Tag Archives: materia medica

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney


As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Locating traditional plant knowledge in household recipes: Part 3

By Anne Stobart

I have been following up my interest as a medical herbalist/historical researcher in native plants in medicinal recipes. This is my third post about plants with longstanding traditional uses and their inclusion as ingredients in early modern medicinal recipes. I have been looking at how frequently some native plants appeared in my database of seventeenth-century English medicinal recipes, both in print and household collections. This investigation formed part of my work for a book on seventeenth-century household medicine. It seems that the relationship between household recipes and traditionally used native plants is complex. My first post looked at several plants popular in recipes that drew on both folklore and classical traditions, plantain and betony. In my second post I considered other folklore plants, such as mint, coltsfoot and harts tongue, and differences between printed and household recipe collections. In this third post I explore some traditionally used native plants which rarely appeared as recipe ingredients.

 So which native plants were not so readily found in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes?

Figure 1: Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
 Altogether I sampled the frequency of forty plants in 6500 recipes. These forty plants have folklore records indicating longstanding use in more than one part of the UK [1], and so I have described them as ‘folkloric’ or traditionally used. Of course, there are many plants in folklore so I aimed to select those that could be readily found in meadows, hedges or woodland edges throughout the UK. I discovered that there were at least five of my plant selection that were very much under-represented in both household manuscript and printed recipes. The plants with six or fewer mentions in the recipe database were buttercup (Ranunculus species (spp)), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria: Figure 1), pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris: Figure 2) and willow (Salix spp).
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)


External uses

The few recipes that contained these plants were mainly for external preparations. Some of the plants, especially buttercup and lesser celandine (also known as pilewort) are extremely acrid, with pungent taste or smell and ‘biting’ to the skin. They have had longstanding use as counter-irritants, applied externally to the skin, and thought to help with treating disease in deeper or nearby parts. [2] Foxglove also has a tradition of external use for ‘scrofulous swellings’ and sores by being applied as juice or bruised leaves, though, somewhat unusually,  a recipe in The Choice Manual (London, 1653) for ‘an itch, or any foule scabs’ recommends the sufferer to take the herb both externally and internally.

An excellent Receipt for an Itch, or any foule Scabs. Take Fox gloves, and boyle a handful of them in posset drink, and drink of it a draught at night, and in the morning, then boyle a good quantity of the Fox gloves in fair running water, and annoint the places that are sore with that water. [3]

Some recipes for external use identified particular locations on the body for application.  For example, the printed recipe in The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion provided ‘An Unguent for the Piles’, and instructed ‘Boyl in fresh butter Pilewort and Elder leaves or buds till it be a Salve, make it yellow with Saffron and use it’.[4] And willow was used for the hair in an  ‘An ointment to make hair grow’ which instructed ‘Take willow leaves, seeth them in oyle, and annoint the bare place, and hair will grow’. This recipe was included in Gervase Markham’s English Housewife (1631) and was later repeated in Natura Exenterata (1655) in the mid-seventeenth century.[5]

Medical practitioner’s views

Not only were some traditionally used native plants infrequently found in seventeenth-century recipes, but they were also described by one medical practitioner as insignificant in the early eighteenth century. The physician, John Quincy, in Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730 edition), wrote that the lesser celandine is ‘hardly ever used in Medicine’. He was dismissive of foxglove, saying that ‘the present Practice takes no notice of it’.  Of the several kinds of willow he considered that ‘none of them have any credit in the present Pharmacy’ (Figure 3) although he acknowledged that willow was given a place in the ‘new Catalogue’ of the College’.[6]

Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.
Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.

But, not everyone shared Quincy’s views that these native plants lacked medicinal value, and in my next and final post on traditional plant knowledge  I will consider some variations in perceptions of native plants in the seventeenth century.



[1] The 40 plants were selected from David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004). The full listing appears in my forthcoming book Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal. 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980), p. 149, 181, 323; JI Wand-Tetley, ‘Historical Methods of Counter-Irritation’. Rheumatology 3, no. 3 (1956): 90-98.

[3] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653), p. 10.

[4] Lancelot Coelson, The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion (London: Printed by A.M. for S. Miller, 1656), p. 131.

[5] Natura Exenterata, or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquisite Anatomizers of Her (London: Printed for H. Twiford, G. Bedell and N. Ekins, 1655), p. 31 and Gervase Markham, The English House-Wife (London: Printed by Nicholas Okes for John Harison, 1631), p. 21.

[6] John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea, 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730), pp. 130, 131, 225.

Conference Report: Materia Medica on the Move, Leiden, 15-17 April 2015

By Sietske Fransen

What happens if you put together historians of early modern science and medicine, ethnobotanists, historians of pharmacy, and art historians in the Dutch National Biodiversity Center in Leiden? Last month this resulted in an amazing conference where we discussed the (global) movements of early modern materia medica. The conference was jointly organized by the Descartes Centre (Utrecht University), Huygens ING, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

The conference was hosted by the project Time Capsule and was interdisciplinary to its core. The project’s aims and goals are wonderful, and deserve some explanation, so here it comes. Project Time Capsule has as aims to create a ‘semantic interoperable ontology’ of cultural heritage data. This ontology will consist of a combination of existing digital databases and new data, in order to provide historians as well as the creative industry with new methods for research. And the actual ‘time capsules’ – based on Andy Warhol’s project – are supposed to contextualize historical events or facts. To exemplify this exciting but rather mystifying concept, Time Capsule works specifically on data sets related to the history of medicinal plants in the Low Countries, c. 1550-1850. With a team of computer scientists and historians of science the project tries to set an example for further research into the development of digital resources. The final goal is to enable scholars to connect, compare and use an enormous amount of digital resources regarding early modern material medica.

A re-created sunflower, using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, fol. 155.
A re-created sunflower (native to the Americas), using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, f. 155.

The conference started at Museum Boerhaave with a key-note lecture by Florike Egmond, who  the introduction of non-European ‘medical’ plants into the European context. Even though there were not that many exotic plants actually introduced in European medicine in the sixteenth century, it is remarkable to see that they did gain a rather prominent present in visual sources such as herbaria, prints, and paintings. One of Egmond’s concluding questions and useful pointers for the rest of the conference was to wonder what ‘exotic’ or ‘indigenous’ really means. How long does a plant need to be grown in Europe to be no longer exotic?

The following two days took place at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. One of the most exciting papers (at least to me) was given by ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel.

Materia Medica on the Move - Tinde van Andel
Key-note lecture by Tinde van Andel

Van Andel showed us how the movement of knowledge about local plants can be traced by following African slaves from their home countries to the Surinam rain forests. Combining ethnobotanical and anthropological field research in West-Africa and Surinam with historical botany and linguistics Van Andel argues that enslaved Africans reinvented their household medicine in the New World. Van Andel’s research demonstrates clearly how the knowledge of plants travelled with the people and was adapted to the needs of surviving on a new continent. Through trial and error and comparison with the knowledge they brought about African flora, the slaves figured out which new but similar plants could be used as medication and food. 

Historian of Pharmacy Sabine Anagnostou, used pharmacopeias in Europe and America to research the transfer of medicinal plants and drugs. She not only looks at the import of exotic plants into Europe, but also at the building and use of pharmacies in the New World. Jesuits were of major importance in the development of such institutions, and would use their own knowledge of European plants in combination with local knowledge in these New World settings. She argues, amongst other things, that there is still a higher amount of European plants present in the American pharmacopeias then the other way around.

Harold Cook delivered the final key note lecture about the ‘Atlantic drug trade and the new sciences’. Cook argued convincingly that we need to study the developments in the use of drugs at the large plantations in the Caribbean to explain the globalization as well as entrepreneurship that started to become connected with medicine from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harold Cook, key-note lecture.
Harold Cook, key-note lecture.

The owners of big plantations were looking for a universal medicine that would cure any disease, in any situation, in any person, with the best possible outcome. The idea behind this was to make sure that ill people could go back to working again as soon as possible. According to Cook the impersonality of these developments (from drugs aimed at an individual to drugs aimed at large groups of people) should be seen and studied (!) as major issues in the changing perception of social medicine in the 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately this blog is too short to give a description of all papers, but a brief report of all presentations can be found here. The papers covered topics like botanical gardens in Leiden, Poland and Russia; testing of new and unfamiliar drugs in both European and Asian contexts; and the materiality and circulation of herbaria in Early modern Europe. Just as examples I would like to mention Alexandra Cook’s paper on the approval of exotica in a European medical context. She argued that both ginseng and tea (after they were brought to the West) were for a while seen as universal medicines. However, during the eighteenth century, these unproven claims were no longer seen as valid. This lead to reports based on observations and experience in which the qualities of the exotic drugs were systematically described. A last example comes from Davina Blankert, who showed us how the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin and the Veronese apothecary Giovanni Pona discussed exotic plants in their correspondence. Blankert argues that the scholars utilization of plant names with few plant descriptions demonstrates that both were conversant in their knowledge of exotic plants using similar nomenclature and terminology. Bauhin would later publish his acquired knowledge about exotic plants in his famous book Pinax theatri botanici.

Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.
Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.

Bringing together so many different scholars, methods, used materials, and questions seems exactly the point of Warhol’s Time Capsule project. Fortunately for us, the focus of this specific project is not the daily life of Warhol but the ‘daily life’ of materia medica between 1550 and 1850. The conference gave a wonderful view into the research that can be done when material will be collected and brought together in digital form. The current scholars working on all these different aspects of materia medica will hopefully be the providers of the content as much as they should be able benefit from the integration of the all the existent cultural heritage data.