Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ethnobotany and the Origins of Plant Knowledge

I'm reading a fascinating book by Harvard ethnobotany scholar, Wade Davis, better known for his book-turned-movie the Serpent and the Rainbow. The book I'm currently in the middle of, One River, Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, is mind blowing. Having spent a good deal of time studying the ethnobotany of the Pacific Northwest native people, I have an interest in the topic. Having never been to the Amazon, and never really having a desire to travel there, I've suddenly changed my mind. Pictures in my mind of "savages," muddy serpent infested rivers, and thick, dark jungles must be a result of the sort of "history" that was given to my schoolmates and I during the 70s and 80s. Not only is this book re-educating me as to the real horrors of the Amazonian jungle--the Spaniards and Europeans and their "missionaries" who infested the jungle as early as the 1500s and continued their atrocities through the late 1800s, but it is also sparking some creative interest in reflecting on theories and ideas of how people came to know the many properties of plants and then created their own rituals for use and teaching.

The section of the book that caused me to again consider the origins of plant knowledge had to do with the late Harvard Ethnobotanist Richard Schultes, who is reknowned for his extensive studies of the Amazon flora and who lived amongst many different indigenous tribes during his time there in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Schultes had already been living amongst the Amazon peoples for well over a decade, and had already identified and collected thousands of species of plants that were commonly employed for food, crafts, and intoxicant use. He had undergone a multitude of different ceremonies during which a vareity of different psychotropic plants were consumed or otherwise and made remarkably scientific observations about each of his experiences. A hippie of the 60s he was not--this man was all scholar and science. After having recently discovered the Amazonian beverage yage, Banisteriopsis caapi, and learning that a variety of different plants were used as admixtures to alter the effect of the original blend, Dr. Schultes began to ponder what most botanist don't often write about:

"The Amazonian flora contains literally tens of thousands of species. How had the Indians learned to identify and combine in this sophisticated manner these morphologically dissimilar plants that possessed such unique and complementary chemical properties? The standard scientific explanation was trial and error--a reasonable term that may well account for certain innovations--but at another level, as Schultes came to realize on spending more time in the forest, it is a euphemism which disguises the fact that ethnobotanists have very little idea how Indians originally made their discoveries.

"The problem with trial and error is that the elaboration of the preparations often involves procedures that are either exceedingly complex or yield products of little or no obvious value. Yage is an inedible, nondescript liana that seldom flowers. True, its bark is bitter, often a clue to medicinal properties, but it is no more so than a hundred other forest vines. An infusion of the bark causes vomiting and severe diarrhea, conditions that would discourage further experimentation. Yet not only did the Indians persist but they became so deft at manipulating the various ingredients that individual shamans developed dozens of recipes, each yielding potions of various strengths and nuances to be used for specific ceremonial and ritual purposes."

"The Indians naturally had their own explanations, rich cosmological accounts that from their perspective were perfectly logical: sacred plants that had journeyed up the Milk River in the belly of anacondas, potions prepared by jaguars, the drifting souls of shamans dead from the beginning of time. As a scientist Shultes did not take these myths literally, but they did suggest to him a certain delicate balance. 'These were the ideas,' he would write half a century later, 'of a people who did not distinguish the supernatural from the pragmatic.' The Indians, Schultes realized, believed in the power of plants, accepted the existence of magic, and acknowledged the potency of the spirit. Magical and mystical ideas entered the very texture of their thinking. Their botanical knowledge could not be separated from their metaphysics." (pp. 217 - 218)

Truly, the real question of how these native peoples learned of the variety of uses of a multitude of plants will most likely never be answered. The use of a few intoxicating plants may have lead to the knowledge of thousands of plants is the unstated premise. Now, as the rain forest is razed, and the individual native cultures and their millenia of traditions are being lost or westernized, I find only sadness. The fact that only a few students of the botany of South America have had such a short span of time to do their studies (far less time than is necessary for such a magnitude of botanical treasure), and that the jungle is now being destroyed faster than could have been imagined even a few decades ago is just stunning.

The sadness at the loss of habitat is overwhelming. Therefore, I plant my own habitat to surround my domain. Plants for food, plants for medicine.

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

We just returned from a visit to Mesa Verde and were amazed to read that the indigenous people there had perfected use of many of the native plants for cures to myriad ailments, including kidney issues and syphilis. The natives apparently prepared fairly complex tinctures for some remedies. It was too bad that the literature didn't elaborate on the efficacy of the cures. But we found it all very fascinating nevertheless.