Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We are again heading into the Holidays with all the over indulgence that entails.  Whether you celebrate the end of the old year and the arrival of the new as a religious or a cultural event, it is a time for celebration.  And what better way to celebrate than with food and drink? Unfortunately, all too often moderation goes out the window and with the good times comes full bellies, upset stomachs, and the occasional hangover.  Here at Land of the Dead we have been in serious training for the Holidays since Thanksgiving.

Over the next few weeks you may head to the medicine cabinet more than once seeking some relief from a modern pharmaceutical, but have you considered a fossil for what ails you?  For millennia fossils, although not recognized as the remains of past life, were part of the repertoire of therapeutic treatments for diverse medical maladies; epilepsy, plague, preventing poisoning, snakebite, convulsions, phlegm of the head, childbirth pains, heart tremors, asthma, tooth aches, venereal disease, back pains, small pox, and many others. 

There are even a few applications that might help if, and when, you overdo it…


Amber is the fossilized sap exuded by several different kinds of coniferous trees.  However, its nature and origin was long misunderstood.  Because of its yellow color and being found in the ground, amber was though to be the urine of the European lynx turned to stone.  Supposedly it hardened as soon as the Lynx urine contacted the ground. The Lynx covered it with dirt “from a certain constitutional meanness, for fear that the piss should be useful as an ornament to the human race” (Duffin 2008: p. 15).

Illustration of urinating European lynx in a medieval manuscript.  Note that urine is turning into stone (lynx stone) upon contact with ground.
Because of its supposed origin as urine, Lynx stone was widely used, in numerous formulations,  to treat bladder stones. However, other applications of more interest to holiday revelers include treatment for stomach aches and headaches (either by sucking in the mouth or ground up and drunk in wine, water, or beer following a light breakfast). 

TOADSTONES (Fossil Fish Teeth)

Medieval toadstone ring with large central  tooth crown and two smaller lateral crowns.

The teeth on the roof of the mouth of extinct semionotid fish have thick, round, cap-shaped, crowns.  Made out of resistant enamel, these crowns are often found loose.  Medieval folklorists  believed they came from the heads of toads, and toads were important in medieval medicine, hence toadstones must have medicinal applications. Among their many uses, toadstones cured fevers and upset stomachs, something to keep in mind as you groggily greet the day on January 1

The truth about toadstones revealed.  Left, specimen of large seminonotid fish Lepidotes maximus.  Right, semispherical  tooth crowns of Lepidotes, the "toadstones."


Teeth of fossil fish known as pycnodonts were reported to be collected from inside young swallows just out of the egg.  Once obtained, they needed to be protected from contact with water, earth, and other stones. Worn on the body, they cured headaches, among other things such as rendering futile the wiles of goblin visitors.
Teeth, skeleton, and life restoration of a pycnodont fish.

CHALK EGGS (Sea Urchins)

The spherical exoskeleton of sea urchins are common fossils in some ancient marine deposits. They are particularly abundant in the thick Cretaceous chalk beds near Kent, England. Crushed,  mixed with a liquid, and drunk, these “eggs” were a cure an acidic stomach. Oddly enough, there may be some truth to that claim, as the chalk beds are composed of calcium carbonate, the active ingredient in modern antacids such as Tums.
A  chalk egg sea urchin fossil from the chalk cliffs of Dover.


The Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation in Utah preserves the staggeringly abundant remains of the trilobite Elrathia kingi. At least one Native American burial contained an Elrathia fossil with a hole drilled through its cephalon, probably for stringing on a necklace. Phhvant Native Americans recounted that older Indians wore such objects to help with many sicknesses, including sore throats.

A complete fossil of Elrathia kingi

SAINT PHANOURIOS’ BONES (Fossil Pygmy Hippo Bones)

St. Phanourios is a Orthodox Catholic Saint who died on Cyprus. Many fossil hippo bones have been discovered along the north coast of that island and these have been revered as the bones of the saint. Given their supposed holy nature, local villagers collected bones, powedered them, and drunk them mixed with water ---  a concoction that cured nearly every  known malady.  This was apparently still being done as late as the 1970’s. Ironically, the scientific name for the fossil hippo is Phanourios minor!
Saint Phanourios (left) and (right) a complete skeleton of the Cyprus dwarf hippo Phanourios minor.

DRAGON BONES AND DRAGON TEETH (Fossil Mammals of Many Types)

Chinese traditional medicine has long used powdered fossil bones and teeth for many conditions, including stomach problems and headaches. Preparation includes crushing the bone, and boiling for a prolonged time, followed by the addition of other ingredients.  Of course, the bones have nothing to do with dragons, not even with dinosaurs, but are, instead, of fossil rhinoceroses, bears, horses, elephants, and hyenas among others.
Dragon teeth (top) and dragon bone (bottom)


While the medicinal use of fossils might seem as something quaint and amusing from the past, it continues today in some areas.  As noted above, the hippo bones on Cyprus were used until the 1970s.  Dragon bones and teeth, even though recognized as fossils, are widely used in some “alternative” medical therapies and can be purchased on-line. Some practitioners claim that there are no known side effects of excessive dragon bone intake.  However, fossil vertebrate remains can have very high radiation levels, depending on what minerals were involved in the fossilization process.

Among the most important vertebrate fossils bearing beds in the world are the  Cretaceous marine beds in the Araripe Basin of northeastern Brazil.  Laminated limestone quarries are where many specimens are found and at least five species of fossil turtles have been discovered. The fossil shells are scraped and given orally. Among its effects are those of a sedative.


Having called your attention to some of the possible uses of fossils to combat the side effects of your holiday excesses, I am obligated to repeat the disclaimer given for weight loss pills, fruit smoothies that will rejuvenate you knees so you won’t need a knee replacement, “herbal Viagra” and similar erectile dysfunction remedies, shark cartilage tablets, and many other infomercial pharmaceuticals:

These claims have not been verified by the FDA.”



My thanks to fossil shark expert Dr. Christopher Duffin for copies of his many papers on the medicinal uses of fossils and interesting email discussions on the same.

Duffin, C.J. 2008. Fossils as drugs: pharmaceutical palaeontology. Ferrantia. Travaux scientifiques de Musee national d’histoire naturelle Luxemberg 54: 82 pages.  Freely available on-line at http://old.mnhn.lu/recherche/ferrantia/publications/Ferrantia54.pdf

Duffin, C.J.  2010. The toadstone – a rather unlikely jewel.  Jewellery History today 8: 3-4

Moura, G.J.B. and Albuquerque, U.P. The first report on the medicinal use of fossil in Latin America.  Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine  Volume 2012  article ID 691715: 5 pages

Van der Geer, A. and Dermitzakis, M. 2008. Fossils in pharmacy: from “snake eggs” to “Saint bones”; an overview.  Hellenic Journal of Geosciences 45: 323-332

Kennedy, C. 1976. A fossil for what ails you. Fossils Magazine 1: 42-57

Taylor, M.E. and Robison, R.A. 1976.  Trilobites in Utah folklore.  Brigham Young University Geology Studies 23: 1-5.

Dragon bones and dragon teeth in modern folk medicine