Aromatherapy is a healing and magical practice that has been used for thousands of years. It’s recorded in the hieroglyphs of Egypt, but certainly has a much longer history. The oldest known medical text for working with aromas and oils was found in the Orient and is around 5000 years old. One has to assume that if medical texts were written this long ago, that the fledging practice or aromatherapy is much, much older. In order to write a medical text there had to be a history to use as a beginning.
The ancient cultures developed their practices based on what plants were available to them. As contact began to increase between Asia, Africa and Europe, the oldest spice routes, sailing explorations and later trade routes led to cross-culture contact. This, in turn, created some similarities in practice and form. In the Americas, separated by thousands of miles of oceans to the East and the West, an aromatherapy practice developed based on different species of plants and some differences in ritual. Until tobacco became a recreational drug, the Americas had little crossing of their practices with other continents.
While the other cultures of the world searched near and far, from continent to continent for special woods and flowers to create their products, native cultures in The Americas lived more in harmony with the land, using native plants. Of course it was far more difficult for them to trade with the oceans to cross, but the relative isolation from outside sources created an evolutionary difference in their choices and practices.
The Shamans of The Southern Americas used hallucinogens like mescaline for their spiritual journeys and Machis drove off evil spirits with herbs. In the Northern climes of the Americas, the hallucinogen of choice was peyote and evil spirits were driven off with the smoke of sage.
While the Egyptians used olive oil as a base for their essential oils, there is no evidence that the cultures of the Americas used oil as a base in the same way. Herbs were dried for digestion (medical purposes) and for smudging to clear the body and spaces of any unwanted energies. It would be logical though for them to be making salves and unguents from rendered fats. With a large supply of native nuts, oil may have been extracted from them. The tribes who had settlements probably had more variety in how they combined herbs and woods than the tribes who were primarily nomadic.
If you want information about specific plants that were used in the Americas, read my article Ten Native American Herbs and Their Uses.
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by Lillie Ruby