With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It — Chemical ecology and the origin of human diet and medicine

By Timothy Johns

I am not an ethnobotanist. What I know about organic or anorganic chemistry would fit in the RAM of a first issue ZX-80. But With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It still held me spellbound. The author, Timothy Johns, manages to present his difficult and to me unfamiliar subject with admirable clarity. His prose is seldom dull, the book has been organized in the most transparent fashion and the ideas he presents are thought-provoking.

  • Author: Timothy Johns
  • Title: With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It — Chemical ecology and the origin of human diet and medicine
  • 356
  • Published: 1990
  • Publisher: University of Arizona Press
  • ISBN: 0-8165-1023-7

Of course, I am not qualified to give an opinion on the scientific accuracy of the facts Johns presents, except in as far as that I can see that he has been as careful in his fieldwork and library work as a good field-working linguist. Combined with the generally laudatory comments I was able to find on the Internet, and the personal recommendation of Dorothy J. Heydt, I cannot but conclude that I can trust the facts he presents.

Both in the introduction and in the last chapter, Johns goes beyond the bare facts and gives his interpretation of their meaning. His message is clear: we will have to heed the old biblical admonition to eat not just the fat, the sweet and protein-rich, but that the health of man is dependent upon the ‘bitter herbs’ — the allelochemical components of plants that may be toxic and bitter, but are necessary nonethelss. His second message is even more important: given the enormous dependency our system of medicine has on plants, we need to be careful not to destroy the botanical diversity that still remains. And we need to be careful not to foist our agricultural technology on peoples who have already adapted to their particular situation. Their ways may be primitive; they may still be better than our ways.

With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It contains eight chapters:

  • A Model of Human Chemical Ecology
  • Biological Adaptations for Dealing with Plant Toxins
  • Technological Methods of Detoxification
  • Domestication as a Solution for Dealing with Plant Toxins
  • Human Perception, Cognition and Behavior in Relation to Plant Chemicals
  • Reconsidering the Model of Human Chemical Ecology
  • Plant Chemical Defenses as Determinants of the Human Diet
  • The Dietary Basis for the Origin of Human Medicine

Additionally, there are two appendices, a bibliography and an index, of course.

Whenever you want to really go to the source of discussions about human preferences for food, the origin of human medicine or the relations between human and primate use of food, then this book is the place to go. Even for a complete layman in the field, it presents the necessary data and theories.

(Note that I have read the original 1990 hardcover issue. It is possible that the paperback has been expanded or corrected or even abridged.)