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8th Edition of International Conference on

Traditional Medicine, Ethnomedicine and Natural Therapies

June 05-07, 2025 | Rome, Italy

Traditional Medicine 2024

South African medicine horns from 500 years ago until the 20th century

Speaker at Traditional Medicine, Ethnomedicine and Natural Therapies 2024 - Justin Bradfield
University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Title : South African medicine horns from 500 years ago until the 20th century


The chance discovery of a 500-year-old cattle-horn container in a painted rock shelter in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa has shed new light on the antiquity of traditional medicines in the region. We present the micro-residue and GC-MS results of the solidified substance found inside the horn container. Several plant-based medicinal compounds were tentatively identified, of which mono-methyl inositol and lupeol are the most prevalent. Based on pharmacobotanical studies, we suggest the most probable ailments the medicine would have been used to treat and propose the most likely plants from which the ingredients were sourced. To the best of our knowledge this is the oldest evidence from southern Africa of a bespoke container that has been used to store multiple combined ingredients of medicinal application. The findings are contextalised within the framework of what we already know of people’s knowledge of plant-based medicines from 200 000 year ago. We also briefly look at preliminary results from an ongoing project to characterise medicines from 20th century contexts and how these medicines were situated within the cultural and spiritual domains.

Audience Take Away Notes: 

  • I will present the oldest known medicine container from southern Africa, recently uncovered in an archaeological context
  • The GC-MS identifications of the plant substances found in the horn container will be detailed
  • I will situate the discovery in what we already know of traditional knowledge of plant-based medicines from as early as 200 000 years ago
  • Tentative chemical results of 20th century ethnohistorical medicines will also be presented and discussed within their socio-cultural milieu


Justin Bradfield is an Associate Professor of archaeology in the Palaeo-Research Institute, University of Johannesburg. He specializes in the study of organic technology among Stone Age and Iron Age communities. Recently, he has expanded his focus to encompass ancient hunting poisons and medicines and how this pharmacological knowledge was contextualized within socio-cultural milieux. He is an editor of the South African Archaeological Bulletin, the foremost archaeology journal in the region.