Sometimes it seems like just about anything can be used in Chinese medicine. Dried snakes and turtle plastrons are sold alongside mushrooms, ginseng, and buddha fruits. Other, stranger, ingredients are also used, such as rhinoceros horn, powdered scorpions, or fossilized bones. To a western mind it can seem more like ancient alchemy than medicine and many of the core doctrines are seen as false or foolhardy by science.
In particular, the use of fossilized bones as medicine has provided paleontologists with no end of consternation. China is an especially fossil-rich country, the Guizhou and Yunnan Provinces span hundreds of millions of years, back to the Precambrian. The Maotianshan fossils dug up in Chengjiang county are equal to the famous Burgess Shale for their rich array of soft-tissue impressions. This vast collection of fossils continues forwards in time, up into the present quaternary period.
And for millenia these extremely valuable specimens have been ground-up and eaten by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Devonian brachiopod shells (similar to clams) are crushed and dissolved in water to treat “rheumatism, skin diseases, and eye disorders“. Fossilized bones or teeth are known as longgu or longchi, a.k.a. dragon’s bones. The website chinese-unicorn.com provides an excerpt from Andersson’s book Children of the Yellow Earth: Studies in Prehistoric China detailing the use and curative powers.
According to the ancient pharmacopoeia many diseases may be cured by dragon’s bone: dysentery, gall-stones, fevers and convulsions in children at the breast, internal swellings, paralysis, women’s diseases, malaria, etc.
Dragon’s teeth are also highly esteemed as medicine, and according to the oldest medical work, written by the mythological emperor Sheng Nung (Shennong), dragon’s teeth drive out the following afflictions: spasms, epilepsy and madness and the twelve kinds of convulsions in children.
According to another author dragon’s teeth have the quality of appeasing unrest of the heart and calming the soul. According to a third they cure headache, melancholy, fever, madness and attacks by demons. All the authorities are agreed on one point, that dragon’s teeth are an effective remedy for liver diseases. (Andersson, 1934, 75‑76)
My scientific heart weeps at the thought of the lost discoveries.
However, even though many fossils have been destroyed in this manner, traditional Chinese medicine has also proven to be a boon for western science. Local people have known about the location of fossil rich areas for years and many make a living excavating and selling their finds. And while some view paleontologists as unwelcome competitors, many use their knowledge to guide and assist researchers. Some dig the fossils themselves and then sell them to collectors and institutions.
Furthermore, the schism between researchers and merchants, combined with the vast wealth of the Chinese strata and governmental backing has promoted common knowledge of paleontology. China is quickly becoming a world leader in unearthing the fossil record.