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What is the earliest historical report on the medicinal use of seaweeds?

I want to put forward the hypothesis that the first report about medicinal use of seaweeds is actually also the oldest deciphered text of all: the Gilgamesh epos- a story more than 4,500 years old.

This suggestion will have the drawback that the peddlers of seaweeds as health food will have more water on their mill. But I am willing to take that risk for science; nothing should stay in the way of the quest for the truth. If I am correct and the ancient sources can be trusted an astonishing discovery will also be made when we can correctly assign a modern name to šammu nibitti. I have taken the text from the Sîn-leqi-unninn version written in akkadian using cuneiforms (wedge-shaped characters) sometime between 1600-1300 BC. The original story, however, dates to 2700-2500 BC. The epic tells the story about the demigod Gilgamesh, which was a king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. This also present today’s phycologist with an enigma. What species is it? Some clues are offered in the text but I do not have a clear idea about which species is the elusive šammu nibitti.


When we enter the story Utnapishtim (a character with similarities to Noah) is telling Gilgamesh about a secret.


Tablet XI, Column vi

Utnapishtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:

“Gilgamesh, you came here; you strained, you toiled.

What can I give you as you return to your land?

Let me uncover for you, Gilgamesh, a secret thing.

A secret of the gods let me tell you.

There is a plant (šammu). Its root go deep, like the boxthorn;

its spike will prick your hand like a bramble

If you get your hands on that plant, you’ll have everlasting life”


šammu, general word for plant. I think that they should be forgiven for calling seaweeds plants. After all it took another 4,500 years before the PCR was developed and another couple of years before phylogenetic trees based on molecular evolution became common.


Gilgamesh, on hearing this, opened the conduit.

He bound heavy stones to his feet;

they dragged him down into the abyss (apsû), and he saw the plant.

He seized the plant, though it cut into his hand1;

he cut the heavy stones from his feet2;

the sea cast him up onto its shore.


apsû, the dwelling of the god Ea. The disrespectful might claim that the abyss is a symbol for the unreachable: but who are we to judge the Babylonian phycologists knowledge about the medicinal uses of seaweed. Assuming he descends into a sea, possible seas are the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf or possibly the Red Sea.

1If you really try and you are a really soft-handed scholar, I guess you could hurt yourself on a Turbinaria or some other tough seaweed, but a warrior like Gilgamesh? This is one of the big problems with this text and what I need help from the algological community. What seaweed is it? (This could be an occasion were algology could mean both the science of pain and the science of seaweeds). This plant might possibly be interpreted as a coral rather than a seaweed, indicating that they already 5000 years ago knew the most important part of many corals are algae.

2A method used until today by pearl divers in Bahrain, which might indicate that the sea was actually the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf is also the most likely sea considering that the story probably took place in modern day Iraq. This might be a small problem if this hypothesis has to be supported by field work- there are likely to be some minor inconveniences concerning logistics in this area at present. (This text was initially written a couple of months before the second Gulf war.)


Gilgamesh said to Urshanabi the Boatman:

“Urshanabi, this is the plant of the Openings (šammu nibitti)

by which a man can get life within.

I will carry it to Uruk of the Sheepfold; I will give it to the

elders to eat; they will divide the plant among them.

Its name is The-Old-Man-Will-Be-Made-Young (šibu issahir am lu).

I too will eat it, and I will return to what I was in my youth.”


Later a snake smelled the fragrance of the plant and stole it; which give rise to a number of speculations concerning the forbidden fruit and Eve, but that have to wait until another time. What is interesting considering our problem is that it has a smell. I know that seaweeds can have different smells, some seaweeds have the distinct odour of rotten sea (dimethyl sulphide and related compounds), some have the fragrance of a wet dog and unfortunately some smell slightly chlorineously (unfortunately, since I spent an inordinate amount of time trying, not very successfully, to identify the smell during my time as a PhD-student, but I should not get started on that litany). But, at least, this is something of a clue to the correct identification of this marvellous seaweed.


If there is anything that is sought after in biology and medicine, not to mention in mythology and in health food stores, this is it! A seaweed that returns the eater to his youth. The instant cure-all pill, the fountain of youth is really a seaweed! And people ask us: Why do you study pond scum? Victory will be ours, research money will flood in and women, sorry, the opposite sex will find us handsome. We will be so famous that people will spit! Sorry, I got a little bit over-excited, but it would be a valuable contribution to the knowledge concerning the historic use of a obscure seaweed that no-one cares about.



Gardner J & Maier J (1984) Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-Leqi-Unninni Version. Vintage Books, Random House, New YorkRossen


Senast uppdaterad 2010-01-06 14:14