This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to David Julius, a physiologist at the University of California, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular neurobiologist at Scripps, for their work identifying the molecular and chemical bases of our sensory perception of temperature and touch. Or, to put it plainly, exactly what it is that gives chili peppers their kick and how the proteins involved could be used to combat chronic pain. The discovery brims with promise for studies of pain management. But in unlocking the chemical underpinnings of sensory responses to hot substances these scientists have done something else as well: they have solved a millennia-old mystery and rediscovered ancient women’s folk medicine.
As anyone who has eaten in a Mexican restaurant knows, chili peppers (or rather the chemical compound capsaicin found in them) are spicy, sometimes in gastronomically unpleasant ways—though we all know that scientists weren’t quite sure how this worked. Julius and Patapoutian, however, were able to explain the biology of the senses. They tracked the protein TRPV1 (the protein that is responsible for responding to painful heat) and identified the receptors in the body that respond to these forces. They weren’t the first to know about the medicinal and sensory effects of peppers, however: 2,500 years ago a rugged nomadic people known as the Scythians used the same techniques and insights to treat lifestyle ailments and protect their bodies from cold.
The Scythians flourished from roughly 800 B.C. to 500 A.D. and discoveries of their burials have been found throughout the vast Eurasian steppe region (the large area of unforested grassland that stretches from northern China, through Siberia, to the northern Black Sea). They were, as Stanford historian Adrienne Mayor has explored in her work, a nomadic people whose egalitarian lifestyle centered on horses, archery, and warfare. Both male and female Scythians were well known for their physical endurance and remarkable ability to withstand a life lived on horseback in the frigid temperatures of the region.
If you haven’t heard much about the Scythians it’s perhaps because their influence is felt in the legends that surround a much better known group: the Amazons. Mayor told me that “Ancient historians described Scythian women, comparing them to Amazons of myth, and ancient vase paintings show Amazons with Scythian-style woolen leggings and tunics, leather boots, felt hats with earflaps, and weapons. Similar clothing for cold weather, along with quivers full of arrows and horse gear, have been found in the graves of real women warriors of Scythia.” The real Amazons, in other words, were less the scantily clad Wonder Women of the silver screen and more the thermal leggings and hats crowd. Update your Halloween costumes accordingly.
A harsh lifestyle of riding and war, however, comes at a physical cost. The skeletons of these real-life Amazons bear the scars of battle: injuries like broken limbs from falls, bowed legs, arrowheads, and arthritis. In the world before unethically marketed opiates and over-the-counter-analgesics how did people survive? The answer, Mayor explains in The Amazons, comes from an obscure source. In his work On Rivers a third century A.D. author who claimed to be Plutarch discusses the Don River, which flowed through the Scythian heartland in the region north of the Black Sea. The Greeks called the river the “Amazon” and Pseudo-Plutarch mentions a little-known plant called “halinda” that grew on its banks. Apparently by “Bruising the plant and rubbing their bodies with the juice made the Amazons able to endure the extreme cold.”
When she ran across this passage, Mayor was plunged into a world of botanical detective work. What was the halinda plant and how did it work? Pseudo-Plutarch had left a clue: he described it as similar to colewort, a kind of headless cabbage. This led her to “the Brassicaceae mustard family, the hardy, wild, winter cabbages of Russia and Siberia. Ancestors of today’s edible cabbages, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, and rapeseed/canola oil, these plants have been cultivated to reduce the mustard oils, sulphur-containing glucosinolates, which give the wild species their bitter taste. So the warrior women of Scythia must’ve crushed Brassica cabbages growing wild on the steppes around the Don River.”
Mayor told me that she contacted Dr. Simon Cotton, a chemist at University of Birmingham in the U.K. Cotton explained to the Daily Beast that plants make “hot” molecules in order to deter predators from eating them (this, by the way is the same reason that they make nicotine and cocaine). We humans are the only species that like hot food and so it is largely effective. “Many of these molecules have been identified” said Cotton, “like piperine, the active component of white and black peppers; capsaicin in chili peppers; and zingerone, the hot part of ginger.” The hotness of molecules like capsacin has been recognized for a long time but it is only recently that we have begun to understand the mechanics of how the hotness works.
This is precisely what’s significant about Julius and Patapoutian’s research, added Cotton. “The initial discovery found that there was a receptor (known as the TRPV1 receptor), a protein channel found in certain nerve cells, which ‘recognized’ and bound capsaicin molecules, causing calcium ions to enter the cells. This channel was also sensitive to temperatures above about 42°C. The brain gets the same message whether the channel has been opened by heat or by capsaicin, which is why capsaicin (and curries) are ‘hot’. Capsaicin and other ‘hot’ spice molecules don’t actually make you hotter – it just feels as if it does.”
What we now know, said Cotton, is that there are a variety of receptors sensitive to heat and cold. Take menthol, for example. The TRPM8 receptor is activated by cold and also switched on by the menthol found in mint. “This is why menthol gives a cooling sensation when applied to the skin or mucous membranes. It does not actually reduce your temperature, it just feels as if it does, when you have it in toothpaste or a mouthwash.”
What Julius and Patapoutian’s research explains are the mechanics of ancient Amazon women’s folk medicine. The brassica plant identified by Mayor contains a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, which activates the TRPV1 receptor. This, Cotton said, “would have made it an effective massage oil” that would have alleviated the painful cold of bathing in the River Don and, Mayor added, masked the pain signals from battle injuries and arthritis. Much like capsaicin from hot chili peppers is used in modern creams to relieve arthritis pains.
Mayor told me that it was “exciting it was to realize that the chemical mystery of the warrior women’s folk medicine, invented more than 2,000 years ago, was solved by the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine!” The brassica cabbage, Mayor added, wasn’t the only way that saddle-sore Amazons learned to unwind and care for their bodies. Besides their discovery of warming massage lotions, the historian Herodotus says that they enjoyed steam baths featuring intoxicating cannabis vapors. They even used hemp to make their famous lassos. After hours on horseback in battle who doesn’t need a hot bath and some THC to take the edge off?
The process, if you were asking for a friend, is described in detail by Herodotus: “They toss handfuls of kannabis seeds onto the heated stones. These seeds smolder and smoke and create great clouds of steam.” In her forthcoming book, Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws Mayor calls this the ancient version of hot boxing. Herodotus enthusiastically endorses it as far superior to Greek vapor-baths. Just as some use medical marijuana today, these uses of cannabis might also have helped with pain management but there’s no evidence that the Amazons used cannabis in battle. It was a work hard, play hard way of life.
The Amazons also made face masks using cypress, cedar and frankincense, proving that self-care can be a priority even for the busiest ancient warriors. Frankincense is an antiseptic with anti-inflammatory properties. Some recent research, Mayor told me, suggests that it may even help alleviate depression. Like the best modern beauty masks, the cosmetic paste was worn overnight and removed in the morning.
While it might seem unfair that anonymous ancient women discover medically effective treatments only for modern men to get a Nobel prize for explaining how it works, research like this proves both that science and history can work hand in hand in the present. So-called “primitive” ancient cultures weren’t so primitive or clueless after all. They may not have understood the chemistry of their treatments but, frankly, nor do most of us. While it’s unlikely that Julius and Patapoutian will divert time from their important research to investigate the anti-aging properties of cedar and frankincense, perhaps someone should.