As Old as Thyme: The History of Essential Oils

Essential oils have been used throughout history to promote wellness.

Plants have been known for their healing properties since the prehistoric era, and have been widely used in everything from magic to medicine. The purported benefits of herbal medicine have withstood the test of time, and many of the same ingredients employed throughout history are still in use today.

Plants have been used for a variety of therapeutic purposes throughout history.
Plant essences have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes.

Essential oils have played a significant role in the history of plants being used for therapeutic purposes, and have been independently developed and used across many continents and time periods as their value was recognized.

Although their recent popularity may make essential oils seem like just another modern-day health trend, the reality is that these valuable plant essences have been in use for tens of thousands of years by cultures around the globe. 

The healing history of essential oils

Evidence of essential oils usage has been found in cave paintings and ancient texts.
Evidence of medicinal plant usage has been found in many ancient texts.

Although it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive timeline of essential oils and medicinal plant usage due to its longevity and widespread use, there is an abundance of notable evidence of the appreciation of the therapeutic properties of plants throughout history:

  • Neanderthals were using natural forms of penicillin and aspirin to treat pain and infections up to 50,000 years ago, according to DNA from dental plaque discovered on fossilized teeth found in Spain and Belgium.
  • Cave paintings in the Dordogne region of France that date back to 18,000 B.C.E. suggest the use of medicinal plants in everyday life in a series of extensive and well-preserved paintings.
  • Egyptians are well-known for their wide range of uses for plants and aromatic oils as early as 4500 B.C.E. They used balsams, perfumed oils, scented barks, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars in their daily lives and made cosmetics, ointments, pills, powders, suppositories, medicinal cakes, and aromatic oils. Pharaohs had their own special blends for meditation, love, war, and more, much like the essential oil blends used today.
  • The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine,” documented the effects of over 300 plants, including medicinal properties of thyme, saffron, marjoram, peppermint, and cumin. The popularity of essential oils increased as a result of his work, and were eventually used to prevent bubonic plague due to the flea-repellant properties of these natural remedies.
  • Traditional Indian medicine known as Ayurveda has a 3000-year history of essential oil use, and lists over 700 substances including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, and sandalwood. Ayurvedic medicine using aromatic plants was also employed during the use of the bubonic plague to replace ineffective antibiotics.
  • French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé discovered the healing properties of lavender after applying it to a burn that resulted from an explosion in his laboratory, which inspired an in-depth exploration of the chemical properties of essential oils. He later coined the term aromatherapy in 1928 when he compiled his data on essential oils and their medicinal uses into a published book.

Essential oils are still used for their therapeutic benefits such as improving health and wellness. Their contributions to modern medicine are well-documented over the course of time, and are still popular tools to improve sleep, reduce stress, curb food cravings, increase focus, or simply create a pleasant personal environment.

The history of essential oils includes the use of plants across many continents and time periods.
The history of essential oils includes the use of plant medicine around the globe.

Some traditions persist throughout history because they work, and the continued use of plant essences for various types of healing serves as evidence of their effectiveness.  

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