A theoretical review on the origin of medicinal practices in humans: echoes from evolution

Washington Soares Ferreira Júnior, Ulysses Paulino Albuquerque


Humans have been coping with diseases throughout the evolutionary history. The emergence of medical systems, which integrate knowledge and practices related to health management, can be assumed as one of the reactions of the human species to respond to the pressures of diseases. An intriguing question is related to the understanding of how these systems have emerged in our species. To answer this question, some authors created scenarios to explain the origin of these systems, from an ecological and evolutionary logic. In this article, we briefly introduce some of the key ideas linked to these scenarios and how they may be important in guiding ethnobiology research.


Evolutionary ethnobiology; Medical systems; Chemical ecology; Medicinal plants

Full Text:



Brett JA (1998) Medicinal plant selection criteria: the cultural interpretation of chemical senses. Angewandte Botanik 72:70-74.

Brown PJ (1987) Microparasites and macroparasites. Cultural Anthropology 2:155-171.

Casas A, Parra F, Blancas J (2015) Evolution of humans and by humans. In: Albuquerque UP, Medeiros PM, Casas A (eds) Evolutionary ethnobiology. Springer, New York, pp. 21-36.

Dunn F (1976) Traditional Asian medicine and cosmopolitan medicine as adaptive systems. In: Leslie C (ed) Asian medical systems: a comparative study. University of California Press, California, pp. 133-158.

Fabrega H (1997) Evolution of sickness and healing. University of California Press, Berkeley, USA.

Hart BL (2005) The evolution of herbal medicine: behavioural perspectives. Animal Behavior 70:975-989.

Hodes RM (1997) Cross-cultural medicine and diverse health beliefs. Ethiopians abroad. The Western Journal of Medicine 166:29-36.

Jain S, Agrawal S (2005) Perception of illness and health care among Bhils: a study of Udaipur District in Southern Rajasthan. Studies Tribes and Tribals 3:15-19.

Johns T (1990) With bitter herbs they shall eat it: chemical ecology and the origins of human diet and medicine. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, USA.

Kleinman A (1978) Concepts and a model for the comparison of medical systems as cultural systems. Social Science & Medicine 12:85-93.

Levin BW, Browner CH (2005) The social production of health: critical contributions from evolutionary, biological, and cultural anthropology. Social Science & Medicine 61:745-750.

Medeiros PM, Ladio AH, Albuquerque UP (2015a) Local criteria for medicinal plant selection. In: Albuquerque UP, Medeiros PM, Casas A (eds) Evolutionary ethnobiology. Springer, New York, pp. 149-162.

Medeiros PM, Santos Pinto BL, Nascimento VT (2015b) Can organoleptic properties explain the differential use of medicinal plants? Evidence from Northeastern Brazil. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 159:43-48.

Mennella A, Spector A, Reed D, Coldwell SE (2013) The bad taste of medicines: overview of basic research on bitter taste. Clinical Therapy 35:1225-1246.

Mukherjee BM (2003) Cultural aspects of health in Jowhar of Maharashtra. Studies Tribes & Tribals 1:163-164.

Parra F, Blancas JJ, Casas A (2012) Landscape management and domestication of Stenocereus pruinosus (Cactaceae) in the Tehuacán Valley: human guided section and gene flow. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 8:32.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank