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Herbs in Human History

Nymphaea_stellata,_MyanmarFrom the inception of life on earth man has existed in a symbiotic relationship with the plant kingdom. We have always depended on plants for food and medicine and they’ve always relied upon us to assist them with their propagation. The earliest human societies were hunter-gatherers who chose their migratory routes according to the availability of the fruit and nuts which formed their staple diet. Plants benefited from this arrangement as the people discarded seeds and kernels and thus increased their distribution.

Plants have been with humans every step of the way. Some of the earliest evidence of this can be seen in the cave paintings and hieroglyphs of ancient civilizations. Plant motifs in ancient art are in a sense the signatures of a society, and their appearance naturally prompts the researcher to ask questions. Why, for example, were the ancient Egyptians so fascinated by the Blue Lilly? It was obviously an important part of Egyptian life, as it is ubiquitous in their art (hieroglyphs and paintings), often depicted entwined around wine goblets. It frequently appeared in paintings of sex scenes and parties, and its blossoms were found strewn over the body of Tutankhamun when the casket was opened in 1922.

This discovery led archaeologists to focus on the plant in the context of Egyptian royalty and religious worship. Plants have indeed always been associated with the belief systems and rituals held by a group. More recent scientific research, however, has found that the Blue Lilly blossom contains a compound which is soluble in alcohol, and that a psychoactive solution is produced when the blossoms are infused in wine. The Blue Lilly may well have been revered by the priesthood and royalty, however the appearance of the flower in paintings of bawdy scenes, when looked at in the light of modern scientific research, perhaps indicates that the Blue Lilly was also simply a popular aphrodisiac; an ancient Egyptian party drug.

The mysterious case of the Blue Lilly serves to illustrate a point. Plants have been used by people of all classes in myriad and complex ways throughout history.

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