How did rainforest shamans gain their boundless knowledge on medicinal plants?
The short answer -- no one really knows
Rhettt A. Butler, mongabay.com
May 14, 2005
Ethnobotanists, people who study the relationship between plants and people, have long been aware that rainforest dwellers have an astounding knowledge of medicinal plants.
Perhaps more staggering than their boundless knowledge of medicinal plants, is how shamans and medicinemen could have acquired such knowledge. There are over 100,000 plant species in tropical rainforests around the globe, how did indigenous peoples know what plants to use and combine especially when so many are either poisonous or have no effect when ingested. Many treatments combine a wide variety of completely unrelated innocuous plant ingredients to produce a dramatic effect. Some like curare of the Amazon are orally inactive, but when administered to muscle tissue are lethal.
Ethnobotanists studying medicinal plant use by recently contacted tribes like the Waorani of Ecuador and the Yanomani of Brazil and Venezuela reported a relatively limited and highly selective use of medicinal plants. They had plants for treating fungal infections, insect and snake bites, dental ailments, parasites, pains and traumatic injuries. Their repertoire did not include plants to treat any Western diseases. In contrast, indigenous groups that have had a history of continuing contact with the outside world have hundreds of medicinal plants used for a wide range of conditions. It seems that after contact, in response to the introduction of Western diseases, these tribes accelerated their experimentation with medicinal plants. This notion contradicts the idea that indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants was accumulated slowly, over hundreds of years.
These questions are becoming increasingly academic as rainforests around the world continue to fall -- the Amazon alone has lost more than 200,000 miles of forest since the 1970s -- and indigenous populations vanish or become assimilated, often by choice, into mainstream society.
Anthropologist Wade Davis has written two books that explore both the indigenous knowledge of plants and the disappearing cultures of the world. One River touches on the history of ethnobotany in the Amazon along with a plethora of other topics, while Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures presents photographs and stories from his 30 years of exploring the planet's most remote regions. After reading these works, you will probably come away with the understanding that it's important to know what we're losing before it's gone.
This article used information from mongabay.com, and One River by Wade Davis.