The surprisingly sophisticated practices of Mayan medicine men
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Remedy:Mayans were very skilled in dentistry, and fake teeth were made from jade and turquoise if the patient could afford it. If a filling was required, iron pyrite (‘fools gold’) was used. There was also a trend in dental decoration where the teeth were filed into points, ground into rectangles and drilled with holes. The holes would then be filled with jade or gleaming iron pyrite to produce a pattern on the teeth.
Remedy:Pain was often treated by putting the patient into a trance-like state, using mind-altering substances commonly utilised in rituals. Flowers, mushrooms, tobacco and plants used to make alcoholic substances were collected and usually smoked. If required, a ritual enema could be used for rapid absorption and immediate pain relief.
Ailment: Poisonous stings
Remedy:Sweat baths, or temazcal, were used to encourage the patient to sweat out and expel impurities from their body. They were also used for ailments such as rheumatism, fevers, weariness after battle or for women who had just given birth. The hot steam was thought to help purify and restore the body for a long, healthy life.
Pray that you didn’t get… Smallpox
When the Spanish began their conquest of the Mayans, they brought with them diseases previously unseen by the skilled medicine men, such as influenza, measles and tuberculosis. But it was a plague of smallpox that devastated the civilisation, killing as many as 90 per cent of the native population in a century. Up against a rapidly spreading disease on a scale previously unfathomable, the natural herbal remedies of the Mayans didn’t stand a chance.
Mayan medicine focused on the concept of life force and the idea that this force can be directed to where it is needed. It was a healer’s job to balance this life force, which binds everything together. As this life energy also ran through plants, a lot of Mayan healing was focused on the use of flora. The blood determined the health of the body so the pulse was a key tool in working out the nature of the illness. Diseases were also classified as either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ and hot foods such as onions and ginger would be used to treat cold illnesses and vice versa.
[Banner Image by Salvador alc]
Originally published in All About History 16