Thursday, 25 June 2015

Fish-based remedies in Spanish ethnomedicine: a review from a historical perspective

José Ramón Vallejo1* and José Antonio González2
1 Departamento de Terapéutica Médico-Quirúrgica, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Extremadura, E-06006 Badajoz, Spain
2 Grupo de Investigación de Recursos Etnobiológicos del Duero-Douro (GRIRED), Facultad de Biología, Universidad de Salamanca, E-37071 Salamanca, Spain
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Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2014, 10:37  doi:10.1186/1746-4269-10-37
The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:

Received:2 February 2014
Accepted:23 April 2014
Published:30 April 2014
© 2014 Vallejo and González; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.



Fish-based therapeutics is fundamentally based on a dietary use, but these vertebrates have also been employed in the treatment of infectious and parasitic diseases, during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum and to deal with diseases of the different systems.


An overview of the ethnomedical and historical Spanish literature has been carried out. Automated searches in the most important national and international databases have been performed. All related works have been thorough examined.


We examine the historical use of 54 medicinal fish species, 48 marine and six from inland waters. As useful, in Ancient times 39 species have been recorded (of which only 21 have been collected in subsequent periods), seven in the Middle Ages, 18 in Modern times and 17 in the contemporary period. Anguilla anguilla, Engraulis encrasicolus or Scyliorhinus canicula are species that have survived over time as an ingredient in Spanish folk remedies. Most remedies used in the last century and currently are empirical remedies based on the humorism theory and the principle of contraria contrariis curantur (74%), and the rest (26%) are magical type remedies that complete the popular therapeutic arsenal.


In the last century we find a progressive decrease in the number of fish species used in ethnomedicine. Only seven taxa have been documented as surviving therapeutic resources since centuries ago. The existence of a dynamic Spanish ethnomedicine has also been detected which has managed to generate new therapeutic resources in recent times. It is important to validate the remedies by ethnopharmacology and evidence-based medicine. In order to recover as much data as possible, it will be necessary to draw up an inventory of ethnoichthyological uses.
Ethnozoology; Ethnomedicine; Fish; Medical history; Medical anthropology; Spain


Ethnozoology is an emerging field in many areas of the world and it is divided, due to its multidisciplinary character [1], into branches of knowledge such as ethnoentomology, ethnoherpetology or ethnoornithology [2-4].
Fishes have a long history of interaction with humans, thus “ethnoichthyology” is acquiring an important role in ethnozoological research [5-7]. There are some studies that discuss the role of ichthyofauna in traditional medicines, mainly in fishing communities [8-12], and that reveal a large number of fish species used in zootherapy, understood as the medicinal use of animals and animal-derived products to treat illnesses and health conditions [13,14].
These works on zootherapy are a very useful tool in the exploration of pharmacologically active substances [15,16]. But also there are other reasons of an anthropological kind for carrying out these ethnozoological studies. For example, they can help us in the understanding of the human behavior toward health care and the use-consumption of fish resources. As well, in many developing countries these studies have a great value in fish diversity conservation [17-19].
In Spain there has not been any ethnozoology development and only very few articles have been published with an ethnobiological approach, although some anthropological, folk and ethnomedicinal studies have focused on the connections between human society and animals [20-23]. This has affected the study of the interactions between humans and fish (ethnoichthyology), and the zootherapy based on these vertebrates is a field of research that has not been given due attention and must therefore be constructed from a framework of an “historical ethnozoology”. Following this philosophy, this paper illustrates the use of fishes in Spanish ethnomedicine and its historical development as a therapeutic resource. It provides an inventory of the species that have been used for medicinal purposes from ancient times to the present, and analyses the medical use of fishes in the 20th century.
Thus, our main objective is to obtain an inventory of the fish species that have been used in Spain for therapeutic purposes from antiquity to the present. From this we determine which medicinal species have survived to recent times and what diseases or medical conditions they have been used for.