Ethnomedicine: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson is going to define for you a concept known as ethnomedicine. You'll then be presented with a list of numerous examples of ethnomedicine and ethnomedical techniques.

Types of Medicine

Western medicine. Modern medicine. Traditional medicine. Eastern medicine. Complementary medicine. Alternative medicine. Holistic medicine. There are so many types of medicine! Aah!! Well, here's another one to add to that list: ethnomedicine.

This lesson is going to define this kind of medicine and provide some examples of it that will hopefully help you understand what it's all about.


Ethnomedicine is a term that refers to a wide range of healthcare systems/structures, practices, beliefs, and therapeutic techniques that arise from indigenous cultural development. Ethnomedicine is also taken to mean the study of these systems and techniques more so from the sense of placing them into an anthropological context rather than evaluating their effectiveness using the scientific method (although the latter is possible).

Either way, such healthcare systems don't necessarily follow the structure of modern or 'Western' medicine. Instead, these healthcare practices are based on the unique culture that has arisen from native/indigenous groups of people.

Ethnomedicine isn't limited to the obvious things, like using indigenous plants and ingredients to treat the sick. It also involves studying or utilizing:

  • How a disease/illness arises, according to the native cultural point of view.
  • Indigenous beliefs about what a person's signs and symptoms really mean.
  • The way by which a disease/illness progresses.
  • The best ways by which a disorder should be managed and who should manage it and how.

In the last case, that may be the person who is sick themselves, or it may be a practitioner of that form of ethnomedicine, like a local shaman.

Ethnomedical systems tend to see the mind and body as one entity and they focus on preventative techniques, such as the use of massage therapy, exercise, spices, herbs, and food to heal a diseased or ill individual.

On that note, it should be mentioned that although the terms disease and illness are often used synonymously, they aren't necessarily the same thing in the field of medical anthropology. The word disease tends to be used when referring to a structural or functional problem of the body itself whereas illness refers to the subjective experiences and perspectives of the person with respect to their disease (the mind-body connection mentioned before).


In any case, many forms of 'Eastern' medicine, such as traditional Chinese medicine, are examples of ethnomedicine. This means techniques like herbal therapy, acupressure, and acupuncture are some well-known practical examples of ethnomedicine as well.

Another example of ethnomedicine is Ayurvedic medicine. This practice may involve the use of oils, massage, and even laxatives to help restore a person's harmony and balance and cleanse their body.

Other examples of ethnomedical techniques include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Meditation
  • Sorcery/magical incantations
  • Dance and music
  • Reiki
  • Qigong
  • Aromatherapy

All of these techniques, in one way or another, may be seen by local populations as a way by which the mind and body can be healed.

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