Essential Oils: Origins and History

cave paintigs essential oil history origins

Essential Oils: Origins and History

Inspiration for this Article

It’s interesting to look back and think about how essential oils came to be used by humans and how the pendulum has gone from natural remedies to chemical and synthetic and is now swinging rather strongly back to natural remedies again as people learn more and are educated about the benefits of essential oils and the plant compounds they contain.

When you think about the history of human evolution and how we likely evolved in tandem to many plants prior to cultivating them in a more organized and mass manner, it makes sense that many of the properties we find in essential oils are so beneficial to us.

Plants evolved pharmacological and toxicological properties–chemical substances that are not involved in the essential photosynthetic and metabolic activities also known as secondary metabolites–most likely to fend off herbivores. Many of these have been found to be very beneficial to humans. It’s possible, and maybe likely, that over the millennia, humans actually promoted some of these properties through cultivation and use.

It’s even been postulated that humans “may have evolved with genes acquired from plants”. Yes, seriously, you can read more about that in this article.

The Logical Reasoning

In any case, if you think about it logically, we were herbivores for much longer in our evolution than we have been carnivores. As animals that were evolving a higher level of intelligence, we would have, in parallel to that evolution, paid attention to the objective reactions that plants had on our physiology and, therefore, consumed or used plants that we knew had produced certain results when we needed those results.

In my mind, that logical argument makes the use of essential oils, well, a no-brainer.

Furthermore, in 2001, researchers identified 122 compounds used in modern medicine which were derived from traditional plant sources; 80% of these have had a traditional use identical or related to the current use of the active elements of the plant.

I point that out because I think we did what we do as humans—took something that was working and tried to make it work even better. Which is fine. But now we’re finding that maybe that approach, at least in an aggregate view, probably isn’t such a great approach.

When you consider all of this along with the history of the use of plants and essential oils for health and wellness combined with the side effects we’re seeing with so many of the chemical and synthetic drugs on the market today, it lends even more credence to why these special liquids are beneficial and should be something we use every day.

History and Origins

Essential oils have been used for millennia for a variety of purposes as you’ll see in the sections of this article. Their uses have varied between cultures from religious purposes to healing the sick to cosmetic uses and evidence suggesting their use dates back as far as 60,000 years ago.

It is unclear exactly when essential oils gained widespread acknowledgement for their health and wellness benefits. More than likely it was spread slowly as human trade spread across the old and new worlds but eventually the knowledge of essential oils did indeed spread across the entire globe.

It’s also very likely that the old and new worlds developed knowledge and practices in the use of medicinal plants separately as you’ll see.

Stone Age (more than 5,000 years ago)

In 1991 in the Swiss Alps, the 5,300 year old Otzi Iceman’s body was found. He was carrying the birch fungi Piptoporus betulinus which contains antibiotic and antibacterial properties and may have been used to treat intestinal parasites.

There are many reports on the internet that reference carbon-dated cave paintings in Lascaux between 13,000 and 25,000 years ago, located in the Dordogne region in France, that suggest the use of medicinal plants in every day life.2 That reference is the one often used in backing up that claim. However, I wasn’t able to find specific and detailed references myself for this so as far as I am concerned this one is hearsay (widespread though it may be).

Middle East
Additionally, there is debatable evidence that Neanderthals may have been using medicinal plants as much as 60,000 years ago. In a cave, also in Iraq, called Shanidar Cave, the remains of ten Neanderthals were found dating form 35,000 to 65,000 years ago. The remains of “Shanidar 4”, an adult male aged 30-45 years old, was found with flowering plants that may have been chosen for their specific herbal and medicinal properties as diuretics, stimulants, astringents as well as anti-inflammatory properties.

Ancient Times & Bronze Age (about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago)

Cists and burial sites in Greece dated to 1000 and 2000 B.C. have found evidence of medicinal herbs being left with the bodies. Studies of “specialized tablets from the palace archives of Knossos, Pylos, and Mycenae, which record herbs and spices…which have known medicinal properties“.

In Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odysseys, created circa 800 BC, 63 plant species from the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Egyptian Assyrian pharmacotherapy were referred to.6

Additionally, “the works of Hippocrates (c. 459–370 BC) contain 300 medicinal plants classified by physiological action: Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) were applied against fever; garlic against intestine parasites; opium, henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were used as narcotics; fragrant hellebore and haselwort as emetics; sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics; oak and pomegranate as adstringents.”6

The Ebers Papyrus, also known as the Papyrus Ebers, is an Egyptian medical papyrus written about 1500 B.C. but is believed to have been copied from earlier texts. It is among the oldest preserved medical documents and contains some 800 prescriptions referring to 700 plant species, drugs, remedies, and incantations meant to treat disease and other ailments.6 It “contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns”.

The plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers papyrus include opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed, and castor oil—though some of the translations are less than certain.

Archaeologists have found residues from inside two wine jars suggesting the Egyptians used wine as a delivery means for medicine by adding herbs known to treat disease and improve health.

Middle East & Persia
The earliest archaeological physical evidence for steam distillation, which is the earliest known method for extracting the medicinal compounds in plants, was found in Tepe Gawra, which is modern-day Iraq, and was dated approximately 3,500 B.C.E.1 This is technically the Stone Age for that geography at that time but generally considered to be within the threshold of the advent of metalworking.

The oldest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage for preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur, approximately 5000 years old. It comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants, some of them alkaloid such as poppy, henbane, and mandrake.6

Around 2000 B.C., willow bark was included on a list of medical supplies from the Third Dynasty of Ur, and was mentioned again on the Ebers Papyrus around 1543 B.C.

Pen Ts’ao or The Canon of Herbs, also referred to as Shen-nung pen ts’ao ching (Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica) and Shennong Bencaojing among other similar names, the earliest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage was a Chinese pharmacopoeia, attributed to Emperor Shen Nong, and documented the early Chinese use of herbs. It includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals as well as plant descriptions and describes their medicinal effects, how and where to grow them and how to use and preserve them.6 According to Chinese legend, Shen Nong (commonly referred to as Shennong), was the “inventor” of tea in 2737 B.C.

Ayurvedic medicine evolved in India, and is considered to be the world’s oldest healthcare system. It is named for the Sanskrit word Ayurveda, meaning the “science of life.” Originally shared as an oral tradition, Ayurveda was recorded more than 5,000 years ago in Sanskrit, in the four sacred texts called the Vedas: the Rig Veda (3000-2500 BCE), Yajur Veda, Sam Veda, and Atharva Veda (1200-1000 BCE).

Ayurveda therapies have varied and evolved over more than two millennia and are typically based on complex herbal compounds, while treatises introduced mineral and metal substances. Plant-based treatments in Ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds such as turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon.

The Sushruta Samhita attributed to Sushruta in the sixth century B.C. describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.

“Modern” Times (less than 3,000 years ago)

Middle East
We all know the birth story of Jesus. What I think we often don’t think about or maybe even realize is that two of the three kings gifts were essential oils!

Suffice to say that Frankincense and Myrrh were highly valued in that part of the world long before and long after Jesus was born.

I won’t go too much into that here because we have an entire post dedicated to that story, and specifically the value of Frankincense.

Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 A.D.) was a  physician, botanist and pharmacologist and published a five-volume De Materia Medica in Greek documenting around 600 plants with medicinal usage. This was “widely read for more than 1,500 years” and used as a definitive herbal reference book until the 1600s.

Ali-Ibn Sana (commonly known as Avicenna the Arab) lived from 980 -1037 A.D. was the author of a five-volume Qanun, The Canon of Medicine which was adopted throughout Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries and “dealt with plants as the components of a human diet and, numbering in the hundreds, as remedies for sundry ailments.”He is also credited for being the first person to discover and record the method of distilling essential oils by inventing the refrigerated coil.

In 1526, the Grete Herball was written–in English not Latin–making it available to all classes in society. It was “a single volume compendium which details the medicinal properties (or virtues) of plants and some non-botanical items according to the system of humoralism.” It’s content was primarily on the medicinal uses and properties of the plants described.

In 1653, Nicholas Culpeper wrote his “The Complete Herbal”, “which contains a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge”. This man alone is a fascinating study and was a strong proponent of herbal remedies. The systematization of the use of herbals by Culpeper was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals, most of which originally had herbal origins.

French Chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé coined the term “Aromatherapie” while investigating the antiseptic properties of essential oils. Gattefosse’s book “Aromatherapie” was published in 1928 in which he details cases of essential oils and their healing capabilities.3 The book promoted the healing properties of essential oils and explained those properties as qualities of the molecules that had been detected in essential oils at that time.

Gattefossé was burned in a laboratory accident in 1910 that left his hands severely burned which subsequently became gangrenous. He used Lavender essential oil to treat the sores. Translated from French, this is Gattefossé’s description of the incident:

“The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped ‘the gasification of the tissue’. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day.”

The next major publication in the history of modern essential oil use was Jean Valnet’s 1964 book L’Aromathérapie. It was aimed at both physicians and the public and is commonly considered the first medical book on aromatherapy.

The French medicinal plant tradition was exported to England in the 1960s through the work of the Austrian nurse Marguerite Maury, whose book, The Secret of Life and Youth, was published in French in 1961 and translated into English in 1964.

Maury was a contemporary of Dr. Jean Valnet and influenced heavily by his work. Her book offered a valuable resource of information on topics as varied as health, beauty, dietetics, cooking, herbs, essential oils, and homeopathy.

Maury and her husband developed the use of aromatherapy massage in therapeutic contexts, especially in nursing, and the use of essential oils in the beauty industry. This so-called English style of aromatherapy involved the use of individually prescribed oil blends in gentle massage.

Under the influence of Maury, British aromatherapy in the 1960s developed under a philosophy of using essential oils through external application, to treat both the mind and body.

United States
Jean Valnet published another book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, in 1982. Essential oils then grew in popularity through the 1980s and 1990s as patients in the United States became more and more interested in alternative medicine.


Phew, that’s a lot of history. I don’t think I could sum it up better than this:

“Since time immemorial people have tried to find medications to alleviate pain and cure different illnesses. In every period, every successive century from the development of humankind and advanced civilizations, the healing properties of certain medicinal plants were identified, noted, and conveyed to the successive generations. The benefits of one society were passed on to another, which upgraded the old properties, discovered new ones, till present days. The continuous and perpetual people’s interest in medicinal plants has brought about today’s modern and sophisticated fashion of their processing and usage.”6

1 Levey, M. (1955), EVIDENCES OF ANCIENT DISTILLATION, SUBLIMATION AND EXTRACTION IN MESOPOTAMIA. Centaurus, 4: 23–33. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0498.1955.tb00466.x

2 Allaby, M. (2010), Plants: Food, Medicine, and the Green Earth.

3 Gattefossé R-M, 1993 Gattefossé’s aromatherapy: the first book on aromatherapy. CW Daniel, Saffron Walden, p 87

4 Jean Valnet, The Practice of Aromatherapy, C.W. Daniel Co, Saffron Walden, 1980.

5 Janetta Bensouilah, The History and Development of Modern-British Aromatherapy, The International Journal of Aromatherapy, vol. 15, 2005, p. 135.