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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Medicinal remedies used in Guanche medicine

Euphorbia canariensis, commonly known as the Canary Island spurge

The Guanches, like most of the peoples known in medical historiography as primitive or pre-technical, acted against disease with resources and practices that can be divided into two main groups: medical therapy (which includes animal and plant resources as medicinal remedies) and surgical therapy: trepanation, scarification, and cauterization. In this last section they developed some techniques that can be considered surgical if surgery is understood as any intentional manual intervention to restore the individual to health.

For the reconstruction of the medicine of indigenous peoples of Tenerife, the sources of information are archaeological findings, paleopathology (study of the disease in populations of the past), written documents (chronicles of the conquest and later general histories) and the scarce survivals that exist in folk medicine.

Plants used as medicinal remedies

There are some plants whose remains have been discovered in archaeological sites on the island or have been cited in chronicles and general histories that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Among them are the seedling (Pistacia atlantica) - a species of pistachio tree known by the English common name Mt. Atlas mastic tree - useful in oral infections; the cardón (Euphorbia canariensis) commonly known as the Canary Island spurge, which was dried and the powder obtained was used to burn hair and warts; the dragon tree (Dracena draco), whose resin or “dragon's blood” was used to heal wounds and burns; the rushes (Juncus) that was used in the containment of fractures and was also introduced into the wounds together with boiling goat butter, possibly for cautery purposes; the mocán (Visnea mocanera), one of the best known, from which a honey was obtained that was used to cure the so-called chamber disease (gastroenteritis) and pain in the ribs (possibly pneumonia) that were two of the more frequent pathologies among the Guanches; sweet tabaiba (Euphorbia balsamifera), chewed like gum in oral diseases; bitter tabaiba, which is toxic and was used as a poultice to cauterize, treat chronic arthritis and inflammation caused by old, poorly consolidated dislocations and fractures; and Aloe, which according to Torriani, was a good remedy against poison by smoking:
"... There is a very fragrant tree, whose smoke, in addition to being a mild smell, is medicinal and against poison, which they call ligno aloe ..."

Animal Products

The animal resources used were butter, goat milk and marrow or bone marrow.

Livestock butter (cream obtained from beating, kneading and later maturing the milk of goats and sheep) was used in the treatment of a large number of ailments, according to written sources. According to Abreu and Galindo: “… And they cut themselves with very sharp flints when it hurt them, and they burned with fire; and there they were smeared with livestock butter ... which is used for medicine " For Verneau (1891) there were two ways of using butter: old, generally used as an ointment in external ailments by means of friction and fresh that could be used topically, after boiling it, applying it on the injured part.

Another very common resource was goat's milk. Chil y Naranjo (1876) and Verneau (1891) mention its use as a laxative and for this it had to be taken on an empty stomach, with cream or mixed with mocán honey, palm or other herbs.

Bosch Millares (1961) states that acidic and "skimmed" milk was used as an adjunct in the treatment of dysentery (bloody diarrhoea) and in all kinds of haemorrhages.

Finally, there was marrow (bone marrow) that is found inside long animal bones. Its possible therapeutic use is not clear in the chronicles, which merely say, "Being sick, they were cured with goats' marrow ..." What is clear is its use as food due to its high nutritional value. 

La medicina guanche 

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