2. History

Biological knowledge of Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians

Papyri and artifacts found in tombs and pyramids indicate that the Egyptians also possessed considerable medical knowledge. Their well-preserved mummies demonstrate that they had a thorough understanding of the preservative properties of herbs required for embalming; plant necklaces and bas-reliefs from various sources also reveal that the ancient Egyptians were well aware of the medicinal value of certain plants. An Egyptian compilation known as the Ebers papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) is one of the oldest known medical texts.

Ebers papyrus
Ebers papyrus Ebers papyrus prescription for asthma treatment.U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health

In ancient China, three mythical emperors—Fu Xi, Shennong, and Huangdi—whose supposed ruling periods extended from the 29th to the 27th century BCE, were said to possess medical knowledge. According to legend, Shennong described the therapeutic powers of numerous medicinal plants and included descriptions of many important food plants, such as the soybean. The earliest known written record of medicine in China, however, is the Huangdi neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), which dates to the 3rd century BCE. In addition to medicine, the ancient Chinese possessed knowledge of other areas of biology. For example, they not only used the silkworm Bombyx mori to produce silk for commerce but also understood the principle of biological control, employing one type of insect, an entomophagous (insect-eating) ant, to destroy insects that bored into trees.

As early as 2500 BCE the people of northwestern India had a well-developed science of agriculture. The ruins at Mohenjo-daro have yielded seeds of wheat and barley that were cultivated at that time. Millet, dates, melons, and other fruits and vegetables, as well as cotton, were known to the civilization. Plants were not only a source of food, however. A document, believed to date to the 6th century BCE, described the use of about 960 medicinal plants and included information on topics such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, and obstetrics.

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