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January 19, 2012

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'Magical' fossil bones and teeth still powerful medicine

DRAGON bones and teeth - the fossilized bones of dinosaurs and other animals - are considered powerful traditional medicine and have been used since ancient times to treat a range of ailments and speed the healing of wounds.

High-calcium dragon bones are famously used to treat insomnia, anxiety, hyperactivity and various energy imbalances. It is also used as a male sex tonic. The mythical dragon had immense magical powers and when people believed in dragons, long gu (dragon's bones) and long ya (dragon's teeth) were especially effective and used to treat demonic influx, spiritual miasma and old ghosts.

In traditional Chinese medicine, people who ingest an animal or animal part can acquire the characteristics of that animal - heart is good for the heart and ingesting the pulverized bones of a mighty dragon confers benefits of strength and other dragon traits. They are still used today to treat a range of conditions.

In TCM, dragon bones are "sweet" and "neutral" in energy, neither strong yin (cold) nor yang (warm), and they travel through the heart, kidney and liver meridians. They calm shen (the spirit), benefit the heart and liver and prevent fluid loss.

Dragon bones are typically used as a sedative to reduce stress, treat insomnia and soothe manic behavior. They have astringent properties so they help treat problems such as excessive perspiration, night sweats and chronic diarrhea.

Generally, the bones and teeth are cooked and ground into powder. They are almost never prescribed alone, but in combination with various herbs.

In ancient times the bones were often used for external application to accelerate the healing of wounds and reduce inflammation.

Dragon bone is the fossilized bone of prehistoric mammals, such as horses, tapirs and rhinos, but farmers who discover bones and sell them to pharmacies are not so picky. Finding a trove of fossils can, or could make a family or village rich. Sometimes they tipped off paleontologists, sometimes they kept the knowledge to themselves.

The medicinal use of dragon bones led directly to the discovery in 1899 of oracle bones, the earliest surviving form of Chinese writing dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). It is said that oracle bones may have been unearthed in the Sui (581-618 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties, but little attention was paid by the peasants who sold them to apothecaries who ground them into powder to make ointment for wounds.

In 1899, Wang Yirong, a student of ancient inscriptions, bought bone fragments to be used as medicine and noticed that ancient characters were inscribed on them. Realizing they were valuable relics, Wang managed to obtain around 1,500 oracle bones. He was not able to study the fragments before he died and most of his collection was transferred to scholar collector Liu E in payment of debt.

With the help of other scholars, Liu wrote the first book on Chinese oracle bones in 1903, "Tie Yun Cang Gui" ("Iron Cloud Hidden Turtle"). It was based on rubbings taken of 1,058 pieces of dragon bones.


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