applications (where tannin would do good).  Applied for leucorrhea and hemorrhoids.

Avicenna:  Sumāq. Cold and dry.  Minor uses; causes constipation; stops excessive menstrual flow, or any excessive bleeding.

Levey, Levey and Khaledy:  Summāq.  R. coriaria.  Gum and moth, anti-miscarriage, sore throat, sprue, collyrium.

Lev and Amar:  R. coriaria, summāq.  Diarrhea, toothache, gum pains, swellings, stomch, liver, measles, smallpox.  Hemorrhoids, eyes.

Kamal:  Rhus spp., sumaq.  Tonic, stimulant.  For incontinence of urine, and hematuria.

Nadkarni:  R. coriaria fruit astringent, tonic, diuretic, styptic.  For dysentery, etc.  In paste on ulcers and piles.

Li:  Yanfuzi. Various minor uses for fruit and bark.

(Strongly astringent and sour.  Very common spice in the Middle East then and now.)


Ricinus communis L., Euphorbiaceae.  Bi-ma-zi, Hu 659

Manniche:  already very well known in ancient Egypt as a purgative, laxative, emollient, disinfectant, etc.

Dioscorides:  IV-164, kroton e kiki.  Poisonous.  Oil laxative.  Vomitory also, but dangerous.  Oil put on sunburn.  Leaves with flour in paste for eyes, milk-swollen breasts, rash, etc.

Avicenna: qanqabīn, the plant; the oil is khrū‘.  Leaves with barley flour for swellings.  Oil on ulcers, swellings, headaches, earaches.  Laxative.  Masage good for “uterine orifice and hot anal swellings” (207).  Expels worms.

Levey:  hair oil; epilepsy, clyster.

Lev and Amar:  On skin for all the usual uses; internally for convulsion, tetany, fever, colic, purging.  Also spleen, liver, kidneys, teeth, malaria, dysenery, lungs, thigh sinew, cough, heart, paralysis, hardened skin, joint pains, etc..  Enema.

Kamal:  Oil laxative and emetic.  Seed powdered for skin diseases.  Oil on ulcers.  Pulverized seeds drunk to purge phlegm and abdominal worms.  This from Avicenna.  Presumably the seeds were used in very small quantities, since they are deadly poison.  Seed mashed for external conditions; antiseptic on them.

Bellakhdar et al:  Laxative, tonic.

Ghazanfar:  ‘Arash, kharwa, khirwa.  Smoke for bad breath.  Topically for blisters, ulcers, toothache, eyes.  Purgative.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  For hair loss, indigestion, abdomen and liver.

Nadkarni:  Usual purgative use of oil; used in an incredible range of illnesses.  External applications for sores, soreness, skin conditions, etc.

Dash:  Strong purgative.  Red variety also cures colic, gout, various other digestive and abdominal conditions.

Li:  Bima.  Sweet, pungent, balanced, slightly toxic.  Usual purgative uses, plus uses where its toxins would be effective externally, etc.

(Castor oil remained the laxative of choice for very stubborn cases until well into the 20th century, but it is too drastic for use now that better things are available.)


Rosa spp., Rosaceae.  Jull (=gul; [Arabized] Persian for “flower”), ward (standard Arabic name), lawarda (Persian; from Arabic?  Or possibly vice versa?)

Dioscorides:  I-130, rhodon, Rosa spp.  Kynosbaton for dog rose (R. canina).  Petals ground, in wine, externally applied for soothing all sorts of coinditions.  Burned for eyelid makeup.  Leaves can be used for the medicinal uses.  The petal salve or extract is recommended in a very wide range of headings; it was used as a general carrier, emollient, or aid for herbal applications.

I-131, rhodides, pomanders (scent balls made up with myrrh and nard).  For perfume, etc.

I-53, rhodinon, rosaceum oil.  Various recipes for extracting rose petals in oil, with honey and/or other items.  Resulting oil used internally for stomach, externally for boils, sores, toothache, etc.  Clyster for rectal problems.  Applied to vulva for irritations.  [Rose attar is in fact both highly soothing and fairly strongly antibiotic.  Note, however, that Dioscorides is talking about roses macerated in olive oil, not rose attar, i.e. the oil actually extracted from the petals.]  This rose oil is noted as used with other herbs in a very large number of Dioscorides’ entries.  [The cultural importance of the rose in Greco-Roman culture guaranteed it a major place in all areas, including medicine.  Conversely, some of the cultural importance is due to the medicinal value.]

Levey:  ward, Rosa spp.  Rose oil for hemorrhoidsd, ulcers, boils, ointments, poultices for liver; flower in poultices for stomach, liver, spleen, sore throat, mouth; electuary for jaundice and for f=phlegm.  Excellent for perfumery.  Notes names including Akkadian murdinnu, Egyptian wrt, Hebrew wered, Aramaic wordā.   Today astringent, etc.  [The soothing and antiseptic values of rose are also well known, as they have been for millennia.]

Al-Bīrūnī:  ward, Rosa spp.  Gives the “Roman” (i.e. Rumi, Byzantine) as “anthūs,” i.e. Greek anthos “flower.”  Flowers/buds used.  Perfumes for women; desiccatory, refrigerant, astringent; good for liver and stomach. Iran is major source.  An Iraqi variety was so big it could not be fully contained in two cupped hands.  Rose oil distilled from many varieties.

Avicenna:  Ward, Rosa damascena.  Persian gūl-i-surkh.  Cold.  Drying; constricting and astringent.  Laxative, cleansing.  On ulcers, sores, skin. Inhaled for headaches, and to make one sneeze (the oil).  Rose water for loss of consciousness.  Various uses for stomach, often preserved in honey (rose jam in sugar or honey is still a very common Middle Eastern medicine).  Nasrīn, R. canina.  Hot and dry.  Purifying.  Kills ear worms and used for ringing eaer and for toothaches.  Used on forehead for headaches.  Useful—presumably as tea—for sore throat and tonsillitis.  Four-dram dose (of petals, fruit…?)—stops vomiting and hiccups.

Nasrallah:  Cooling, dry, astringent.

Lev and Amar:  nasrīn, ward (the later is the usual Arabic word).  Various uses for liver, eyes, headaches, purging, and even lice.  Used in a vast range of recipes for every purpose from babies’ navels to black bile and phlegm.  Seeds fom fruit for diarrhea.  Rose syrup (presumably the modern type: rosewater cooked down with sugar) often used; sometimes rose oil, mostly topically for almost any and every purpose from ear problems to stings.  Rose leaves for coughs and colds.  Rose rubb mentioned (and may be the rose-petal jam now common in the Middle East).  Rosewater mentioned in recipes for diarrhea, headache, salivation, colds, giddiness, stomach ache, eyes, etc.  Also spleen, fevers, etc.

Graziani:  ward, R. gallica.  Ibn Jazlah used rose oil as stomachic, for headache and spleen, for eye and ear illnesses, for dressing wounds.  Al-Kindī used it for ulcers, boils, hemorrhoids, stomach, liver, spleen, and in mixes for sore throat and mouth.  Samarqandī used it in lozenges for fever, phlegm, jaundice, heart palpitation, cold liver, etc.  Today, in Egypt for stomachic; in Iran and Iraq as astringent for colic and diarrhea.  (Many of these uses are found in Latin America today, ultimately from Arab medicine.)

Kamal:  R. canina, nisrin, gul-nisrin (from Farsi).  Astringent.  Root used to treat rabies, hence name of plant.  R. gallica, ward (in Arabic), influsions astringent, for throat and rectum.  Bellakhdar et al:  l-werd, R. damascena, R. centifolia.  Laxative, against headache, cosmetic.  (These spp. universal for throat, cough, etc. in Hispanic countries now.)

Ghazanfar: Rosa sp.  Flowers for skin, coughs, tonic.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  R. damascena, ward.  Tea with cinnamon for childbirth.  In eyes for care.  For stomach, heart, insomnia.  On skin for general care (this worldwide use is oddly lacking in the other sources, but historical evidence shows it was extremely well known in the Mediterranean and Near East from time immemorial; so much for the completeness of the sources!)

Madanapala:  R. moschata kubjakā, R. centifolia śatapatrī.  Cardiac tonic, constipative, for semen, complexion, dosas, etc.  Cold.

Nadkarni:  Mildly astringent, aperient, carminative, refrigerant, tonic.  Several spp. used.

Eisenman:  Decoction of petals, leaves, branches, roots for rheumatism, stomach, heart.  Tea of hips for scurvy, colds, diuretic.  Decoction of roots for liver and gastrointestinal tract.  Tea of hips also for astringent uses, including fevers, intestines, hemostat for uterine bleeding, and mouthwash.  Seeds diuretic and for kidneys.  Powdered leaves on wounds and skin ulcers.  Biomedically, various local uses, but potential apparently not well explored.  R. fedtschenkoana, similar uses; remedy for scurvy;hips with honey for coulds and coiughs.  Oil of rose used to treat cracked and injured breasts of nursing women.  Also bedsoresa nd other wounds and sores.  Less successful uses of hips for tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, flu.  Biomedically, hips are a rich vitamin source.

Li:  R. multiflora, yingshi, and R. chinensis, yuejihua.  Range of minor uses, mostly for the former.  Seeds and root.  (Red rose is medicinal today for many internal purposes.  The external uses are not traditional in eastern Asia.) Rosa laevigata Michx.  Native.  This is called “Cherokee rose” in the United States, because of its garden popularity and subsequent rapid spread in the south, but it is from China.  Hip, jinyingzi (mistranslated “fruit” in Li 2003) sour, astringent, balanced, nontoxic.  Male sexual tonic.  Flower stops dysentery, makes a black hair dye, and kills worms (none of these seem biomedically very effective).  More hopeful are several uses, external or digestive.

Meserve:  R. acicularis, possibly various uses including diluent for infectious material in smallpox nasal inoculation.

(The rose was the Near East’s dream plant:  both aesthetic and genuinely medicinal.  The standard of beauty and sweet-scentedness, symbol of love and pleasure, and symbol of romance from earliest times, it was also known to be antiseptic, soothing both externally and internally, and effective against throat ailments—all of which it actually is, in biomedical terms.  Rose oil is powerfully antiseptic.  Rose-petal or roseleaf tea is extremely soothing to the throat.  The preparations with sugar—syrup, rose jam—dilute the medical action too much to be more than symptomatically soothing, but they are so delightful that the Near Eastern belief that God made healing pleasant makes them inevitable parts of treatment.  The high tannin content explains the widespread use of leaves and of tea of the plant for wounds, throat, skin, etc.   By contrast, the more sober and pragmatic Chinese never used roses much in medicine, though the use of roseleaf tea for throat and stomach was well known and well established, giving us the English name “Chinese tea rose.”  The place of the rose flower in romantic symbolism was taken by its relatives the peach and apricot.  Nonsoothing items like ginseng and atractylis had the medical reputation.  There is obviously an important and interesting cultural difference here.  Rose hips are a source of vitamins, but there is a huge range in concentration; commercial roses have almost no vitamin value, whereas the rugosa rose of Japan is so rich in vitamin C that it is a regular commercial source thereof, and some other species, including R. fedtschenkoana as noted above, have high vitamin values.)


Rosmarinus officinalis L., Lamiaceae.  Iklil.  Mi-die-xiang.  Hu 739.

Dioscorides:  III-89, libanotis, rosemary.  Minor external uses.

Lev and Amar:  ‘iklīl al-jabal.  Black and yellow bile, urine flow, menstrual flow (accelerates), clearing obstructions in liver and spleen, cleansing lungs, curing cough, etc.

Kamal:  hasalban, iklil, iklil al-gabal.  Flowers for convulsions.  Cooked in honey as enema for hysteria and colic.  Leaves burnt in houses to ward off epidemics.  Volatile oil carminative and hair tonic; used externally.

Bellakhdar et al:  azir.  For all diseases (like several other good-tasting herbs; Morocco preserves Mediterranean herbal traditions and the Arab idea of good-tasting things as medicinal).  Emmenagogue.  Against chills, gastro-intestinal disorders, liver disorders.

Nadkarni:  Carminative, stimulant.  Oil used.

Li:  Midiexiang.  Li says it reached China in the Wei Dynasty.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Root, flowers, foliage for fumigating and insect repelling.

(Oil stimulant, carminative, strongly antiseptic.  There is enough in the leaves to make them, or teas from them, rather useful.)


Rubia cordifolia L.  Rubiaceae. Root. native. FuWuWa. Morocco, Fuwa

Dioscorides:  III-160, erythrodanon, Rubia tinctorum, madder.  Root diuretic, abortifacient, emmenagogue, helps expel afterbirth.  Helps wioth paralysis, venomous beast bites, etc.  In short, a typical Dioscorides drug.

Avicenna:  R. tinctoria.  ‘Ushr.  Hot and dry.  Constricting.  Used on pains, ringworm, and internally for inflammations of spleen, clearing liver, diuretic, etc.—usual minor uses of hot and dry drugs.

Lev and Amar:  R. tinctoria.  Fūwa.  Pains, hemorrhoids, childbirth pangs, etc.  Eases childbirth, whitens teeth, cleases spleen and liver, cures leprosy, induces urine, etc.  Hot and dry.

Kamal:  R. tinctoria, fowah, fowat al-sabbaghin.  Roots for emmenagogue, diuretic, childbirth.  Powder for rickets.

Bellakhdar et al:  R. tinctoria, R. peregrina.  Fuwa, tarubya.  Aphrodisiac, antidiarrheal, antianemic, analeptic, for liver pain.

Ghazanfar:  Fauwa.  Root for irregular menstruation, with Salvadora persica and mulberries.  Crushed root as tonic after childbirth.

Nadkarni:  Emmenagogue, astringent, diuretic, etc.

Eisenman: R. tinctoria, rickets, constipation, jaundice, joints, rheumatism in back etc.  For kidney stones, gallstones, gout, diuretic, laxative.  Roots mixed with honey for jaundice, memory improvement, diuretic.  Biomedical activity as antibiotic.

Li:  Qiancao.  Root used.  Astonishing disagreement on its humoral qualities.  Range of uses, from pain to bleeding to red dye.


Rumex spp.  In China, mainly R. japonicus Houtt.  Polygonaceae.  HeZaNuSaoEr.  Root used.

Dioscorides:  II-140, lapathon, R. patientia, dock.  Plant or seed boiled for stomach.  Seed in water and wine for dysentery, scorpion stings, stomach and intestinal complaints.   Leaves and/or roots externally for a wide range of conditions, from leprosy and impetigo to earache and toothache.

Galen:  Also lapathon, R. patientia.  Juice irritates stomach.  Oxylapathon (“sour dock,” presumably R. acetosella), not good to eat.

Avicenna:  ḥummāḍ, R. crispus.  Cold and dry.  Various poultices for tubecular glands, etc.  Mouthwash.  With wine for black jaundice.  Seeds cause constipation but leaves may be laxative.  Minor internal uses.

Lev and Amar, Rumex sp., ḥummād..  Minor uses including depressing sexual function.

Kamal:  R. acetosa, hammad, hummayd.  Diuretic (root).  R. patientia, ‘rq. mushel, rawand barri.  Root infusion sudorific, and on skin and scabies.  Leaves astringent.

Bellakhdar et al:  Rumex sp., zerri’at l-hummida, laxative, for liver disorders.

Ghazanfar:  R. vesicarius, ḥamid., leaves and seeds eaten for scorpion stings.

Nadkarni:  R. crispus, Astringent, sedative.

Dash:  R. acetosella and R. vesicarius.  Alleviate dosas.  Appetiser.

Eisenman: R. caesius, various diseases from scabies to scurvy; astringent for diarrhea.  Decoction of roots and leaves for skin conditions and wounds.  Biomedically, astringent, purgative, and many intestinal conditions; vermifuge. R. tianschanicus, on abscesses.

Li:  Yangti (can cover other species too).  Range of uses, including root as vermifuge and antifungal.  R. acetosa, suanmo, next in Li after this sp., sour, cold, nontoxic, for pain, scabies, tinea, dystentery, etc.


Ruta spp. (R. graveolens is the usual domestic species), Rutaceae.  Rue, sādhab, is called for in the HHYF, but always glossed as “field mint,” and one can only assume the gloss is correct here, and that the rue actually used in the Near Eastern originals found a local substitute in field mint.  Either the Chinese did not have rue (but they do, now, and use it medicinally) or the translators were confused.  Thus, see Mentha.  However, in the HHYF Table of Contents, rue frequently appears, unglossed.

Dioscorides:  III:45: peganon to oreion (“mountain rue”).  Pain in sides and breasts, asthma, coughs, lungs, joints, uterus, worms, ear trouble, itching, etc.

Levey:  Various plants for pains in boys.  Modern uses for diuretic, emmenagogue, abortive, etc.

Avicenna:  Sadhāb, Ruta graveolens.  Hot and dry.  Pounded with salt for hot swellings.  Used on tubercular lymph glands.  Used for paralysis, pain, sciatica, arthritis; orally or poultice with honey.  Usual minor uses of nose, eyes, chest.  Used with fig as poultice for “wateryt swellings throughout the body” (948)  For abdominal pain.  Internally or externally for fevers and chills.

Lev and Amar:  sadhāb (wild rue), fayjān (cultivated).  Diarrhea, wind, warts, dysuria, dysmenorrhea, hard swellings, aphasia, spasms, tension, shaking, palsy, baldness, fever, bile, phlegm.  Rue oil specifically for convulsion and tetany, fevers, colic; seeds for eyelids; etc.  Used with othe medications for anything and everything from sexual therapy to sore armpits.  Hot and dry.

Kamal (1975:433-436) translates Avicenna on rue; the account is very long and detailed.  The plant is breaks up and resolves or soothes various conditions, clears vessels, etc.  It is good on skin conditions for odor of garlic and onion, for tumors and pustules, for wounds and ulcers, for headaches and head conditions, for various eye, chest, and stomach conditions, and so on; it helps with fever and resists poisons.  He gives formulations for all these purposes.  Significantly, he says nothing about magical uses, though these were rampant in the west—at least later, and presumably in his time.  The plant is, in modern biomedical terms, slightly antiseptic and quite soothing to the stomach, but not much else.  Large quantities of it, made up as he recommends, would probably have action in most of the ways Avicenna mentions, though not necessarily very much action.

Meserve (2004:19) lists R. sahurica as a Mongol medicine for nerves and possibly other uses, though there are problems with identification.

(Significant here is the thoroughly scientific and empirical way Avicenna treats the plant and its uses.  He brought together an incredible amount of material that was obviously based on close observation and recording.  Interestingly, rue never made it to east Asia in early times.  It is very commonly grown as a folk medicine today, however.  Li does not mention any Ruta sp.  Possibly the easy availability of the closely related and similarly effective Citrus spp. account for this. Rue is extremely effective as an antiseptic [especially the oil], soothing and digestive agent, etc., but dangerous in overdose.)


Saccharum officinarum L., S. sinensis Roxb., Poaceae.  Sugarcane.

Dioscorides:  II-104, sakcharon, sugar (from S. officinarum).  Drunk for stomach, and pains of bladder and kidneys.  Applied to eyes.

Levey:  Sugar in various preparations, as a modifier.  In clysters.

Avicenna:  Hot and somewhat moist, but dry after aging.  White sugar candy is moist.  Laxative, cleansing, washing; the candy is especially laxative.  Softens chest.  Candy treats coughs.  Cane for yellow bile.  Various minor uses.

Lev and Amar:  Cough, colds, heartbeat.  Ash used for this and even malaria.  Much more widespread was the use of sugar as the vehicle for carrying drugs; almost anything could be given in a syrup, rob (rubb), sugar pill, etc.

Ghazanfar:  S. officinarum, juice for cough and diuretic, also in eyes for pain.

Madanapala:  S. spontaneum, kāśa, cold; cures bronchitis, dysuria, stone, bleeding, consumption.  Other spp. noted.

Nadkarni:  S. officinarum preservative, demulcent, antiseptic, cooling, laxative, diuretic.  Juice used.  Sugar for antiseptic and demulcent uses.

Dash:  Sweet, cold.  Promotes coruulence and virility.  Laxative.  S. spontaneum similar; also for thirst, cough, bleeding.

Sun:  Sugar cane (ganzhe甘蔗): sweet, balanced, astringent, nonpoisonous. It helps the qi move downwards and harmonizes the Middle Jiao (hezhong和中) and nourishes the qi of spleen. It is good for the large intestine. It stops thirst and rids anxiety. It also treats intoxication caused by alcohol.

Li:  Ganzhe (=S. officinarum, S. spontaneum, also).  Sweet, balanced to cold, astringent, nontoxic.  Minor uses including soothing stomach.


Salix babylonica L., Salicaceae.  Bid.

Dioscorides:  I-74, itea, Salix sp., willow.  Leaves ground, taken as contraceptive; drunk with pepper and wine for colic.  Fruit (seed) or bark tea, drunk for spitting blood.  Various external applications.

Avicenna:  Bahrāmaj, khilāf, ṣafṣāf (various spp.?).  Several external uses, including poultice for bone wounds.  Fruits for gases in head.  Smelling of leaves is good.  Flowers and juice in ears for aches.  Juice for liver and jaundice.  Somewhat laxative.  (Interestingly, the painkilling effects are not mentioned.)

Lev and Amar:  Salix spp. S. aegyptica, khilāf, etc.  Eyes, fever, colic, stomach-ache.

Kamal:  S. alba, root for antirheumatic and antipyretic uses.  S. nigra, sexual disturbances.  S. babylonica not used medicinally.

Nadkarni:  Antihelminthic, antiseptic, astringent, tonic.  Several other spp. used similarly.

Dash:  Cures aggravated heat in lungs and heart.

Li:  Liu (“willow” in general; this sp. is the usual garden one in China).  Bitter, cold, nontoxic.  For fever, of course, but also a variety of other internal and external uses, the external ones related to tannin values.

  1. purpurea, shiuyang, twig and fruit for a number of internal and external uses related to strong tannin value.

(Willows are one of the most concentrated sources of salicylic acid, the natural “aspirin,” though the latter drug was actually discovered by the Bayer chemists in a spiraea, of which the word “aspirin” is an anagram.  Cultures around the world have learned to use willow leaf or bark tea, or simply chew the leaves, for fevers, headaches and inflammations.)


Salsola kali L., Chenopodiaceae.  Ushnan (Persian).  WuShiNan

Avicenna:  ṭarāghayūn,  S. tragus (which is so similar to kali that they are routinely confused even now).  Very minor uses for urinary tract conditions and menstruation.

Kamal:  Qaly, sollag, ashnan, salsola, al-ghasul, harad.  Burned for soda or potash.

Lev and Amar:  same use.  Many uses of potash.  Juice of plant also used medicinally.

Mandaville gives several names for various species of the genus, but no uses.

(Very young shoots are a nutritious, stomach-soothing food.)


Santalum album L., Santalaceae.  Tan-xiang.  Hu 540.

Graziani:  Ibn Jazlah used it for palpitation, headache, liver ailments; modern Iranian use for antiseptic action in genito-urinary tract.  White sandalwood in Egypt against gonorrhea and other genito-urinary complaints.

Levey:  ṣandal.  Liver, spleen, erysipelas, etc.

Avicenna:  ṣandal.  Cold and dry.  Dissolves hot swellings; used on inflammation.  For headaches, fevers, weak stomach.

Lev and Amar:  ṣandal.  Black bile, phlegm, malaria, diarrhea, liver, ulcers, teeth, erysipelas, heart, etc.

Kamal:  Sandal.  Oil sudorific, heart tonic, cure for gonorrhea.

Al-Bīrūnī, the famous medieval Arab chronicler of India, noted in a vast, excellent, but unpublished herbal work that sandalwood was used in India for treating acute swellings, as well as for making useful objects (that would then be scented), etc. (Hamarneh 1973:87).  Apparently he incorporated a vast amount of other new, often Indian, material in this herbal, but it is still obscure and virtually unknown except among specialists.

Bellakhkdar et al:  sendal.  “Magic,” whatever that may be.

Madanapala:  Candana.  Cold.  Cardiac tonic.  For complexion, poison, thirst, bleeding, burning syndrome.

Nadkarni:  Wood bitter, cooling, sedative, astringent.  Oil used as disinfectant for membranes.

Li:  Tan, a name used also for Dalbergia hupeana.  Root-bark balanced, pungent, nontoxic, good for external parasites.  The gum, tanxiang (sandalwood fragrance/incense), warm, pungent, nontoxic, few minor uses including the same external ones and a stomachic use.

(This is, of course, also the most important Chinese incense, so important that it gave its name to Hong Kong [xiang gong, “incense port,” because sandalwood was once shipped from there; mistranslated “fragrant harbor” all too often] and the Hawaiian Islands (tanxiangshan, “sandalwood mountains,” in Chinese, because they once produced this root-parasitic tree).  As a sacred incense, its smell defines sacred space in Chinese culture.  Its major medicinal importance, then, lies in its magical or religious function.  Its scent when burned pleases the gods and spirits and makes them help and heal the worshipers.)


Satureja thymbra L., Lamiaceae.  Shaturyat.

Dioscorides:  III-45, thymbra, Satureia thymbra, savory.  Used like thyme.

Lev and Amar:  za‘tar (sa‘tar) fārisī.  Kidney pains and stones, urine flow, ears, eyes, intestines, growths on neck, emmenagogue, diuretic, stomach, etc.


Saussurea lappa C. B. Clarke, Asteraceae.  Introd.  Guang-mu-xiang.  Hu 100.

Avicenna:  Qusṭ (from the Greek kostos).  Hot and dry.  Various external uses; also for lethargy, chest pains, menstruation, worms, etc.  Aphrodisiac but abortifacient.  Treats bites; with wine and absinthe for snake bites.  (Interesting that Avicenna is the only western source to go into much detail on this widely distributed and chemically active plant—a major Chinese medicine.)

Madanapala:  Kustha.  Pungent, sweet, bitter. Promotes semen.  Cures gout, erysipelas, bleeding, cough.

Nadkarni:  Carminative, antiseptic, disinfectant.

Dash:  Bitter, pungent, hot, alleviates dosas, cures thirst, erysipelas, poison, fungus, skin conditions.

Li:  Muxiang.  Root pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Dispels problems in general, even nightmares and weak will.  General tonic and toner of system, with wide functions.


Scolopendrium vulgare Swartz, Polypodiaceae.  Asqulufandiryun YiSiGuLuFanDiLiRong

Dioscorides:  III-121, phyllitis.  Leaves with wine for snakebite and the like, and dysentery and diarrhea.


Sedum sarmentosum.  Apparently a mistaken identification in sources.

However, Lev and Amar report use of possible Sedum sp., ḥayy al-’ālam, for nerves, lungs, bleeding, pains.  Not scored.


Semecarpus anacardium L., Anacardiaceae.  Balādur.  Anaqardīyā.  Oriental cashew nut.

Presumably the AnJiaErDiYa (translit. of “anacardia”) in HHYF is this sp.

Mentioned several times in the Index, but not important in surviving parts of the HHYF.

Avicenna:  Balādur.  Hot and dry.  On ulcers, inflammation, warts, vitiligo.  Eliminates tattoo marks.  Relieves baldness.  Treats “coldness and laxity of nerves caused by paralysis and facial paralysis” (p. 707).  May stir up melancholia.  Snuffing it dries piles.  Poisonous.

Madanapala:  Astringent, sweet, hot.  Promotes semen.  Cures abdominal diseases, constipation, skin including leprosy, piles, fever, ulcers, parasites, etc., etc.

Nadkarni:  Very important; many major uses.  Antiseptic, stimulant, digestive, etc.  Modern studies confirm effects; several active ingredients noted.

Powerful vesicant, rash producing, but oil highly antiseptic and cholagogue.  “Ripe fruits are regarded as stimulant, digestive, nervine and escharotic…gastro-intestinal irritant.  Kernel edible, digestive, carminatice.  Cardiac and respiratory tonic (p. 1120).  Several pages of uses; very important in India, especially for skin and digestion.

Dash:  Hot; digestive.


Sempervivum sp. (?S.  arboreum L.), Crassulaceae.  Anbub-al-ra’ay

Avicenna:  suqūṭūn, Sempervivum tectorum.  Cold and dry.  Diluting, adhesive, dissolvent.  Used for nerves and muscles, dryness of throat, intestinal ulcers, abrasions, other minor uses.

Li:  No mention under this name, but possibly one of the Sedum or other species.  Modern Chinese use this or similar plant for general medicine, including against cancer, because the plant survives drying out and other stressors, thus proving tenacity of life, which can transfer to the user.


Sesamum indicum  DC., Pedaliaceae.  Oil.  Introd.  KeTangYou. Morocco, Zarrit katlan.  Hei-zhi-ma.  Hu (as S. orientale L) 100

Dioscorides:  II-121, sesamon, sesame.  Hurts stomach.  Causes bad breath if the seeds stick in the teeth.  Gets rid of thickness of nerves (whatever that is), helps with fractures, inflammations, burns (evidently externally applied), and (presumably internally) for colon, etc.  Used with rose oil on head.  Herb in wine for the same and for eyes.  Use of oil mentioned, but apparently it is not medicinal.

Galen:  Warm, oily, not a good food.

Levey:  Simsim.  Ear, leprosy; oil general carrier for all sorts of poultices, clysters, etc.

Avicenna:  Simsim. Hot and moist.  Laxative.  Soothing.  Seeds on burns.  Poultice for nerves.  With rose oil on head for headaches.  For difficult breathing; seeds taken.  Emmenagogue and abortifacient.

Lev and Amar:  simsim.  Oil is shīraj.  Oil used in preparations for various topical purposes; part of a medicine for babies’ umbilical hernia and incessant crying that apparently included all the favorite curealls in the Genizah.  Also for convulsion, tetany, fevers, colic, breast swellings, ears, headache, leprosy, lungs, abscesses, toothaches, cough, instanity, etc.  Apparently always the oil.

Graziani:  Simsim.  Used by Ibn Jazlah for blood, hair, relaxation, snakebite.  Fattening but makes thirst and slows digestion.  Used today in Middle East to increase milk, for stomach and pulmonary diseases, emmenagogue, even abortifacient.

Kamal:  semsem, simsim.  Seeds for poultices.

Bellakhdar et al.:  jenjlan.  Hypnotic for children.  Stimulant, including for lactation (a very widespread use in the Mediterranean and elsewhere).

Ghazanfar:  Zait simsim (the oil).  Seed oil for dysentery, colds, urinary problems.  Seeds used as aphrodisiac.

Nadkarni:  Seeds laxative, emollient, demulcent, diuretic, latagogue, emmenagogue. Leaves demulcent.

Sun:  Sesame (huma胡麻): sweet, balanced, nonpoisonous. It especially treats hurt Middle Jiao (shangzhong傷中) and weakness (xulei虚羸). It is nutritious to the five internal organs. It enhances the qi and strength. It builds muscles. It fills the head with brains. It strengthens tendons and bones. It cures cutting wounds and relieves pain. It treats the striking cold (shanghan傷寒) and the illness in which at first the patient has fever and then feels cold (wennue溫瘧). It treats the feeling of weak, heat, and tiredness after excessive vomiting and diarrhea (datuxia hou xure kunfa大吐下後虛熱困乏). If one has taken it for a long time, his weight will be lessened and he will not get old [presumably “old” means “senile” here]. It is helpful to hearing and eyesight. It helps people resist cold and heat. It elongates one’s lifespan. Its oil is mildly cold. It particularly helps the large intestines (li dachang利大腸). It deals with the problem when a lying-in woman has difficulty pushing out the afterbirth  (chanfu baoyi bu luo產婦胞衣不落). It will let hair grow on a bald head.  One can use raw sesame to rub a wound or swelling (chuangzhong瘡腫). It eliminates wandering wind (youfeng遊風) on head and face. It has other names:  jusheng巨勝, goushi狗虱,  fangjing方莖, or hongzhi鴻芷. Its leaves are called qingxiang青蘘. It treats the striking heat (shure暑熱). Its flowers especially treat loss of hair. On the seventh day, pick those growing on the top (zuishang piaotou最上摽頭) and dry them in the shade for future use.  [The nutritional uses stressed above are perfectly practical; the high content of protein, oil, vitamins and minerals in sesame seed has made it a valuable nutritional source for thousands of years.]

Li:  hu ma (“Iranian hemp”—the seeds, not the fibre, being similar to hemp) or you ma or zhi ma (“oil hemp”; the last of these is the modern term).  Li reports it was introduced to China by Zhang Qian in the Han Dynasty; he is credited with many introductions from the west).  Stem, oil, leaves used, but mostly the seeds, with black seeds having a different nutritional and medical value than white/yellow ones.  (Black seeds are now considered more nourishing and warming.)

(Sesame oil is an excellent skin oil, also nutritious, and a good vehicle for other drugs, but has no special biomedical value.)


Seseli tortuosa L., Apiaceae.  Sisaliyus.  XiSanLiYuXi (YuSi)

Dioscorides:  Kagchru, possibly this sp.  Warming, drying.  For eyes.  Dioscorides’ “seseli” is identified as Echinophora tenuifolia (seseli massaleotikon, III-60) and Bupleurum fruticosum (seseli aithiopikon, III-61).  These were used—seed and root—for diuretic, emmenagogue, and abortifacient purposes and general internal complaints, from coughs and gripes to fevers.

Nadkarni:  S. indicum, seeds stimulant, carminative, stomachic.


Solanum melongena , Solanaceae.  Eggplant.  Bādinjān, bādhinjān, batanjen.  Jia.

Mentioned as a food in the Index.

Avicenna:  Bādhinjān.  Produces black bile.  Hot and dry.  Minor uses but most of the entry consists of warnings: harms clomplexion, causes headaches, causes liver problems unless cooked with vinegar, etc.

Lev and Amar:  Strengthens stomach, dispels nausea.  Hot and dry.  Improves smells of body, increases urine, blackens the hair, removes white spots and tears from eyes, et.  Thorns used for hemorrhoids and the like.

Ghazanfar:  Regulates cholesterol.

Nadkarni:  hypnotic, antiphlegmatic, alleviate wind, etc.  Ash used.  Leaves narcotic, seeds stimulant.  Fruit fried for toothache.  Fruit good for liver.

Li:  Sweet, cold, nontoxic.  Not a particularly good food.  Useful for poultices; stem burned for ash for aphtha.  A large number of specialized medical uses, some magical:  hang up an eggplant, gaze at it day after day; as it withers the disease withers.  Many small, intensely flavorful eggplant species exist in south China and neighboring southeast Asia.  Li calls them “bitter eggplant,” kujia, probably lumping several species, and recommends them for a wash for carbuncle and swelling.  Some are used in local and Tibetan medicine (e.g. Dash, S. indica).

(Major food in the Middle East, where any eggplant dish is likely to be called Būrūniyā from the extreme fondness that an early ‘Abbasid Princess Burun had for the fruit.  This has given us “boronia,” “alboronia” and the like in various European languages.  Conversos even carried it to Mexico.  Sometimes the dishes are made with green beans or other substitutes instead of eggplant.)


Solanum nigrum L., Solanaceae.  Fana

Theophrastus:  II, p. 311, strykhnos, possibly not this species; makes one mad.

Dioscorides:  IV-71, strychnos kepaios, garden nightshade.  Leaves edible, cooling, applied for a very wide range of external conditions.

Galen:  Medicine; extremely astringent, cold.

Levey:  Rūzbāraj.  In nasal ointment and for liver and stomach, hemorrhoids, etc.  Also as ‘inab ath-tha’lab, for erysipelas.

Avicenna:  ṭiqāqawāūn (enchanter’s nightshade).  Many other names.  Cold and dry.  Usual uses in poultices; unusual is one with white lead and rose oil, for diffuse inflammation.  Sedative.  Used in eyes, for stomachand kidneys, cleansing.  Primarily an anaesthetic or sedative.

Lev and Amar:  eggplant, S. melongena, stoach, nausea, diuretic, etc.  Hot and dry.

Kamal:  ‘inab al-th’eb.  Leaves for poultices and vaginal treatments.  S. melongena leaves for fomentations for burns and leprosy; juice of fruit (eggplant) diuretic.

Bellakhdar et al:  S. sodomaeum, limun n-nsara, quras l-jenn, antiepileptic.

Ghazanfar:  Plant used as expectorant; for fevers, gonorrhea, kidney, bladder, stomach; on ulcers.

Madanapala:  Kākamācī.  Hot.  Cardiac tonic, rejuvenating, promotes voice and semen.  For odema, skin, leprosy, piles, fever, urinary diseases.  Several other Solanum spp. discussed.

Nadkarni:  Not this, but several other spp. used, some narcotic; most very different in nature and effect from S. nigrum, however.

Dash:  Hot, laxative.  Promotes voice and virility and alleviates dosas.  Cures skin.  Can be poisonous.

Li:  Longkui.  Bitter, slightly sweet, slippery and nontoxic (!).  All parts used; a few minor uses including external uses on boils and the like.

Several other Solanum species used, including eggplants S. melongena and relatives for an astonishing variety of uses, including poultice on frostbite.

(Solanum nigrum sometimes contains dangerous alkaloids, giving it the name “deadly nightshade.”)


Spartium junceum L., Fabaceae.  Badashqan.  BaiDiSiGan.

Dioscorides:  IV-158, spartion, broom.  Seeds purgative.  Drunk or clyster for lower parts.

(Arab/Persian name obscure; very likely applies to a different species of broom, as in the case of the hairy thorn-broom above.  But it’s not in the Middle East sources under any name.)


Stellaria dichotoma L. var lanceolata Bge., Caryophyllaceae.  Root.  BaiTuLuBiDi.

Sun:  Chickweed (Stellaria media, perhaps including the above sp.; fanlou蘩蔞): sour, balanced, nonpoisonous. It treats especially the deteriorative ulcer that exist for years, and hemorrhoids that cannot be cured. Pick it at noon, the fifth day of the fifth month. It is also called zicao滋草, or jichangcao雞腸草. Dry and burn it. Use the parched ashes for medication. Bian Que said, “If a man has a deteriorative ulcer, or his glans (yintou陰頭) and penis have ulcers and are festered, and the pain is intolerable and the ulcer cannot be healed up for a long time, take one part ashes to two parts mud recently excreted by an earthworm. Add water and fully blend them. Make a paste like the dough that is used to make a pancake before it is fried. Apply the paste on the ulcer and change it when it is dry. Do not consume alcohol, flour food, the five spices (wuxin五辛), or hot food (reshi熱食).” The Yellow Emperor said, “When fanlou is taken alongside with (?zha[鱼旦]鲊), it will arouse the illness of losing weight and being thirsty and make the person forgetful.” There is another species, growing in warm and wet location, for instance a place close to the aqueduct. It grows in the winter and its shape is like coriander (husui胡荽). It is also called jichangcao雞腸草. It can be used to cure hemorrhoids. It has another name, tianhusui天胡荽.

Li:  Fanlü.  Trivial uses.


Strychnos sp. (S.  pierriana?), Loganiaceae.  Jawz al-qayi.

Dash:  S. nux-vomica L. bitter and astringent; cures parasites.  Usable for rat-poison.

The fact that only Tibetan medicine seems to use this plant, among our sources, does not mean we have a Tibetan influence here.  Note the Arabic name and the fact that S. nux-vomica is known all over the Old World, but mostly as a poison rather than a medicine.


Styrax benzoin Dryand., Styracaceae.  Resin.  MuHeiLi.  An-xi-xiang.  Hu 659.

Dioscorides:  I-79, styrax, S. officinalis.  Gum used.  Warming, softening.  Cures coughs and other respiratory conditions.  Drunk or applied for vulva and as emmenagogue.  Soot also used.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Usshaq, usshaj.  Deeobstruent, haemorrhagic, resolvent, purgative.  With vinegar and tar for scrofula, sclerosis, enlargements, cleaning away bad flesh, etc.  With honey and barley for arthritis and uralgic problems, and joint pain in general.  Al-Bīrūnī  records some controversy over exactly what plant is meant.

Avicenna:  S. officinalis, aṣṭarak; lubni for liquid.  Hot and dry.  Usual minor uses for hot dry drugs.

Kamal:  gawi.  Inhalations for cheat disease and throat inflammations.  Resin stimulant, expectorant, astringent; cough sedative, dries expectoration.  Antiseptic dressing powder for wounds.

Bellakhdar et al:  jawi.  Ripening of abscesses.

Nadkarni:  Antiseptic, disinfectant, stimulant, expectorant.  Gum.  Used as incense.

Li:  Anxixiang.  (Identified in Li 2003 as S. tonkinensis, but Li notes it may have come from Anxi in central Asia, and had a Sanskrit name, so S. benzoin is surely included.)  Gum pungent, bitter, plain, and nontoxic.  A number of uses, most of them, unusually, psychological; it dispels nightmares, unnatural sexual dreams, fright, visions of ghosts, evil, and devils, and the like. This is the only plant in this canon that the hard-headed Li uses primarily for such purposes.


Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. et Perry (Eugenia caryophyllata Thunb.), Myrtaceae.  Imported.  YaXiNi (which looks like the Arabic word for “cinnamon,” and has no resemblance to the Arabic or Persian words for clove).  Ding-xiang (“nail aromatic,” cf. English “clove” from French clou “nail.”  Influence, or just obvious similarity of the bud leading to similar naming?)  Hu 973.  Flower bud, dried, becomes clove.

Avicenna:  Qaranful.  Hot and dry.  Strengthens stomach and liver.  Treat vomiting and nausea.  Can help eyes, also epilepsy.

Levey, Levey and Al-Khaledy:  Qaranful.  In electuaries, dentifrice, collyrium, and for breathing and stomachic.

Lev and Amar:  Qaranful.  Heat, dryess, black and red bile, coughs, colds.  Freshens breath, treats gums and stomach.  Hysteria, epilepsy, etc., and for sexual medicine (Maimonides).  For nausea.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Qaranful, mismar.  Coughs, colds, cuts, eyes, hair loss, headaches, menstruation, nauseal and vomiting, sore throat, toothache, and childbirth (cinnamon, cloves, honeyu, dates during labor).  Antiseptic and antifungal activity noted here.

Nadkarni:  Dried buds stomachic, carminative, stimulant, aromatic, antispasmodic.  Oil antiseptic, local anaesthetic, rubefacient.  (These uses are all well documented by modern biomedicine; the volatile oils are responsible.)

Dash:  Cold.  Cardiac, promotes eyesight and virility, cures poisons.

Li:  Dingxiang.  Pungent, warm, nontoxic.  Topical for mouth and nose.  Cures gum disease, bad breath, etc.  Digestive.  Some minor uses.  Used since very ancient times.

(Clove is highly effective, still in some medical use, and perhaps the most effective in biomedical terms of anything mentioned in the HHYF.  Its volatile oil is strongly antiseptic, antifungal, carminative, stomachic.  It has been used since time immemorial for toothache, since it not only kills at least a few bacteria but also has some numbing or pain-relieving effect; treats gums, sweetens breath.  Still almost universally used, worldwide, in folk medicine.)


Tamarindus indicus L., FabaceaaeTamarind.  Tamar (al-) hindī (“date of India”; source of the English name).  Mentioned in Index, probably only as a food with some medicinal effects.

Avicenna:  Cold and dry.  Laxative.  Treats vomiting, thirst from fever, yellow bile, and effects of excessive vomiting.

Lev and Amar:  Astringent.  For menorrhagia, jaundice, laxative, purgative, cooling; in modern Egypt as mouthwash for thrush; seeds for plaster; for nausea, fever, etc.

Nadkarni:  Pulp contains tartaric, citric, malic, ascorbic, and acetic acids, as well as oter useful items.  Cooling, carminative, digestive, laxative.  Antibilious.  Leaves and seeds strongliy astringent.  Two pages of fine print on local uses.

(Oddly not in Li.  A very popular cooling drink throughout much of the Mediterranean world, and its extension into Hispanic America, is prepared from the pulp, and no one who has tried it can fail to be impressed by the cooling effect of the astringent but sweet pulp rich in vitamins and minerals.)


Taxus baccata L., Taxaceae.  Zarnab.  ZaErNaBu

Levey:  Zarnab.  Uncertain identification as yew.  Good for spirits and happiness.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry; minor uses typical of hot dry drugs.

Lev and Amar:  zarnab.  Disinfectant.  For bad smells.  Softens voice, dissolves phlegm, improves digestion, diuretic, etc.

Nadkarni:  Leaves and fruits emmenagogue, sedative, antispasmodic.

Li:  Torreya grandis, feishi, seed, sweet, balanced, astringent, nontoxic.  Vermifuge, mouth sores, sore throat (still standard in the 21st century for this; the nuts are roasted and eaten.)

(Berries of Taxus are highly toxic.)


Terminalia bellerica (Gaertn.) Roxb., Combretaceae.  Balilat, abalilaj; BaLiLa

Avicenna:  balīlaj.  Cold and dry.  Cleansing.  Oxidizing, assimilative.  Maturing for stpomach.  Laxative.  (Note this is another of the many Indian medicines not mentioned by Islamic authorities other than Avicenna.)

Madanapala:  Bibhītaka.  Astringent, purgative, for eyes, cough, etc.

Nadkarni:  Astringent, tonic, expectorant, laxative; yunani use as cold and dry tonic for stomach etc., used also for headache, hemorrhoids, diarrhea.

Dash:  Cures all diseases caused by either heat or cold!  Pungent, hot, corrosive.  Cures abdominal diseases.

It would seem highly likely that this drug got into HHYF practice via Tibet.


Terminalia chebula Retz., Combretaceae.  KeBuLiHeZi, JiErDiMaNu, SaTuiLa, YiQiLiLi, HaBuLiAXi.  Ke-zi; Hu ds659

Levey:  Halīlaj.  Loose uvula; ears; throat; mouth; preventing miscarriage.  Levey notes its wide use in Asia, giving even a Tokharian word for it (arirāk).

Avicenna:  halīlaj.  Cold and dry.  Internal pains.  Digestive.  Evacuates black bile and phlegm. Laxative.  Good for memory, sense organs, intellect.

Lev and Amar.  Terminalia spp.  ‘amlaj, halīlaj, etc.  Various kinds used but hard to sort out in the Genizah material—which has a very great deal about them.  As in India, they tend to have been curealls.  Eyes, stomach, cough, cold, pains, and most other minor ailments.

Bellakhdar et al:  astringent; also for liver, stomach and bowel disorders

Ghazanfar:  Leaves on skin rashes.  Enema from crushed fruit with other substances.  For childbirth.

Madanapala:  Harītakī.  “It cures all diseases” (4).  Notable for purgation, ulcers, eyes.  Digestive stimulant, laxative, aphrodisiac.

Nadkarni:  Astringent, purgative, etc.  Myrobalans—this, T. bellerica, and Emblica—are standard Indian medicines, universally used.

Dash:  Root cures bone diseases, trunk for muscles, branches for vessels and tendons, bark for skin, leaves for hollow viscera, flowers for sense organs, fruits for solid viscera—a wonderful bit of correspondence theory, obviously influenced by the Chinese (note the classification of viscera).  Stimulant, appetiser, laxative.

Li:  Helile, hezi, the former explained by Li as Sanskrit for “coming of the heavenly god”!  (Note that it is actually a transcription of the Arabic name.)  Very wide range of uses, but most cluster around respiratory and digestive.  Myrobalans, from India, have a long history in China.


Teucrium chamaedrys L.  Lamiaceae.  Kamadharyus (Gr), KeMaDeErYuSi, SaJiBieNuZhi, BiErZanDi, FuKeHeiYiJiHeiEr.

Kamal:  Kamadrios, ballat al-ard.  Used for tuberculosis; antipyretic, anti-gout.  T. maritimum, kamadrios al-bihhar; tonic, astringent, dissolvient.  For nasal polypi.

Nadkarni:  Tonic, diuretic, sudorific.


Teucrium leucocladum Boiss. and Teucrium polium L., Lamiaceae.  Ju’dah, ju’dat, ja’dah.

The former is a local Middle Eastern plant.  All sources probably trace back to Dioscorides’ comments on T. polium, possibly including T. chamaedrys, a European plant still widely used medicinally.

Dioscorides:  III-124, polion, T. polium; Goodyer Englishes it as hulwort.  Bites, dropsy, jaundice, spleen.  Purgative, emmenagogue.  Bad for stomach.

Avicenna:  A range of germander species are treated. All are hot and dry.  Most are opening and diluting.  They have the usual range of uses for hot and dry herbs.

Lev and Amar:  T. capitatum, ja‘da, kamādriyūs.  Wounds abscesses, spleen swellings, fevers, stings, diuretic, purgative, emmenagogue.  Hot and dry.  Dropsy, jaundice, spleen, etc.

Bellakhdar et al:  j’idiya.  Against chill, oedema, liver pain [a folk category].  Blood-cleansing.

Ghazanfar:  Ja’ada and other names.  Leaves boiled and drunk for pain, jaundice, fever; topically on bites and abscesses; for childbirth.  T. mascatense for colic, diabetes, stomach pain, fever.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Diabetes, rheumatism, swellings, purgation, stomach.  Leaf influsion used.  Effective, but toxic, so inadvisable.

Mandaville:  Mention (ja’dah) but no medicinal use reported.

Nadkarni:  Arab knowledge noted.  No Indian use.


  1. scordium L., Lamiaceae. Suqurdiyun, shuqurdiyun. SuGuDiErRong

Dioscorides:  III-125, skordion, T. scordioides [or possibly scordium?], water germander.  Herb warming.  Diuretic.  Snakebites, poisons, dystentery, old coughs, convulsions.  Applied in vinegar or water to gout.  Aplied for emmenagogue and for wounds.  Various external uses.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Shaqardiyūn.  Astringent, bitter, sharp.  Purifies organs.  Diuretic and emmenagogue.  For pains from obstruction and coldness.  Granulates gaping wounds.  Antitoxin.  With wine for stomach, intestines, strangury.  Cleansing.  Dry for coughs and cramps.  With medicine with oil and wax, reduces iflammation and pain.  Pessary, emmenagogue.  Detergent for wounds; generates new skin, removes hard dried flesh.  Extract for pains.  Most of this from Galen.

Kamal:  T. scordioides, water chamaedrys; al-thom al-barri, magl al-safsaf.  For preservative.

Nadkarni:  Antiputrefactive.  Antiseptic, diaphoretic, stimulant.


Thapsia sp. (e.g. T. garganica L.), Apiaceae.  Not.  Tafsiya (Persian).  TaFuXiYa.

Dioscorides:  IV-157, thapsia, T. garganica.  Root or sap for purging.  This helps not only with stomach pains but for asthma, etc.  Applied to sunburns, eruptions, etc.  Noted that “it behoves him that takes ye liquor not to stand against ye wind, but rather to doe it in still weather.  For it puffs up ye face mightily, & ye naked parts are blistered by the sharpness…” (Gunther 1934:551).  In other words, it, like some relatives, contains furanocoumarins that sensitize the skin to ultraviolet radiation, causing massive sunburn.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Tāfsiyā.  Vesicant, very heating.

Bellakhdar et al:  Analeptic, antirheumatic, revulsive


Thuja orientalis L. and other Cupressaceae.  Some native. Unclear what species is or are mentioned in the HHYF.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Juniperus, one name being ‘ar‘ar (see below), cited to Rāzī as emenagogue and treatment of “foetal disorders.”

Avicenna:  rīs for tree; abhal for the berry; ‘ar‘ar for the tree and berry; sandrūs for gum.  Hot and dry.  Fruit roasted in sesame oil for ear drops.  Fumes help respiratory ailments.  Fruits for chest pain and cough.  Gum—sandarac—for palpitations, asthma, etc.  Berry cleansing, laxative; sandarac taken for inflamed spleen.  Berry diuretic  Berry and oil a famous abortifacient. Gum used for diarrhea; fumes of it on piles.

Nasrallah:  hot, dry, purging, diuretic.  Antihelminthic.  Emmenagogue, abortifacient.

Lev and Amar:  ‘ar‘ar.  Hot and dry.  “Regulates” menstruation, treats fractures, skin, heart, eyes.

Kamal:  T. articulata, leaves diuretic and anticatarrhal, sedative for reumatic pains.  Wood sudorific; for syphilis.

Bellakhdar et al:  Juniperus phoenicia for urinary antiseptic, emmenagogue, stomach pains; Tetraclinis articulata, ‘ar‘ar, a native Moroccan juniper-like plant similar to Thuja, as antidiarrheal, antipyretic, antivertigo, anti-headache, astringent.

(The fame of juniper oil as abortifacient is widespread; it is dangerous, not infrequently fatal, but very effective.)


Thymus capitatus (L.) Hoffm. et Link, Lamiaceae.  Hasha.

Thymus creticus Brot.  HaSha

Thymus glaber Miller.  Nammam

Dioscorides III-44, thymos, Cretan thyme. Loosens and drives out phlegm, helps with asthma, expels worms.  Not surprisingly by now, it is diuretic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, clears out afterbirths.   The usual variety of minor external uses.  Eaten with food, helps the sight.

Graziani:  “Wild thyme,” nammām, used by Ibn Jazlah, unspecified use.  Ordinary thyme and marjoram, sa’tār, use (unspecified) by Ibn Jazlah who gives other names.  Note that the general term sa’tar or za’tar covers both thyme and marjoram, and sometimes other wild herbs too.


Thymus serpyllum L.   Lamiaceae.  Native?

Levey:  Ḥāshā’, T. vulgaris (which is almost the same as T. serpyllum).  Liver, stomach, spleen.  ṣa’tar, various thymes and thyme relatives; erysipelas, stomach, neck pustules.  Notes the asses’ thyme, ṣa’tar al-ḥamīr, possibly T. capitatus.  See below.

Avicenna:  T. praecox, nammām, thūmūn (evidently from Greek).  Hot and dry. Kills lice and dissolves warts.  Externally on cold swellings, hard inflammations, etc.  “Boiled down in vinegar and used with rose oil on the head, it is useful in treating amnesia, mental confusionk, sluggishness, irritation and swelling…of the brain and headache” (753; a very useful plant, if it worked).  Internally for weakness of nerves, eyesight, chest, digestion, worms.  Expels dead foetus, menstrual discharge, etc.  Diuretic and emmenagogue.

Levey and Al-Khaledy:  hashā (totally different transcription from that in Levey 1966!).  T. vulgaris.  Al-Samarqandī uses this and zatar (wild thyme) for, presumably, the usual purposes.

Nasrallah:  Thyme in general, hot, stomachic, good for liver, relieves nausea and toothache, cures gum diseases, etc.

Kamal:  T. vulgaris, hashā, za’tar al-hamir, i.e. asses’ thyme.  Stimulant, diuretic, emmenagogue.  Cooked in honey to ease breathing and asthma.   Anihelminthic.  [Thyme oil is such a powerful, effective antibiotic that it is still used, e.g. in hospitals when nothing else will kill the multidrug-resistant hospital bacteria.]

Bellakhdar et al.:  Thymus spp.  z’itra, za’ter, tazukenni.  For all diseases.  Gastro-intestinal antiseptic.

Ghazanfar:  T. vulgaris, za’ater.  Taken for colic, kidneys, bronchitis, cough.  Leaves boiled and tea massaged on breasts to bring down milk.  Mixed with salt and water to wash vaginal area after childbirth.

Lebling and Pepperdine:  T. vulgaris, za’tar etc., for colds, coughs, diarrhea, fatigue, stomach, liver, memory.

Nadkarni:  Antiseptic.  Very minor in India.

Eisenman: T. marschallianus, tea for stomatitis and toothaches, also fevers, headaches.   Decoction in milk for acute respiratory infections, amenorrhea. Biomedically, expectorant and antibiotic.

Li:  Dijiao.  Includes also T. mongolicus.  Relieves pain and swelling.  Insecticide.

(Thyme is a well-recognized stimulant and antiseptic.  Thyme oil is still the antiseptic of choice when all else fails, used e.g. for sterilizing areas contaminated by multiple-drug-resistant staphylococcus and streptococcus.)


Tragopogon pratensis L., Asteraceae.  Badi (Yemenite)

Probable misidentification.

Nadkarni:  bare mention.


Tribulus terrestris L.  Zygophyllaceae.  Ḥasak (Arabic). Native.

Dioscorides:  IV-15, tribolos.  Binding, cooling.  Various external applications, including mouth sores, mouth ulcers, gums, tonsillitis.  Applied to eyes.  Seed brewed for stone.  Made into tea for snakebite.

Avicenna:  Hot and dry, but only slightly.  Swellings, ulcers, etc.

Ghazanfar:  Diuretic and for kidney stones.  T. longipetalus diuretic, aphrodisiac.

Madanapala:  Gokshura.  Urinary diseases, asthma, cough, blood, heart.

Nadkarni:  Plant and fruit cooling, demulcent, diuretic, tonic, aphrodisiac; powdered.

Dash:  As in Madanapala, also arthritis, kidneys.

Eisenman:  Many uses including malaria and energizing.  Biomedically, used for scerotic conditions, worms, fungus and yeast infections; possible anti-cancer activity.

Li:  Jili.  Bitter, warm, nontoxic.  Disperses Cold and Heat, etc.

(An infamous worldwide pest, widely used but apparently ineffective as medicine.)


Trigonella foenum-graecum L., Fabaceae.

Manniche:  Helps in childbirth.  Ointment (oil cooked out of ground seeds) to make the old look and feel younger [the description of the process makes one think the old would have had to work so hard they would have gotten healthful exercise, at least].  “It is a million times efficient” (Manniche 1989:152, translating from Edwin Smith papyrus of ca. 1500 BC; the hypertrophe is typical—no false modesty in the Smith papyrus).

Dioscorides:  II-124, telis, fenugreek.  Seed meals applied for inflammations.  Sitz bath for women’s conditions (vulvar inflammations, etc.), and applied with goose-grease to soften and dilate the womb.  Grens in vinegar for ulcers, etc.  Tea for dysentery.  In oil with myrtle for cleansing genitalia and treating scarring there.

I-57, telinon, seed oil.  For all external conditions.

Galen:  Warming.  With fish sauce for laxative, cleaning out intestines.

Levey:  Ḥulba.  Swellings, phlegm, kidneys, ulcers.

Al-Bīrūnī:  Hulbah.  Bran with natron for spleen.  Sitz bath for women prepared from the plant.  Used on wounds.  With duck fat to cure scirrhus of the uterus.  Note this is straight out of Dioscorides.

Avicenna:  Ḥulbah.  Hot, dry, but only to first degree.  Discharges pus; laxative. Cleansing and drying.  Used externally (oil) for hair, scars, skin disease, eye conditions, ruptures, freckles, ulcers, etc.  Poultice on swellings.  With rose oil on burns.  Internally for voice, lungs, chest, throat, cough and asthma.  Especially good for these when boiled down with honey, dates, figs.  (This would indeed work well.)  Mix with dates and honey, heated over coals, taken before meals, is particularly good.  Used with sodium nitrate for spleen; with vinegar for stomach, gastric ulcers, etc. and to make one vomit.  For uterus, taken or as hip bath, boiled down.  Vaerious uses for diarrhea, anal swellings, intestines, many other related conditions.

Graziani:  Hubbah; food.

Lev and Amar:  ḥulba.  Heats, cures cough and ailments of lung and womb.  For bites and stings.  Swellings, headaches, stomach ulcers, and kidneys.  Infections, intestinal problems skin, hair, women’s diseases, etc.

Kamal:  hulbah, fariqah.  Hot fomentations, sedative.  Seeds stomachic, antihelminthic, sedative for cough and asthma, used for emphysema, and said to be aphrodisiac.  (Because of the stomachic qualities, which are very real in biomedical terms, it is added in large quantities to many Arabic dishes, especially in Yemen where it is a major food ingredient.)

Bellakhdar et al:  l-helba, reconstituant, hair-care, hypoglycemiant, blood-cleansing, and for aortic palpitations.

Ghazanfar:  H.elba, h.ilba.  Powdered for colic, fruits for bronchitis, cough.  Topically (seeds ground) on sprains.  Seeds boiled, mixed with egg, given to new mother for 7 days after birth.  Enema for new mother to strengthen her back.  (The cultural importance of fenugreek in Ghazanfar’s native south Arabia is enormous; it is used in vast quantities in Yemeni cooking as well as medicine.)

Lebling and Pepperdine:  Externally for bleeding, headache, breast abscesses and mastitis; liver, eaten for diabetes, bones, menstrual cramps, stomachaches.  Very many uses in childbirth; eaten during and after delivery, especially as one of the spice foods used for recovery from childbirth.  Also used for babies—presumably in tea, but also put on fontanel (presumably to prevent it falling).

Nadkarni:  Seeds mucilagionous, demulcent, diuretic, tonic, carminative, emmenagogue, astringent, emollient, aphrodisiac.

Li:  Huluba (from the Arabic—one of very few common Chinese words that is a straight Arabic transliteration).  Bitter, very warm, nontoxic.  Important heating drug, against various results of Cold.


Triticum spp.  “T. spelta” L., Poaceae.  Khundurus (Greek orig)  HanDaLuXi (“T. romanum L.” )  (There is no such sp. as “T. romanum,” and T. spelta is not a valid species, being merely a variety of T. x aestivum, itself a complex hybrid of T. dicoccoides and Aegilops squarrosa.)

Manniche:  T. dicoccum water (grains boiled in water, which is then strained and drunk) for “heart,” i.e. internal complaints, and constipation.  Also eaten in cake for cough, etc.

Dioscorides:  II-107, pyroi, T. vulgare [of which spelta is actually just a variety].  Wheat.  Eaten raw (soft new kernel, evidently), causes roundworms.  Chewed, applied to mad dog bites.  Bread from it is nourishing.  Meal with Hyoscyamus juice applied to fluxes of the nerves, puffing of bowels, etc.  Bran also used as carrier in cataplasms.  Made up with rue for breasts, bites, gripes, etc.  In general the meal is obviously just a carrier vehicle for the medicinal herbs.  Leaven warming and extracting; reduces calluses; ripens boils and the like.  Taken for blood-spitting, and with mint and butter for coughs and blod.  Various other external applications.  Old dry bread constipating.

Galen:  Under wheats, long discussions given of types of bread, the whiter being the more digestible and better for health.  Only peasants can digest the very coarse (wholemeal) breads, and even they only b