Archaeological-botanical evidence exists that suggests that the Archaic people, who arrived in the Antilles in the third or fourth millennium B.C., used certain plants for both food and medicinal purposes. This is also the case with the Saladoid and Huecoid peoples (300 B.C.) and the Ostionoids or pre-Tainos (300 A.D.), other indigenous groups that inhabited the island.
During the first century of conquest and colonization, the Spanish used and adopted knowledge, habits and techniques from the indigenous residents of the Antilles, including the use of medicinal plants. However, the conquistadors also brought to the island a number of plants from both Spain and other parts of the world.
The indigenous influence on popular medicine was complemented by the African influence. The slaves came from diverse population groups in Africa and they brought their cultures and religions with them. Plants played an important role in religious rituals. In many cases, they were also the only source of medicines, as the conquistadors provided them with only the most minimal medical care.
During the first centuries of the conquest, medicine was regulated by both the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. Poor people depended mainly on public charity and the municipal hospitals for health care. With the scarcity of medicines and the poverty on the island, however, medicinal practices used by folk healers and the general public were more widespread and widely used.
Yaws, an infection suffered by the African slaves, was treated with a concoction of sassafras (Sassafras albidum), or with guaiacum or lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale). Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) juice was used treat shock or tetanus. Cashew (Anacardium occidentale) fruit has an oily liquid that was used to treat leprosy, warts and corns. Infusions of nightshade (Solanum americanum) were used to treat gastric acid, as well as to reduce the symptoms of asthma and as a sedative.
Achiote (Bixa orellana) leaves were chewed with oil or fat to alleviate headaches and hemorrhoids. Infusions of achiote leaves were also used to alleviate irritation or inflammation of the throat. The juice of the air plant (Kalanchoe pinnatum) was used to alleviate ear pain and to heal wounds, and the leaves of the coffee plant (Caffea arabica) were boiled in water and used for pain and inflammation, as well as a natural analgesic.
These and many other medicinal practices were part of popular knowledge. Many times, the use of medicinal plants complemented aspects of popular religion, such as the "santiguación" (massages or rubs with medicinal herbs, accompanied by prayers) or "despojo" (spiritual purifications). It was very common for poor people to turn to healers to resolve their physical problems.
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the Spanish Crown made the first efforts to regulate the practice of medicine on the island. The measures remained mostly on paper, however, as it was nearly impossible to eradicate the medicinal practices used by the majority of the population. Later, in 1839, Governor Miguel López de Baños began a campaign against the folk healers and demanded that all doctors, surgeons and pharmacists register with the Secretary of the Government. Later, he also prohibited the use of medications that were not part of the Spanish pharmacology without notification of a pharmacist.
Medical practices were professionalized through the creation of regulatory boards and through publication of regulations and specialized books. Pharmacies proliferated around the island, but their services were not accessible to the majority of the Puerto Rican population.
After the Spanish-American War, clinics were established around the island and projects were begun to control tuberculosis, malaria and uncinariasis. Vaccination and preventive health care campaigns were also conducted. Little by little, the people left behind the home remedies based mainly on medicinal plants.
These natural methods were not completely forgotten, however. Modern science owes much to the popular use of medicinal plants. Empirical knowledge of these plants piqued the curiosity of botanists and other researchers around the world and led them to discover the chemical substances in the plants that were responsible for cures or relief. This knowledge has enabled many pharmacists to use chemical substances extracted from plants (or recreated artificially) to create a wide variety of medicines.
Today, with the popularity of holistic medicine, in which conventional treatments are supplemented with alternative treatments, much of the knowledge of natural medicine has been recovered. While people obtained these herbs directly from the earth in the past, in the contemporary world they visit pharmacies or health centers where they have access to nutritional supplements that contain these natural substances.
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Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: July 08, 2010.