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The complete Aztec herbal.
Aztec Medicine, Health & Nutrition. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano. 1990, Rutgers University Press, 109 Church St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Softcover. 308 pp. ISBN # 0-8135-1563-7.

This is probably the most complete treatment of the subject of Aztec medicine, health, and diet ever published. The author is an outstanding scholar in this field, having published on the topic since 1974. At a time when there is renewed interest in many Pre-Columbian subjects as well as the folk medicine of modern Mexico, this work is all the more important. Traditional medicine in Mexico today is a blend of ancient Aztec lore and imported Spanish medicine.

For background the author covers Aztec culture at the time of the Spanish conquest, with a view into Aztec religion, worldview, and medicine. He draws heavily from primary sources, including the Codex Badianus, written by a Spanish botanist in 1552. (See related article on page 12.) There is a discussion of whether some aspects of Aztec medicine are native of adopted from Spanish influence. De Montellano notes that some of the earlier work that imputed a "humoral" theory of diagnosis (e.g., "hot" and "cold" dispersing herbs) to the Aztecs may have been the result of the inculcation of such European-based thinking by Spanish medicos onto Aztec healers who first conveyed to the Spanish the uses of various herbs. That is, the Spanish writings that report a similar "energetic" system of medicine may have been tainted by Spanish teachings in the first place.

Considerable space is devoted to explanation of the nutritional aspects of Aztec foods, including the staples corn, spirulina, amaranth, and maguey.

One of the most salient chapters is the "Empirical Evaluation of Aztec Medicinal Herbs," wherein 64 plants native to Mexico are characterized for their useful medicinal properties. Many of these plants found their way into European medicine and eventually into European and US Pharmacopoeias by the 18th and 19th centuries.

An extensive bibliography -- 23-pegs -- confirms the breadth and depth of the author's scholarship and provides researchers with excellent references for further study. This work is destined to become a modern classic reference on this subject.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.