Traditional Medicine A tangible and intangible heritage of Mexico

Strongly associated with medicinal plants–its most abundant, accessible and known resource–traditional medicine is much more than medical botany. Medicinal plants are an important element of indigenous medical systems in Mexico as well as in many other countries. These resources are usually regarded as part of a culture’s ‘traditional’ knowledge. Today one finds such plants on Mexican markets and many people in rural and urban areas regularly use herbal medicines.
“Traditional medicine is a fundamental resource for health in traditional rural areas, as well as urban and semi-urban areas of the country,” says Carlos Zolla, a researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM, National Autonomous University of Mexico).
Thanks to the great diversity of flora that Mexico possesses, traditional medicine in Mexico ranks first in Latin America and third in the world. It is estimated that Mexico has between five and ten thousand species of potentially curative plants.
The Library Of Traditional Medicine
The UNAM developed a virtual library that includes a record of concepts related to all these plants, including their names and uses. It was based on the information contained in the Biblioteca de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana (Library of Mexican Traditional Medicine), and created by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI, National Institute of Native Peoples), in the years 1990 to 1994, and thanks to current information technology.
This database is based on printed editions of books that contained these records and are now out of print. With the digitization of this information users can now search for information in some easily accessible way.
While the books cover different times in history, An interesting historical example from 16th century Mexico is an herbal written in Nahuatl by the Aztec healer Martin de la Cruz from Tezcoco, who was at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco.
It was translated into Latin by Juan Badiano and given to the King of Spain Carlos I in 1552. It includes numerous colour illustrations of medicinal plants Today it is possible to identify many of these plant species and, in fact many are still used today.
Of course, chili and paprika have a long tradition of use in Meso- and South American cultures, famously as a spice, but also as a medicine including for chronic inflammatory conditions. C. annuum (which often is less pungent than C. frutescens) originated from Mesoamerica and C. frutescens from the western Amazonian region or Bolivia, but today both are part of a universal culture and is generally considered an integral part of, for example, the medical and culinary traditions on the Indian subcontinent and it is a typical Balkan (Hungarian) spice.
Multiple medical uses were recorded during the Aztec period, including uses for dental problems, infections of the ear and various types of wounds as well as digestive problems.
Consequently, chilies were also an important element of tribute requested by the Aztec rulers. During the colonial period these uses continued and developed further. Now records of chili’s use as an aphrodisiac appeared. More recently uses as a rubefacient to locally stimulate blood circulation became a central use of C. frutescens.
While it was common during the 1960’s and 1970’s for considerable interest in traditional medicines as hallucinogenic drugs, today more research focuses on cancer and on chronic diseases including diabetes and arthritis.
For example, the potential of novel anti-diabetic medications is enormous. In Mexico alone a total of 306 species have records of a popular use in the treatment of this syndrome. Opuntia spp. (cactus pears or prickly pears Cactaceae) are an essential element of Mesoamerican botanical history. For centuries the Aztecs and many other Mexican indigenous groups have used ripe fruits and the nopales (or nopalitos, tender cladodes) both as a food and a medicine. Ill-defined extracts from Opuntia species are now widely available over the internet as a treatment for diabetes and related metabolic disorders and chemically and pharmacological characterised extracts are currently under development.
Ethnobotany and Ethnopharmacology investigate the relationship between humans and plants in all its complexity. Ethnobotanists live with the members of a community, share their everyday life and, of course, respect the cultures which host them, learning the uses and methods of traditional healers. People who practice traditional medicine are known in many ways, depending on where they are located, or the functions they perform since diseases can have natural and sometimes supernatural causes. Sometimes illnesses are attributed to curses, such as evil beings that cause harm.
The practitioners—called yerberos (herbalists), rezanderos (those who pray), pulsadores (those who take the pulse), hueseros (bone-setters), parteras (mid-wives), chupadores (suckers), adivinadores (diviners), sopladores (blowers), and mediums,— are types of healers who practice some variety of traditional medicine, that have in common the belief that diseases damage the body, and also the soul of the patient.
Mexican traditional medicine, like any other social institution, has changed over the centuries, interacting with other therapeutic models according to what the UNAM calls the “real health system” of millions of Mexicans of the 21st century. Today a hybrid of modern and traditional can be found in rural areas and big cities and all the places in between.
Sources: ProMexico,


  1. The first civilization in Mesoamerica was the Olmec going back to some 3,000 BC. Their cosmopolitan culture were led by the Sea Kings, who brought into their country the hallucinogenic drugs (mushrooms, etc.) and special herbs, and may be referred to as the first drug cartels in Mexico.

    In Mexico they may be also referred to as shaman, medicine men, and sorcerers. Because the Olmec came from Mesopotamia , Egypt and Africa, and traded with so many countries, and took other races as ship mates, the Olmec empire was one of only three Cosmopolitan empires, the other two being Atlantis and the United States of America.

    So, two of the three Cosmopolitan empires are already gone. Not a good odds for multi-cultural empires. And the remaining one is financially insolvent today.

  2. I have since learned that the ancient Olmec culture is one of the five cultures that have made the innovations that permitted our modern civilizations that replaced the hunters and gathers.

    The Olmec provided the cultivation of maze to the world, and maze has become the some 17 different types of corn, that are involved in much of the Mexican diet today. We have benefited much thanks to the ancient Olmec civilization that has been mostly replaced by the Aztec , Maya and Toltec cultures.

    Of note: The Maya civilization as provided the most accurate clock of any civilization.

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