From northeast Asia to Terra del Fuego - History and spreading routes of native American steam baths and other baths therapies

Dr. Bruno Wolters

In spite of a lack of direct archaeological evidence of the existence of Native American sweat and herbal steam baths more than 3,000 – 4,000 years ago, as well as of shower and hip baths it is possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of probability, their age, provenience, and spreading history:
A starting point for dating the early herbal steam baths is the fact proved by archaeology that it took the Native Americans a long time - 12,000 years - following their immigration to North America to change over from the circumpolar plant genera known to them from their original home in Northeast Asia to plants with purely American dissemination. To this day, the percentage of circumpolar plant species and genera used for steam baths is by far higher than their normal share, which can only have historical reasons and proves that the herbal steam bath dates from the sub arctic zone of the late Pleistocene. The herbal steam bath was spread via Beringia as far as Chile and Paraguay, the simple sweating cure by the fire, as far as Tierra del Fuego – a dissemination covering 20,000 kilometres! For a spread of the herbal steam bed (where the patients lie on the herbal material instead of sitting in the steam room), which is limited to Pacific North America, only the sea route from Northeast Asia to North America is possible.
Archaeological data about the spread of pottery from Amazonia (ca. 7,600 BP) via Mesoamerica (ca. 5,000 BP) to North America (3,700 –2,000 BP) and also to Peru (after 4,000 BP) offer a possibility to date the shower and hip baths. While only relatively little water or plant preparation for sprinkling on hot stones are needed for sweat and herbal steam baths, baths require by far higher quantities of water. Pottery is the technical precondition for supplying them.
Indeed, the shower and hip baths (with emulsifiable and water-soluble agents; with variable temperature) have almost entirely replaced the steam baths (only with volatile agents; always hot) in tropical America, whereas in North America, which they reached last along with pottery, the herbal steam bath remained dominant; Mesoamerica and the Central Andes are halfway between. So, the ratio of baths to steam baths clearly depends on the respective age of pottery, which makes a dating of the shower and hip bath possible. Facts which indicate an invention of the baths made twice – in Amazonia and the Maya area - are discussed.
In advanced civilizations (Mesoamerica, Central Andes, Chibcha area), balneotherapy is used on an especially large scale; but some peoples in Lower Amazonia and Southeast Guyana also show some characteristics of an advanced civilization in this respect (probably coming from the Mount Builder cultures, 400 – 1,400 AD). In contrast, besides some acculturation as to the Andean advanced civilization, medicine and balneotherapy of the famous Andean Kallawaya healers show clear characteristics which prove an immigration from Southwest Amazonia.