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Apr 21, 2018

Since ancient times animals, their parts, and their products have constituted part of the inventory of medicinal substances used in various cultures. This phenomenon is marked by both a broad geographical distribution and very deep historical origins. As some authors have shown, animal-based medicines have been utilised since antiquity [1, 2].

Testimony to the medical use of animals began to appear with the invention of writing, and is found in archives, papyruses, and other early written historical sources dealing with medicine. Data have been found on such usages in ancient civilisations, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, which left their mark on the various societies that later arose in the Levant.

Historical sources of ancient Egypt mention the medicinal uses of substances derived from animals, for example, cattle milk, bee honey, lizard blood, ox organs, swallow's liver, bat limbs, ambergris from the sperm whale, and the glands of the musk deer [3–6].

Archives of several civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia, mainly the Assyrian and the Babylonian, contain descriptions of fish oil, beeswax and honey, mongoose blood, turtle shell, goat's skin, gazelle, deer and sheep sinew, bird excrement, and animal fat [7–10].

In ancient China, among many other substances of animal origin, the glands of the musk deer were used [11, 12]. In India, the Hindu religion has used five products of the cow for purification since ancient times [13].

Classical medical literature also indicates animals as remedies. In the 5th–4th centuries BCE Hippocrates [14] included among many other animal substances the use of cattle milk, chicken's eggs, mammals' horns and sea sponge [15]. About 10% of the substances mentioned in Dioscorides's (1st century CE) materia medica [14] were body parts and products of animals [16, 17]. Such uses on a smaller scale were common in the Byzantine empire [18].

The Jewish sources, mainly the Mishna (1st–3rd centuries CE) and the Talmud (4th – 5th centuries CE), that is, the literature of the Jewish Sages, mention several animals and their medical uses: honey was used to treat bulimia and goat's milk to cure coughing. Snakes, human urine, pearl, mammals' glands, and several other substances were used for different medical conditions [19].

The neo-Aramaic medical tradition, which evolved in the Near East during the Byzantine period, conserving classical medical knowledge, made great medical use of animals [20, 21]. This knowledge was conveyed farther and translated, becoming an important part of the new Arab medical and pharmaceutical profession (7th century CE).

Arabic medieval literature offers ample information about animals in general and their medical uses in particular. The 'medicine of the prophets' (tibb al-nabawi) indicates intensive medicinal use of chicken eggs, cattle cheese, and bee honey [22, 23], for medicinal uses of foodstuff were common in the Middle Ages, as they still are in folk medicine [24]. Early Muslim physicians such as the 9th-century al-Tabari [14] and al-Kindi [14] describe the medical uses of several animals, in Iraq and Iran, such as bear, beaver testicles, camel, cattle fat, coral, crab, dog, fish stone, horse, lizard, medical skink, mouse, pearl, pigeon, rabbit, rhino and goat horns, scorpion, snake, squid, turtle, and wolf, and animal products such as honey, wax, milk, and eggs. Together these comprise about 7% of all medicinal substances [25, 26]. More information on such uses can be found in general encyclopaedias such as that of the 13th-century al-Qazwini [14, 27, 28]. al-Damiri, the 14th-century Muslim zoologist [14], describes in his lexicon hundreds of animals [29], tens of which were used for remedies [30].

The accounts of travellers during the Middle Ages are an additional source of information about animals used for medicinal purposes. For example, Geoffrey of Unseefe (12th century) described the use of theriac against various kinds of insect bites, while Jacques de Vitry (12th–13th centuries) describes the beaver, which "bites off its own testicles with its teeth and throws them to the pursuing hunters" who make use of them for medicinal purposes. Jacques de Vitry mentions a pharmacist in Acre who raised various animals and used their excrement to prepare medications. Felix Fabri (15th century) described the hunting of the adder, which provided one of the components for theriac. Thomas Shaw (18th century) tells of the striped lizard found on the coast of Syria and used for the arousal of sexual desire [31].

Many of the animals which were mentioned before are also used in present-day traditional medicine. For instance, in Iraq twelve kinds of animals are described as medicinal sources, including sea sponge, cow, camel, bee, fish, squid, sheep, nacre, and silkworm, and they constitute 5% of all the substances mentioned [32]. A survey conducted in Syria during the 1970s found that 2–8% of the substances in the possession of medicine vendors in the markets were of animal origin [33, 34]. A survey of traditional materia medica in use in the markets of Israel recorded 20 substances of animal origin [35]. Similar data are derived from surveys conducted in Jordan [36].

In Pakistan, for instance, 31 substances were listed (animal parts and products), constituting 9% of all the medicinal substances in the inventory of traditional medicines. Examination and research show that these substances are similar to those used as remedies throughout human history, irrespective of geographical borders, and include: sea sponge, bee honey and beeswax, squid, medical skink, lizard, silkworm, crab, spider, amber, pearl, nacre, hedgehog, and earthworm [37–39].

A study on the use of medicinal substances in the Levant during the Middle Ages found that 9.5% of all the medicinal substances were of animal origin [40]. The primary purpose of some animal products, which were used as remedies, was food. The study also examined the reciprocal relationship of substances such as milk, cheese, and honey as food products and their use as medicinal remedies [24].

The importance of animal parts in the history of pharmacy in general has been studied since the beginning of the 20th century [41]; other works deal with groups of animals and their uses in medicine, for example, marine animals [42].

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