Anthropos. V90 n1-3 1995.
Foster, George M.: Hippocrates' Latin American Legacy. Humoral Medicine in the New World. Langhome: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1994. 242pp. ISBN 2-88124-611-7 (Theory and Practice in Medical Anthropology and International Health, 1) Price: $ 18.00
George M. Foster is best known for his research on Tzintzuntzan (Mexico) and here especially for his interest in ethnomedical questions like the hot-cold-concept. The book under review is the outcome of his lifelong work on these topics. The core theme of the book is the presence of humoral medicine in America (also known as "hot-cold-dichotomy") and the origin of these concepts. "Hot" and "cold" are used by many cultures in the Spanish-speaking regions of America, but especially in Mexico and northern South America to describe the properties of food, illnesses, (medicinal) plants, and other parts of the environment. These concepts are not directly related to thermal concepts, even though thermal aspects may be part of the classification of an object into "hot" or "cold." It thus is a comprehensive theory used to structure the environment and helps in decisions for example on how to treat a certain illness or why a person has become ill.
Three of the ten chapters of the book deal specifically with the humoral theory in Tzintzuntzan. After an introductory chapter on humoral concepts in Europe, India, and China and the supposed diffusion of the European concepts to other parts of the world, the basic principles, disease causality, and forms of therapy of humoral medicine in Tzintzuntzan are described. In the final five chapters Foster addresses the topic from a broader perspective and especially compares the Tzintzuntzan data with information from other areas. Chapter five discusses the kinds of ascription of humoral values and the criteria for these ascriptions (why is an object regarded as having a certain quality) and the "noise factor" (variation in the classification). In chapter six the unusual and theoretically puzzling neutral value (neither hot nor cold) is discussed. Chapter seven addresses the validating role of humoral theory in therapy, chapter eight the transmission of humoral medicine to the New World. In chapter nine he addresses the arguments of three of his major critics: A. B. Colson, A. Lopez Austin, and B. Ortiz de Montellano, who all favour a (partly) American origin for the humoral concepts observed today. The last chapter looks at humoral elements in US-American popular medicine and in a final epilogue the author draws several general conclusions. In an appendix the humoral values of 287 common food and medicinal items are classified according to the frequency with which they are cited as "hot," "cold," "temperate," or "variable" by up to 33 informants.
Many of the data presented in the book were originally presented in scholarly articles published between 1978 and 1987. book certainly gives an excellent overview of Foster's points of view in the debate on humoral medicine in Spanish-speaking America. It is full of very interesting details on the "hot-cold-concepts" especially in Tzintzuntzan. As Charles Leslie notes on the back cover, it "will be in the center of debate among scholars concerned with humoral traditions," but many of his arguments are already well-known and I did not find that much new information or new arguments for his well-known points of view. Also the book leaves one wondering whether the exclusive focus on the hotcold-concept and its potential origins is not too narrow. My personal impression is that the debate on classificatory systems in the Americas requires new approaches which do not concentrate that much on the extensively discussed hot-cold-system. But even if one disagrees with G. Foster's points of view, it will not be possible to ignore the achievements the research summarized in this book represents.
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