In 2020, a remarkable discovery occurred near the small South African hamlet of Misgund in the Eastern Cape, unearthing a unique gift to the realm of science. The discovery in question was an ancient cow horn, dating back 500 years, adorned with a leather cap and meticulously wrapped in grass and leaves from a Bushman poison bulb (Boophane disticha). This seemingly mundane object held a substantial secret within – it was a container for medicines, constituting the earliest known specimen of its kind in southern Africa. This revelation provides the first insights into the realm of pre-colonial medicines in this region.
A team of researchers, including myself, conducted a thorough chemical analysis of the horn’s contents. The analysis revealed several secondary plant metabolites, with the most prominent ones being mono-methyl inositol and lupeol. All of these compounds possess recognized medicinal properties.
This discovery represents the oldest example in southern Africa, to our knowledge, where two or more plant ingredients were intentionally combined into a container to create a medicinal formula. While various South African museums contain medicine horns gathered during the 19th and 20th centuries, none of them have ever been discovered in an archaeological context.
The horn was uncovered in a painted rock shelter, with radiocarbon dating indicating its origin between AD 1461-1630. Although the shelter also houses San paintings, it remains uncertain whether these paintings are contemporaneous with the horn container. During this period, the region was inhabited by both San hunter-gatherers and Khoi pastoralists, both of whom believed in a mythical creature resembling a domestic cow, with horns thought to possess medicinal properties.
The use of plant-based medicines dates back at least 200,000 years. In the Middle Stone Age, which spanned from about 300,000 years ago to between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago, people utilized aromatic leaves to fumigate their sleeping areas. Plant extracts also played a crucial role in the development of glues, adhesives, and hunting poisons during this era.
However, knowledge about traditional medicines from the pre-colonial period in southern Africa remains limited, with existing information largely derived from early traveler accounts and modern ethnographic studies. The horn’s discovery presented an opportunity to gain insights into traditional medical and pharmacological knowledge from this early epoch.
The primary compounds identified in the horn, mono-methyl inositol and lupeol, are still found in various known medicinal plants in the Eastern Cape today. They are associated with a wide range of medicinal applications, such as regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels, treating fevers, inflammation, and urinary tract infections, and topical applications for skin infections. Notably, both compounds are pharmacologically safe, meaning they can be ingested without risk of overdose. They stimulate dopamine production in the brain, with mono-methyl inositol used to treat anxiety, and plants containing lupeol known for their aphrodisiac properties.
For the Khoi and San peoples, not all medicines were intended solely for treating physical illnesses. Healers held specialized roles, addressing both physical and spiritual afflictions. Traditional medicine, in the past and present, remains instrumental in addressing supernatural bewitchments and is deeply intertwined with culture. It continues to play a vital role as a primary health service in many parts of Africa.
While the exact purpose, administration methods, and user of the medicine stored in the horn remain a mystery, its careful wrapping and deposition in the rock shelter reveal its status as a cherished possession. Evidently, the owner had intentions of retrieving it but never returned. Given the absence of evidence of long-term occupation in the shelter, this chance discovery sheds new light on the traditional medicines used in the Eastern Cape five centuries ago.