The Crumbling Ancient Texts That May Hold Life-Saving Cures

Loc timbuktu manuscripts amm0001rsAstonishing lost medical science being unearthed from ancient texts smuggled out of Timbuktu to avoid Al-Qaeda? It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown potboiler but it appears to be true based on this first hand report by Amy Maxmen who went to Mali for Nautilus:

…Subjects in the collections, spanning the 13th through 17th century, include the Koran, Sufism, philosophy, law, medicine, astronomy, and more. Haidara stresses the need for climate-controlled safe-houses for the manuscripts, so that academics can begin to study the books to learn about African history. He thinks the books might also contain information about cures for maladies that persist today. “Every book has answers, and if you analyze them you can learn solutions,” he says. “Everything that exists now, existed before now.” One prime example of this constancy is a plague that has afflicted humans at least since ancient times and currently kills approximately 1.2 million people per year: malaria.

It’s not yet known whether the texts discuss malaria, but it seems likely based on other ancient texts from the region, says Nikolay Dobronravin, a scholar who studies ancient West African manuscripts at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. Dobronravin says African manuscripts contain many passages on tibb, an Arabic word meaning medicine. In one mode of tibb, a healer or teacher writes words from the Koran onto a thin wooden tablet with charcoal-based ink, and the patient washes the tablet down with water. Other, less mystical treatments involve leaves and animal parts consumed as cures for various ailments. “In the Timbuktu collections, a scholar-doctor might have his own book of recipes, comparable to what you find in a cook’s kitchen,” Dobronravin predicts. Villagers might still use some of those herbal remedies today. In a rural, southeastern region of Mali, I saw bundles of leaves sold in the marketplace. My translator told me that villagers boil the leaves to make teas that calm fevers.

This might sound hopeful, until you speak with mothers who have lost children to malaria. Some of them told me they opted for teas and other traditional medicines when their babies fell ill, rather than consult with nurses or doctors. Then the fevers grew worse, convulsions began, and death came swiftly. It’s unfortunately a common story, and one that makes African doctors and health workers weary of the promises of traditional medicine. Still, Haidara says, ancient recipes in the Timbuktu texts could contain forgotten cures that were lost through the ages…

[continues at Nautilus]

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