An encyclopedia of Amazonian medicine
When a member of the Amazon Matsés tribe develops the telltale sore of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease, the tribal shaman knows what to prescribe: heated scrapings of the outer bark of a particular vine. For countless generations, this indigenous group on the Peru-Brazil border has relied on the vast array of medicinal plants and animals in the forest to treat their illnesses and improve their survival practices like hunting.
But the tribe’s self-sufficient healing tradition and the forest on which it depends are under threat. Recent sustained contact with the outside world has quickly led to cultural erosion, discrimination and resource grabbing by outsiders, harming the tribe’s self-sufficiency and relationship with the land. Worse still, the elderly shamans who know the secrets of the rainforest are dying, and their knowledge is being lost even as the tribe depends on them for health care. And because of the learned shame of missionaries who viewed traditional healing as “witchcraft,” until recently no young Matsés trained to become shamans.
They are now. Thanks in part to Acaté Amazon Conservation, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Christopher N. Herndon, MD ’04, the tribe has captured and preserved the knowledge of its elders and inspired its youth by writing an encyclopedia, intended for use in training the next. generation of tribal healers. The encyclopedia – which Herndon says is the first ethnobotanical inventory of an Amazon tribe to be written by indigenous peoples themselves – describes hundreds of plants in 500 pages of text, photographs and illustrations. Filled with pride and optimism from the project, several young Matsés have now become apprentice shamans, Herndon reported.
“With medicinal plant knowledge rapidly disappearing among most Indigenous groups and no one to write it down, the real losers at the end of the day are tragically the Indigenous stakeholders themselves,” Herndon said. “The methodology developed by the Matsés and Acaté can serve as a model for other indigenous cultures to safeguard their ancestral knowledge.”
This methodology was entirely ours. To compile the encyclopedia, five elderly shamans teamed up with younger members of the tribe literate in the Matsés language. For two years, the elders divulged all they knew about pharmaceutical organizations, diagnoses and treatments, while the youngsters took notes and photographs. Last May, members of the tribe came together to compile the information into a single document. Although Acaté provided support, including a laptop and formatting assistance, the project was entirely driven and undertaken by the Matsés.
Significantly, the volume is in the Matsés language – the written version of which was developed by missionaries to translate the Bible – but it will not be translated.
It is a measure to protect this body of traditional knowledge from commercial exploitation, a practice that some call biopiracy and that the Matsés know only too well. Pharmaceutical gifts from the rainforest are legion, including the antimalarial quinine, muscle relaxant curare, and stimulant cocaine, among others. Westerners eager to explore them further do not always consider tribal interests. In the early 2000s, without permission or sharing with the tribe, a Seattle company and others patented versions of several Acate frog peptides (bicolor phyllomedusa) – whose skin secretions are used by the Matsés to alter consciousness, heighten the senses, and bestow feelings of strength and courage – to be used as painkillers. Another public domain substance used by the Matsés and neighboring tribes is bëcchëte, a type of milkwood whose secretions applied to the eyes are said to help hunters better distinguish textures. The seeds of this plant are now sold on the Internet by non-Matsés. Herndon said he could not divulge Matsés’ remedies due to Acaté’s agreement with the tribe.
Ethnobiology and ethnomedicine have long emphasized the importance of cataloging traditional uses of plants, said Claudia Valeggia, Ph.D., a Yale professor of anthropology who studies the health of indigenous groups in Latin America. What makes the encyclopedia unique, she says, is that its monolingual nature will keep it within the community. “It is an invaluable survival kit, not only literally – it can save lives and alleviate much suffering – but also metaphorically as an important aspect of Matsés culture.”
Herndon, a reproductive endocrinologist in Berkeley, Calif., has worked with indigenous tribes in South America since he was in medical school, initially through a Downs Fellowship in the summer of his freshman year at Yale. For his medical student thesis, which received the Ferris Prize upon graduation in 2004, he studied the Tiriyó people of Suriname, a small country on the northeast coast of South America, and wrote about their knowledge of anatomy and disease as well as plants. . This knowledge remains vitally important. Although Western medicine can be helpful in the Amazon, remote health centers are often undersupplied, staff poorly trained, and treatment options expensive, impractical, or capable of causing dangerous side effects.
Herndon met the Matsés in 2011 after completing her fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2012, he co-founded Acaté with William Park, an agroforester who helps the once semi-nomadic Matsés develop sustainable farming techniques to adapt to their now more permanent settlements.
Their healthcare system too could soon become more sustainable. One of the young shamanic apprentices is also the local government’s health promoter, a vanguard of the Matsés’ next plan: to develop an integrated western and tribal health system that offers the best of both worlds.