Ancient medicine: Clay used by Native Americans for centuries is more effective than antibiotics

A naturally occurring clay found in the Kisameet Bay, B.C., and used for centuries by the Heiltsuk Nation exhibits potent antibacterial activity against multidrug-resistant pathogens.

A team of Canadian scientists has discovered that a clay, used for centuries by Native Americans from North Vancouver, has antibacterial properties that are capable of destroying even the strains of drug-resistant bacteria that cause most infections.

The Heiltsuk culture, also called Bella Bella by many, is formed by indigenous inhabitants from the Central Coast in modern-day Canada. Today, the Heiltsuk Nation is located mainly in the communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu and are the descendants of a number of tribal groups which settled in the area during the nineteenth century. However, their ancestors inhabited the Central Coast of British Columbia since at least the year 7190 B.C.

The Heiltsuk people had a reputation among other tribes of the area as being great artists and skilled warriors, besides having a great spiritual depth which is noted and expressed in complex rituals and ceremonies. The first contact with Europeans occurred sometime in 1793 and the name “Bella Bella” dates back to 1834.

The clay used by the natives is referred to as grey-green clay while many refer to it as Kisolite. It has been used by the Heiltsuk nation in a variety of segments, ranging from ailments, including ulcerative colitis, arthritis, neuritis, phlebitis, skin irritation, and burns.

Heiltsuk Nation Medicine Clay
A naturally occurring clay found in the Kisameet Bay, B.C. Photograph by Kisameet Glacial Clay Inc., Handout

As it happened with numerous other indigenous peoples of the Pacific coast northwest, the Heiltsuk also suffered a drastic population decline as a result of diseases brought them by Europeans as well as due to the increase in military conflicts with other local tribes during the time fur trade developed on a larger scale. Their knowledge of medicine, however, has endured the test of time and is proven to be useful even today.

Now, UBC researchers suggest this ‘ancient’ clay, exhibits extremely strong antibacterial activity against multidrug-resistant pathogens. According to tests conducted by UBC microbiologist Julian Davies and Shekooh Behroozian, the clay, when suspended in water, killed 16 strains of ESKAPE bacteria samples from sources including Vancouver General Hospital, St. Paul’s Hospital and the University of B.C.’s wastewater treatment plant reports the Vancouver Sun.

Thanks to the results, scientists suggest the clay to be studied as potentially being used in the treatment of severe infections caused by ESKAPE strains of bacteria, which, according to scientists, is a group of potentially deadly pathogens that cause many infections in order to ‘escape’ antibiotics.

“Infections caused by ESKAPE bacteria are essentially untreatable and contribute to increased mortality in hospitals,” said Davies, the co-author of a paper published Tuesday in the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio journal.

Researchers firmly believe that ancient medicine such as the clay, used for centuries by Native Americans, could provide new weapons in the battle against numerous multi-drug-resistant pathogens, proving that no matter how old or ineffective it might seem, at first, the ancients had incredible knowledge and knew how to treat even the deadliest bacteria.


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