Medical Contributions: The Gift of Healing

Mayan tongue piercing


Incan, Mayan, and North American medicine healers have saved the world from major illnesses, too.  At the time of the conquest, European medicine was more a practice of witchcraft than science.  Native healers discovered the cure for malaria, amoebic dysentery, scurvy, and lockjaw.  The Incans used a bark called quinaquina to cure malaria, a disease introduced by Europeans to the “new world.”  The word “quinine” is derived from the Quechua word quinaquina.

The new medicine made extensive European settlement of America possible.  For example, the 167 records of Governor Berkeley of Virginia show that before the introduction of quinine into Virginia one colonist of every five died within the first year from malaria.  “After the incorporation of quinine no one died….But until the research of [Sir Ronald Ross], no one knew that the mosquito transmitted it into the human bloodstream.  This discovery led to the Nobel Prize in medicine for Ross in 1902, three hundred years after the unknown Quechua Indians had given the cure for the disease to the world, a gift for which they received no recognition” (Weatherfod, 178).

The Huron Indians of North America were able to cure French sailors who were dying of scurvy.  French Commander Jacques Cartier wrote in his log that the annedda bark administered by Indians accomplished in one week what “no amount of drugs from Africa or Europe could have done” (Weatherford, 183).  A variety of North American tribes contributed witch hazel, wintergreen, blue cohosh, petroleum jelly, and numerous herbs to the stack of medicinal aids used by the early colonists.  Aztec surgeons using obsidian scalpels performed brain surgery almost five hundred years ago.

What the Indian healers received for their healing gifts was an influx of European diseases so virulent that the Indians who lacked immunities for killer diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, yellow fever, influenza, and malaria perished by the millions.  Their helpless doctors, who’d been used to the practice of preventive medicine with an essentially healthy population, had to watch their people die off.