Alternative Medicine: The Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples

When we talk about health and medicine, we are often referring to a general, westernized concept of the term.

But what does it mean for indigenous peoples? What is their approach to medicine and healthcare? Here, we look at some of their traditional knowledge and discover the range of long-established practices still being used across Africa, America, Canada and Australia.

It is common for indigenous tribes to use either traditional or western medicine, but they sometimes employ a combination of the two. According to the United Nations report State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, both ‘western’ and ‘traditional’ methods refer to systems of medical practices that use the approach of treating illness through remedies that produce effects that counter or oppose its symptoms.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has defined traditional medicine and indigenous health systems as including myths, procedures and rituals that connect health with the treatment of physical and mental illness. Traditional medicine is identified as the sum of both knowledge and practices that rely on past experiences anecdotally passed down from generation to generation, and as such we consider this vast, intangible heritage something that must be protected.

Assuming these concepts and definitions, the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 24, states that:

  • Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services.

Curious to know more about the health practices, traditional methods and medicinal herbs of the indigenous peoples? Let’s discover them together!

Medicine in Africa

Kalahari bushman

Kalahari bushman


The use of medicinal plants is integral to the entire African traditional healthcare system, not just indigenous peoples, and in many parts of rural Africa, the traditional healers prescribing them are actually the most affordable health resource available.

The full knowledge of plant species used and related methods of preparation — the unique processes that transform them into medication — still resides with traditional healers, and remains secret and exclusive because it cannot be shared with anyone other than family members and relatives.

The methods used to prepare herbal medicines from fresh and dry plants, may vary according to tribe, place and culture, but the preparations themselves generally include:

Extractions: Plants are prepared with solvent on a weight by volume basis.

Infusions: Plants are prepared by macerating the crude drug for a short period of time (in either hot or cold water, with honey sometimes added to prevent spoilage).

Tinctures: Alcoholic ‘infusions’ that can be diluted before administration.

Decoctions: Woody parts of the plant are boiled for an established period and then filtered.

Ashins: Dried parts of the plant are incinerated to ash, sieved and added to water or food.

Miscellaneous: External applications in liquid containing the active plant substances, used on the skin.

Medical herbs are commonly administered orally, topically, rectally or nasally, although alternative methods include smoking a cigar containing herbs or passive inhalation of the drug.

Healthcare practices and practitioners have different names depending on the ethnic group. For example, in Nigeria, what is called “Babalawos” by the Yorubas, is called “Bibia” by the Igbos, and “Boka” by the Northerners or Hausas.

A tribe closely linked to the forest and its plants is the Batwa of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Batwa still deeply value the forest: the environment is their major heritage as it has always guaranteed their most important resources. Before access was denied, these forests provided food, shelters and refuge. The forest herbs always provided the Batwa with their medicines too. Studies suggest that the belief in traditional medicine is still as strong amongst the newer generations of the tribe and that the youngest still have doubts about the effectiveness of modern medicine.

Medicine in South America

yerba mate

yerba mate


For indigenous peoples in South America, an equilibrium and harmony with nature is considered the basis for good health and illness occurs when its balance is altered.

With origins in ancient Aztec and Incan cultures, herbal and holistic remedies remain widespread amongst indigenous peoples, with many of the herbs used by the Aztecs years ago still the main ingredient in medicines today.

Wormwood: The use of wormwood in medical preparations is popular with indigenous peoples today. The Central American species of wormwood (‘Artemisia Mexicana’) was used by the Aztecs both as a ritual herb and as a medication — referred to by the tribes as “Iztauhyatl” — in the treatment of digestive problems such as diarrhea, stomach ache, colic and rheumatism. ‘Artemisia Mexicana’ has also been found to treat malaria and as topical remedy. Prepared with a solution of alcohol, the plant could be mixed with other compounds depending on the symptoms to be treated, and often an oil to make a ‘suspension’ (a liquid in which small pieces of the drug are not dissolved in the solution) of the medication.

Marigold: Used both to supplement other remedies and as a medication in its own right, in addition to treating many of the same digestive ailments as wormwood the essential oil of the marigold has antibiotic and antimicrobial properties. Marigold was traditionally used for more severe and persistent symptoms of digestive distress. The leaves could be brewed into a tea, crushed and burned as remedial incense, or used as an essential oil.

The Matsé—the indigenous peoples of Brazil and Perù—have recently created a 500-page encyclopedia on their use of traditional medicine. This is a unique case and represents huge action in their effort to conserve a millennia of culture and intangible heritage. Compiled by five shamans with the help of the Acaté conservation group, the encyclopedia describes each plant used in medicine as a remedy for a variety of diseases in detail. The Matsés have only printed the encyclopedia in their native language to ensure that researchers do not steal their vast medicinal knowledge, as has happened in the past. Instead, the volume is intended as a guide to train new and young shamans, and to preserve the knowledge of living shamans before they die.

Medicine in Canada

indigenous peoples in Canada have been using plants as medicine since ancient times, and more than 400 different species of plants with medicinal applications have been identified over the years. They refer to recognized ‘specialists’ for their use, and the specific methods of harvesting and preparing medicines are considered the intellectual property of these specialists and their families. Medicinal plants are treated with respect and reverence as their healing properties rely on specific spiritual preparation. Here are just some examples of well-known medicinal plants still widely used by indigenous peoples in Canada.

‘Achillea millefolium’ (Yarrow): Containing aromatic compounds including menthol and thujone, the leaves of this plant are used for colds and coughs, while the roots are used to treat sores, burns, abscesses, skin rashes and bronchitis. It can be used as a shampoo by soaking the leaves in water, and drinks made with the plant used to cure diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. Also used as a blood purifier, the indigenous peoples use Achillea to repel insects and treat insect bites.

Artemisia species (Sagebrush, Wormwood, Sagewort): There are more than 20 species of Artemisia in Canada traditionally used as medicines in the form of infusions or inhalants to treat colds, coughs, and respiratory ailments. They are also commonly used to ease skin irritations and cure infection, or as a solution for rheumatism and arthritis. Some species are even burned ceremonially and used as incense.

The Woods Cree of Saskatchewan are part of the Canadian Aboriginal. Their traditional use of medicinal herbs included the consumption of dried roots as winter foods, with fresh roots being sliced and fried to eat. Flower buds can be cooked and eaten too, but different types are traditionally combined as remedies for headaches, aching limbs or swelling, or used as poultices for treating wounds. Rhizomes (the stems of the flowers which grow underground) are cut into rounds and dried, and then either put into tea as a remedy for arthritis or used to treat an area of the body that has been specifically affected. Once ground into a poultice, fresh roots can be applied to wounds, and decoctions are given to women recovering from childbirth.

Medicine in Australia

Whilst the use traditional medicine of indigenous peoples in Canada is quite well know, in the Australian bush it is less so. Most Aboriginal medical treatments were derived from food. Aboriginal people use plants in a variety of ways: some of them are crushed, heated and applied to skin, and others boiled, inhaled or drunk. Many of the plants used by Aboriginal people contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds known in western medicine. Some examples of this include:

Tea tree oil: The Bujjalung, aborigines of the New South Wales coast, commonly use tea tree leaves and apply them on wounds as a paste. The antiseptic potency of the tea tree oil was first demonstrated around the 1920s, and since then the oil has been used to treat almost anything—fungi, acne, wounds, etc—thanks to its incredible healing properties.

Goat’s foot: The Aboriginal from Northern Australia and parts of New South Wales first crushed and heated the leaves of the plant, then applied them directly to the skin as an effective method of pain relief. Heated on hot rocks and then applied as a poultice, the leaves were traditionally used to relieve stings and bites from insects, stingrays and snakes as well as a cure for skin irritation and infection.

Emu bush: The leaves of this plant have the same properties as established antibiotics, and are mostly used by the Aboriginal tribes of the Northern Territory to wash and disinfect sores and cuts. Today, some healing centers still offer traditional medicine practice (TMP) and bush medicines. For example, the Akeyulerre Healing Centre in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory offers stand-alone TMP, traditional healers and bush medicines. The Ngangkari Program in the Northern Territory also has Anangu traditional healers, who have received training from, and special tools passed down by, their grandparents.


Content Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided in this article is NOT intended as medical advice. The use of any medicine should always be done with the consultation of a trained physician or healthcare provider.

Cover photo: Man drinking tea iStock.com/Bartosz Hadynia


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