A traveler from the past has revealed that the use of medications began several thousand years earlier than previously thought. The man’s 5,300-year-old, mummified body was found in a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991. His possessions included clothing, shoes, tools and two pieces of birch fungus strung on leather thongs. Scientists first assumed that the fungi were tinder for starting a fire. But new evidence suggests that they were highly specific remedies for a chronic illness the man suffered from. This medicine kit predates the oldest-known Egyptian remedy by one or two thousand years.
The two walnut-sized balls he carried with him are the woody fruit of a birch tree fungus called Piptoporus betulinus. When eaten, the fungus induces strong, but short-lived diarrhea, and acts as an antibiotic. It contains oils that are toxic to intestinal parasites.
An autopsy of the man, named “Otzi” by researchers, revealed that his colon contained parasitic worms called Trichurus trichiura. This kind of worm causes diarrhea and acute stomach pains. It can also bring on a deficiency of iron in the blood called anemia. This might explain why Otzi’s muscles showed a low iron content. Professor Luigi Capasso of Italy’s National Archaeological Museum discovered that Otzi’s fingernails showed a stunted growth pattern suggestive of repeated bouts with the worms. Eating the fungus Otzi carried would have killed at least some of the intestinal parasites and purged his bowels of their eggs.
“The discovery suggests that the Iceman was aware of his intestinal parasites and fought them with measured doses of Piptoporus betulinus,” Capasso wrote in the British medical journal Lancet.
The fungus is not the only evidence that Otzi’s people may have had some system of folk medicine. He also bore many tattoos on his body. Instead of being decorative, most were over joints in the spine, and the knee and ankle, all of which showed clear signs of arthritis. “The Iceman might have used these tattoos as a form of localized therapy for muscle and joint pain,” Capasso suggested.
Previously, the oldest record of medication was an Egyptian papyrus prescribing a brew of chewed-up pomegranate bark and beer to treat a parasitic disease the Egyptians called “aaa.”