Written by John Immel,
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The Development of Medicine in Silk Road CulturesAcross the ancient silk road cultures a common theory of medicine arose starting in 384 B.C. A hallmark of this theory is the assessment and treatment of disease using biocharacteristics (hot, cold, wetness, dryness, fluid thickness, thinness, etc.) Under this system, diet, herbs, and lifestyle changes were uniquely fitted to oppose imbalanced characteristics ( for example, a cooling herb used to treat a hot fever). The result was a rich, but user-friendly system of wellness for physicians & lay people to alleviate disease, improve quality of life, and harmonize their body using natural substances from their environment.
The biocharacteristics theory of medicine was widely popular, and adopted in different forms by nearly all silk road cultures from Europe to China. It dominated medical practice for nearly 1,800 years lasting until the 1500s A.D when it was abruptly abandoned due to advancements in biochemistry. It was known as Ayurveda in India, Unani Tibb in the Middle East, and Greek Medicine in Europe.
Cultural Exchange Along the Silk RoadTraders, military, creatives and diplomats traveled the Silk Road from the Han Empire to Central Asia, the Middle East, and through to Venice. They brought with them much more than trade supplies. They also carried religious beliefs, language and, especially relevant to us, ideas around medicine. (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019)
Through the slow process of excavation during the 20th Century, it has been found that the cultural exchanges that occurred along the Silk Road were much greater, and much wider-reaching, than we may have imagined. (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019)
During the second half of the first millennium, cross-cultural information sharing was more the norm than the exception. (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019)
Similarities have been drawn between pillars of medical standards like 'The Canon of Medicine', written by Iranian Ibn Sina (anglicized as Avicenna) and the Tibetan Zla ba'i rgyal po (Medical Investigations of the Lunar King). (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019; Zhen, Y, 2007).
Research into these similarities and the behavior of those moving along the Silk Road lead to the belief that medicine can be viewed as much more interconnected than we may have previously thought and warrants a re-evaluation of what constitutes the terms 'Eastern' and 'Western' when looking at medical systems of the time (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019).
In the research, there is a growing preference for looking at the 'exchanges' rather than the 'cultures' to get a real idea of how knowledge was shared, beyond the community elites of the time (Yoeli-Tlalim, R, 2019).
Timeline, History & Main Innovators
Why Did the Model Fall Out of Favor?In western Europe, the rejection of biocharacteristic theory was a side-effect of rejection of the humors. Over time, excessive focus & promotion of humors in Greek medicine (and doshas in Ayurveda) caused these systems become identified as humoral theories, instead of biocharacteristic theories. In Greek medicine, the humors were considered to be substances bearing the biocharacteristics. When modern biochemistry failed to prove the existence of the humors as substances, it also threw out the theory of biocharacteristics. However, the theory of biocharacteristics has never been invalidated, and its long history of use down to the modern the day continues across many silk road cultures.
SummaryThe biocharacteristic theory of medicine was the dominant medical theory for thousands of years. As it developed, each culture innovated on the basic theory in unique ways. Although rejected by modern medicine, practitioners of Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, and Chinese medicine testify to its modern relevance. The biocharacteristics theory of medicine continues to be explored and developed. Its simple approach is inexpensive, and easy to learn and use.
The professional student of modern biocharacteristics theory can benefit from learning to apply innovations from all the cultures that contributed to it throughout its long & successful history of use.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.