Ancient Medicinal Knowledge of Amazon Tribes to Be Recorded in Writing for First Time in History
“That plant will save you from a poisonous snake bite,” my Kichwa guide, Pidru, pointed out as I tried to remove my boot from a foot of mud in the depths of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. “And this flower over here allows a mother whose milk has dried up to relactate.”
As we crawled, climbed, stumbled and traipsed our way through thick vegetation, Pidru was like a library of knowledge, pointing out more than 100 different species of fauna and flora and explaining in detail how they were used by the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, from crushing fire ants to serve as an insect repellent, to plant leaves consumed as tea by laboring women, and a ‘penis tree’, which not only looks like it is sprouting male organs, but is also used to treat the organ in cases of gonorrhoea and urinary tract infections.
The “Penis tree”, Amazon rainforest (CC by SA 4.0)
“In the Amazon, our women never have trouble giving birth,” Pidru explained. “They drink the tea made from this plant, and it allows their muscles and skin to stretch easily, like the jaw of a snake, allowing the baby to easily pass through the birth canal. They have no pain.” Being 9 weeks pregnant at the time, I made a mental note to find out how I could acquire this plant back home!
“How was this knowledge acquired?” I asked the guide, amazed at how there was a plant for every ailment imaginable. “It came from the shamans. My father was a chosen one, and he passed the knowledge to me,” he explained. “Is there a written record?” I asked. Pidru tapped on his temple. “No. It’s all up here.”
The flower of this plant is used to help mothers produce more milk for their babies. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Ancient Knowledge of the Amazon to Be Put in Writing
But this may all be about to change. The Kichwa are just one of many indigenous tribes that inhabit the Amazon jungle, and who carry vast amounts of knowledge about the medicinal uses of plants. But in Peru, another tribe, the Matsés, are taking steps to safeguard this knowledge for the future.
As The Guardian reports, a group of Matsés men have started planting medicinal agroforestry plots containing as many as 3,000 plants from over 100 species, all used for medicinal purposes, as well as compiling their knowledge of healing plants into a two-volume, 1044-page encyclopedia of the medicinal plants of the Amazon. It is the first encylopedia of indigenous knowledge written by shamans of the Amazon ever produced.
“Entries are categorised by disease name followed by an explanation of symptoms, cause and the plants to cure it,” The Guardian reports. “A photo of each plant - numbering roughly 800 in total - accompanies each entry, but no scientific names are included, nor photos of flowers or other readily identifiable features.”
On the back of the encylopedia are two sentences in Matsés, which roughly translate as “This isn’t a book for non-Matsés to see. Don’t let non-indigenous people see it.” Perhaps they are afraid that pharmaceutical companies will start paying attention to their highly-effective remedies and attempt to cash-in on what has always been a freely available resource to the people of the Amazon jungle.
Indigenous guide, Pidru, explains the uses of some of the plants in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Credit: April Holloway
Medicinal Forests Help Preserve Knowledge
The Matsés people have been very busy of late. To date, they have planted seven “healing forests” in their territory, each containing thousands of trees and plants from hundreds of different species that can be used for medicinal purposes. The intention is to make the administration of cures and remedies easier by bringing as many of the healing plants as possible into one concentrated and accessible area.
April Holloway in the Amazon jungle. It is so dense that finding specific plants can be difficult. Planting medicinal forests will make the remedies much more accessible. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
So what has prompted the Matsés into action? As the outer world encroaches more and more into the territory of the Amazon tribes, the younger generation is beginning to venture out and become influenced by life outside the jungle. The shamanic knowledge has always passed from the ‘maestros’ to the younger generation but now a change is occurring, and many of the young Matsés no longer wish to adopt the life of a shamanic healer. If the older Matsés pass away without training a successor, their knowledge could be lost forever.
But the outside world also brings new threats – oil companies, loggers, and drug gangs have become an increasing problem in many parts of the Amazon. Vast areas of the jungle are being destroyed and with it the traditional ways of life of the indigenous people are under threat.
“I would like to show you the monkeys, capybaras, tapirs and many bird species,” Pidru told us. “But we don’t see them much anymore. They are smart and have learned to hide and find new homes now that an airport has been built close to our land. Maybe we need to follow the way of the animals.”
Top image: An indigenous person of Peru taking traditional medicine. Credit: Pachamama Alliance