The digital archive features hundreds of thousands of entries describing cures, rituals, and healing methods spanning two centuries, with a focus on protecting Indigenous knowledge from for-profit exploitation.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s Archive of Healing, one of the most comprehensive databases of medicinal folklore in the world, is now accessible online. The interactive, searchable website boasts hundreds of thousands of entries describing cures, rituals, and healing methods spanning more than 200 years and seven continents.
The site covers a diversity of health topics, ranging from the common cold to midwifery and abortion. It also focuses on the preservation of Indigenous traditions and customs related to wellness.
The project started five decades ago, when former UCLA professors Wayland Hand and Michael Owen Jones led teams of students to document medicinal practices described in university archives, published sources, anthropologists’ fieldnotes, and their own family folklore. In 1996, the school received a grant to digitize the research — encompassing more than a million handwritten four-by-six note cards — and transform it into a searchable database then known as the “Archive of Traditional Medicine.”
But somehow, the massive trove remained a little-known resource until 2012, when a librarian at UCLA came across the database and alerted Dr. David Delgado Shorter, Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA. Shorter, who had just published a book based on fieldwork with the Yoeme communities in northwest Mexico and launched a digital tool to help Indigenous people preserve their languages, was “blown away” by the archive.
“It was just sitting there probably for years without people knowing about it,” Shorter said in an interview. “There are 700,000 to 800,000 data points on healing from all over the world.”
“In some ways it’s fantastic that no one knew about it, because in this day and age, someone could have created a mining program and simply just pulled all the material from the database,” he added. When Shorter became the director of the project, it was rechristened as the “Archive of Healing, Ritual, and Transformation.” His team safeguarded the data in a secure server.
One of Shorter’s priorities is protecting Indigenous knowledge from exploitation by for-profit entities, such as pharmaceutical companies. For that reason, some entries in the archive do not mention specific plant names or recipes unless that information is already widely known.
As dangerous health-related disinformation surged during the coronavirus pandemic, many have become wary of alternative medicine. The archive’s initial compilers were folklorists, not medical doctors, and the website includes a disclaimer that the entries do not constitute medical advice. Over the course of nine years, Shorter and his students removed about 200,000 entries from the initial one million, and users can flag entries they deem inappropriate.
But not all traditional homeopathic practices are scams, says Shorter — turmeric, for instance, goes back about 5,000 years as a proven anti-inflammatory. Perhaps most importantly, these spices, plants, and other healing methods can deepen our understanding of how different cultures view the body, wellness, and community.
“The whole goal here is to democratize what we think of as healing and knowledge about healing, and take it across cultures in a way that’s respectful and gives attention to intellectual property rights,” said Shorter.
To access the Archive of Healing, users can create a free account on the project’s website. Eventually, the platform will accept new data submissions, allowing users to exchange information and share recommendations.