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Des sources du savoir aux médicaments du futur

Jacques Fleurentin
Jean-Marie Pelt
Guy Mazars

1. Origine des pharmacopées traditionnelles

The animals doctors of themselves?

Michel Ansay


Is the way man looks at animals a contribution to the archaeology of medical knowledge? Aristotle, as early as the fourth century BC, did some relevant observations on dogs “eating a specific herb”. There are many very modern and well-documented examples of animals looking for what is “good for them” (Huffman & coll.). But this expression may appear anthropomorphic. The authors of “the initiatory tales of Fulani herders” have had an inkling of the secret language of animals; this was confirmed by more recent observations. There is indeed many possible forms mediations (physical, chemical,..) between the animal and its environment. These messages can be matched with receptors and well-adapted organs. We should also consider the existence of a wide range of signal exchanges in the vegetable and animal kingdoms.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, at a time when animals and men still understood one another (Amadou Hampate Bâ, 1999)

Full text

1The observations made by Dr. Huffman & coll. (1997, 1998) served as a foundation for a new chapter in the history of man-animal relationships. They refer indeed to the archaeology of scientific knowledge. More specifically, they raise the question of the existence of some primitive knowledge (animal, instinctive ...) which had eluded the attention of scientists (I mean Western ones) thus far and that we have started re-discovering.

2My brief presentation will be structured as follows:

  • Observations in the past
  • Current Observations
  • “If lions could talk” (L. Wittgenstein)
  • “Internet back to where it belongs” (J-M. Pelt, 1996)
  • Physical and Chemical mediators
  • Receptors
  • Animals giving food for observation and thought

Observations of the past

3Here are some quotes from the writings by ancient authors. Are they relevant? Are they consistent with one another? A critical analysis of texts(in insufficient number) should make a distinction between what is mere observation and what is influenced by cultural or religious attitudes...

4Aristotle and Plutarch observed the same phenomenon - dogs eating grass - but provide a different interpretation for this.

5Aristotle (384-322 BC)

“And the bitches, when they suffer some ailment, cause themselves to vomit by eating a specific herb.”
“Dogs, when they have worms, eat wheat in the fields.”

6Plutarch (~50- ~ 125 )

Dogs, when they are sick from the bile, take a purgative with the plant called dog’s herb....

7Jâhiz (born in Basrah in 160/776) - reminding of Pic de la Mirandole for the Arabo-islamic culture) describes camels as good botanists that know very well what is good or bad for them.

The camel (ba’îr)would enter a swamp covered with vegetation or a meadow. Among the plants, some are good to eat, some others are poisonous, especially for him, finally some others are neutral, being neither nutritious, nor harmful. Some of these plants are eaten by other species but the animal would not go to them, even if these plants are not hostile to or dangerous for him. Some are identified by sight, not by smell, whereas some others are identified only by smell. Sometimes, the camel is wrong and grazes aconite (bîsh), just as ungulates do with oleander (diflâ).

8Jeon de la Fontaine (1621-1695)

The hare and the tortoise
You gossip, you should purge yourself with four grains of hellebore

9At the end of the 18th century, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre expressed the opinion that the scholars of his time had become artificial, having lost all sense of spontaneity in their relationship with the natural world, the world of animals.

Animals still expose their instincts to the savage peoples who have preserved their humaneness. They conceal them from the polished peoples who have become so uncouth. There is no doubt we owe many mortal remains of animals to our learned hunters, but only shepherds and savage people can boast of having familiar knowledge of their manners.

10Jean-Claude Dousset refers to “instinct-based therapy” in the first chapter of his “Histoire des médicaments, des origines à nos jours” (1985). Instinct-based therapy has had some modern developments: some people hope to re-create an oedipian relationship with nature and, in that way, hope to be healed.

Current observations

Deficiencies and shortcomings

11There is a kind of “body wisdom” (an anthropomorphic expression) driving animals to look for what is “good for them”.

12We may find some analogy between the great migrations of wildebeest and zebras from Central Africa and the seasonal migration of African shepherds with their livestock. They look for water, meadows, salt cures. It is not always easy to tell who is the leader: the shepherd or the herd?

13The fact that animals feel attracted by human urine (cf. being attracted by the faeces of other species or allo-coprophagy) has been often reported (A. G. Haudricourt, 1962).

14T. Ingold (1980) reports: “ I was in Lapland for the first time, an old reindeer named Enoch made a habit of coming round, at 11 o’clock every morning, to visit the place where I regularly urinated outside my cabin”

15A friend of Burundese origin claims that cows have a strong appeal for human urine. They would look for the tiniest drop of this precious liquid on leaves or roots that have been wetted.

16What does the animal look for? A kind of promiscuity with man, an additional amount of some hidden principle or non-protein nitrogen?

17Self-coprophagy is a feature specific to some rodents (rabbit, beaver, ...). In these herbivorous species, the digestion of cellulose takes place in the posterior part of the intestine, which has very low efficiency. The direct ingestion of some specific faeces (when soft and having a high water content) and their being stored in a pouch in the stomach can be considered as a kind of second digestion.

18A strange disease has been observed in pig farms in the Netherlands. The sick pigs were described as “urine drinkers”, as they would drink each other’s urine. This behaviour was due to an intestinal antiseptic medicine - Carbadox* - which was administered at 2-3 times the standard dosage. It could be evidenced that the drug caused necrosis of the glomerular area of the cortico-sur-renal gland, paired with decreasing aldosteron. The pigs had therefore found the way to reabsorb the salt that they could no longer retain in their body according to a natural process.

19The cat grooms its fur and this observation can be interpreted in several ways. Grooming is much more than mere cleaning. For Desmond Morris (1994), this activity is supposed to provide a supplement of vitamin D, especially after long exposure to sunlight. Some cats eat grass and this activity - according to Desmond Morris - could be related to a quest for folic acid. But these “grass-brwosers” might also do that to get rid of the hair bundle obstructing their stomachs.

20We can finally mention pica, a kind of taste modification driving some ruminants to lick stones and some cats to drink spoiled water. Some dietary habits of pregnant women can also be interpreted as relating to these attitudes.

21A well-known TV program offered by the BBC shows Ara parrots eating grains which are said to be toxic. Shortly afterwards, they can be seen clinging to calcareous cliffs and trying to peck off chunks of the chalk stone which are then crushed and swallowed up. This is an antidote and presumably the poison may be de-activated or the absorption can be controlled by changes in gastric pH.

Plant selection

22Huffman’s observations shed a new light on self-medication with primates. Hereafter some observations drawn from everyday life. Recently, an old cattle farmer living in the Democratic Republic of Congo told me that goats can find without assistance the kind of herbs that will cure them. The only thing you have to do is to take them to the proper grazing area.

23A Congolese veterinarian comments on the fact that a goat, when kept in a shed, will start eating by selecting a thorny plant (Acanthus).

24Animals avoid toxic plants. This is probably acquired knowledge as imported cows, e.g. from the United States to Chile, do not select such plants any longer. Andean Indians know by experience that their Criallo cattle will never feed on Cestium spp., a highly toxic solanacea, whereas they are amazed to see that the exotic cattle they have to take care of would greedily munch these toxic leaves (Seifert, 1996). R. Chauvin (1989) provides another example of this relative inability.

25Catnip (or catmint or Nepeta cataria) or Valerian (Valeriana officialis) can turn some cats (genetic control) into “junkies” or drug- addicts. When they come across these herbs, they embark on a kind of “trip” which has them in “ecstasy” for some ten minutes. The process or the encounter of the cat with the plant follows a clear-cut pattern: “the cat approaches the catnip plant and sniffs it, then, as it gradually gets excited, starts licking, biting, or chewing it, or it will rub it repeatedly with its cheeks, its chin, its whole body, while purring, growling and mewing, or rolling over it and making leaps in the air...” (Desmond Morris, 1994). The cat seems to be freed of any inhibition. Is this behaviour in some way similar to that produced by hashish or some other plants used in human medicine? This could be attributed to the molecule contained in a volatile oil called hepetolactome, a non-saturated lactone stimulating the olfactory bulbs. The molecule produces states similar to those experienced during the peak of sexual activity among cats (Morris, 1984: 55).

Other observations

26Experienced veterinarians report that dogs treat their wounds by licking them. I also remember an episode that I experienced when I was a child: a dog had been impaled by a wild boar; the hunters said that the dog would recover by licking itself. Is there a bactericidal effect in licking? Is it comparable to lyzozyme?

27Are dogs and cats able to anticipate earthquakes? Which stimulus are they more sensitive to? Minor vibrations, or the dramatic increase in static electricity, or sudden shifts in the earth’s magnetic field? (Morris, 1994: 131).

“If lions could talk...” (L. Wittgenstein)

28This quotation from Wittgenstein is also the title of the book by Boris Cyrulnik, a series of “Essays on Animal Condition”. “If lions could talk ...” and we could listen to them, they would probably tell us many things about their emotions, habits, and about what they are “animated by” (my inverted commas) ”

“Internet back to where it belongs” (J.-M. Pelt, 1996)

29But let us have a look at the full quotation from by R. Tapper (1994). “If lions could talk, we would not understand them”. The problem has actually two aspects: the first one is related to animal language proper, the second refers to the way we interpret it. there is a risk of misinterpretation due to anthropomorphism - this tendency to treat animals as if they were human beings, and forces human intentions upon some animal behaviours, notably by using - quite inappropriately - the preposition of purpose “to / for”. The gap between the two forms of language is expressed by this Fulani text drawn from an initiation ritual. It refers to cattle language as it interpreted by the “master of formulas”: the latter is able to talk to animals and plant roots share their secrets with him.

30The language of cows and oxen

31Initiation among the Fulani also implies learning about the signs making up the universe. In a society where cows and men are inseparable companions, so-to-speak “foster brothers”, it is indispensable to understand the other one’s language. Sitilagi who has experienced the world’s enigma is thus personified as Koumen, the Enchanter. He is a kind of “master of the formulae”, (the one) who can talk to animals. The roots of plants deliver their secrets to him. The gentle rustling of sources, the murmur of foliage on branches, the tail of a shooting star, they all share their secrets (with him). And (he) can hear what the cooing dove says. And (he) can understand the words of the mooing ox and (he) does not disregard its clairvoyant warning. Eyes are watching but it is the spirit that actually sees”.

32(A .H. Bâ and G. Dieterlen, 1986)

33But what is at stake remains, I think, the exploration of this world of messages which are exchanged in Nature. It is the world of the “secret language of Nature”, if we take over the title of a book by J- M. Pelt (1996). I would like to ponder on this book for a while. You can find there an example of the plant/animal relationship: how do plants resist predation (e.g. acacias, being injured by the Kudu antelopes, raise the content in hard-to-digest tannins) and exchange messages. In short, we see that, in scientific circles (i.e. with a sense of rigor towards things that are verifiable), a new concept emerges, that of what could be called the “chat of life”, a kind of internet of life that calls for a set of mediators, messengers, ...


34Physical mediators: the sonar of the bat, infra-sonic calls of elephants, the differences in colours, the differences in electric potential, slight vibrations, electrostatic activity, electromagnetic shifts, etc. Chemical mediators: hormones, a variety of messengers, pheromones, smells, gaseous hormones (ethylene, volatile oils...), smells.


35To these messages or mediators correspond adequate receptors or specific sensory organs (Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ in cats); these are sensitive to messages and initiate actions that have an impact that can be examined and measured.

36Still, these strange receptors capable of recognising a plant alkaloid and at the same time, a cerebral peptide, have by far not betrayed all their secrets.

The task of science (animals giving food for observation and thought)

37How do they achieve this goal? Are we so distant from animals as “traditional healers”? If we take it for granted - Huffman’s observations are very convincing in that respect - we can then ask the question: “how did they achieve that?” Is it by some kind of the trial-and-error method - which would be a scientific procedure (taking drugs as experimental tools to be tried and tested) or driven by some instinct (I say this to cover that I do not have the slightest idea) or on the basis of some form of correspondence (to be established) between a molecule and its receptor?

38Which animals are we talking about?

39Animals, especially domestic animals (“homanimals” as J. Lacan used to call them) are valuable material for scientific observation and speculation, as they are so deeply influenced by man. In which way is their behaviour modified?

40A species resists (almost) to the human hold, if is the domestic cal. It will remain a favourite subject of observations. But shall we be able to ever understand it really?

41We still have an important task in our hands: it will be the job of interdisciplinary teams with biologists, biochemists, ethologists whatever their education and scientific affiliation is...



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