Connie Veilleux and Steven R.King, Ph.D.
Linda Morganstein, editor

Since the beginning of civilization, people have used plants as medicine. Perhaps as early as Neanderthal man, plants were believed to have healing powers. The earliest recorded uses are found in Babylon circa 1770 BC in the Code of Hammurabi and in ancient Egypt circa 1550 B.C. In fact, ancient Egyptians believed medicinal plants to have utility even in the afterlife of their pharaohs. Plants have been recovered from the Giza pyramids and can be found on display in a dark corner of t Access Excellence Resource Center he Cairo Museum.

A discussion of human life on this planet would not be complete without a look at the role of plants. A complete record of the many thousands of plant species used for human functioning would fill volumes, yet historians have often tended "to dismiss plants as less than fundamental in history." In recent years, however, there has been a reawakened scientific interest in the fundamental role plants play in many cultures, including medicinal purposes. Why is this so? That is the story of today's ethnobotany.


Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make of use of indigenous plants. Ethnobotanists explore how plants are used for such things as food, shelter, medicine, clothing, hunting, and religious ceremonies.  These plants are known as ethnobotanicals.

Medicinal plants are extracted
at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Photo by Mark Tuschmanii, 1996.

Ethnobotany has its roots in botany, the study of plants. Botany, in turn, originated in part from an interest in finding plants to help fight illness. In fact, medicine and botany have always had close ties. Many of today's drugs have been derived from plant sources. Pharmacognosy is the study of medicinal and toxic products from natural plant sources. At one time, pharmacologists researching drugs were required to understand the natural plant world, and physicians were schooled in plant-derived remedies. However, as modern medicine and drug research advanced, chemically-synthesized drugs replaced plants as the source of most medicinal agents in industrialized countries. Although research in plant sources continued and plants were still used as the basis for some drug development, the dominant interest (and resulting research funding) shifted to the laboratory.

The 1990's has seen a growing shift in interest once more; plants are reemerging as a significant source of new pharmaceuticals. Industries are now interested in exploring parts of the world where plant medicine remains the predominant form of dealing with illness. South America, for example, has an extraordinary diversity of plant species and has been regarded as a treasure grove of medicinal plants.

The jungles and rain forests of South America contain an incredibly diverse number of plant species, many still unexplored, many unique and potentially useful as medicinal sources. Scientists have also realized the study of the native cultures which inhabit these regions can provide enormously valuable clues in the search for improved health. To uncover the secrets of the rain forest, specialists are needed, well-trained and willing to spend long, hard time in the field. This is where the ethnobotanist comes in.

Huepe Coba Indian collects medicinal plant for anti-fungal treatment.
Photo by Steven R. King, 1996.

To discover the practical potential of native plants, an ethnobotanist must be knowledgeable not only in the study of plants themselves, but must understand and be sensitive to the dynamics of how cultures work. Ethnobotanists have helped us to understand the frightening implications which loss of the rain forests would bring not only in terms of consequent loss of knowledge about tropical plants, but the consequent damage brought on by the loss of native cultures in their entirety, as well as the damage to the earth's ecological health.

By necessity, ethnobotany is multidisciplinary. This multidisciplinary approach gives ethnobotanists more insight into the management of tropical forest reserves in a period of tremendous environmental stress. Unfortunately, due to human factors which have influenced the ecological balance of these delicate ecosystems, we are presently faced with the possibility of losing our rain forests.


Ethnobotanists are usually botanists and/or biologists with additional graduate training in such areas as: archeology, chemistry, ecology, anthropology, linguistics, history, pharmacology, sociology, religion and mythology. With such broad training, ethnobotanists raise many interesting questions quite different in scope from those of previous generations of scientists trained in botany alone. For example, botanists with anthropological and ecological training look at plants as an integral part of human culture. Not only do they study the plants within the tropical forests, they also work respectfully with shamans within the native culture, examining that culture's concepts of disease.

With the increased interest in the study of how native peoples use plants therapeutically, pharmacognosy has reemerged as a field of study. Ethnopharmacologists are specifically looking at the pharmacological actions of plants with emphasis on those plants used in treatment of illness, With the renewed interest in using ancient plants as medicinal agents in as well as in religious or sacred activities. Scientists in this field would have a chemistry degree with graduate training in pharmacology and botany.

With the renewed interest in using ancient plants as medicinal agents in modern western medicine, the field of ethnomedicine has emerged. Here physicians receive some cross training in anthropology, botany, public health, or relevant social sciences. These physicians must possess a genuine receptivity to the distinctly unique views of the healing systems practiced by indigenous peoples, as well as the ability to work as a team with ethnobotanists and others.

Steven King, Ph.D., Dr.
Thomas Carlson M.D.
and Ilias, an Ecuadorian
shaman. Photo by
Steven R. King, 1996

The physician works with shamans or traditional healers to identify the specific diseases common to both Western cultures and indigenous peoples. In turn, the ethnobotanist works with the shaman to identify and collect plants utilized to treat these diseases. Following the work of ethnobotanists and physicians trained in ethnobotanicals from the field through to research and development of products in pharmaceutical companies can provide us with a glimpse of ethnobotany as it functions today. Let's start with the work that take place before the research expedition begins.


The first step is collecting detailed knowledge about the local and indigenous people. Researchers prepare a regional study on the epidemiology, traditional medicine, culture and ecology of the people and their environment. In order to prioritize plant collections, a number of international databases are searched to obtain all of the relevant ethnomedical, biological, and chemical information on the plants known to be used in that region. Data is also gathered from remote area hospitals and treatment programs working with local and native peoples. This information is synthesized and integrated into the field research program, the next step of the process.


Working with a Waorani Shaman in the Amazon (Ecuador).
Photo by Steven R. King, 1996.

Before leaving for field work, ethnobotanists spend many months preparing. They painstakingly gather together the tools and supplies necessary for long-term survival and study in what are often remote villages located deep in dense tropical forests. Here they know they will spend hundreds or thousands of hours in patient observation and experimentation. Ethnobotanists slowly, meticulously, learn about plants the indigenous people use. They spend long hours cataloging their knowledge about the useful plants and poisonous ones, selecting and collecting plants for cultivation and protection. Above all, ethnobotanists spend long hours completing the repetitious but critical work of pressing and drying plants, often despite monsoon rains and oppressive heat. The plant collection process involves standard methodology, which includes the preparation of multiple plant voucher specimens, which are deposited in the host country as well as in various United States herbaria.

In the field, ethnobotanists work as a team with an ethnomedicine-trained physician to prepare brief case descriptions of diseases. They then present these descriptions of individual diseases to shamans and the local healers, often including photographs of diseases with readily visible clinical manifestations. The interviewing process is conducted very carefully. The cases are presented without using medical terminology. Terms such as herpes, hepatitis, or parasites are not necessarily understood by the local healers. The focus is on common signs and symptoms that are easily recognized. A translator for the local language is usually necessary to conduct this phase. Once a healer has recognized and described the same or similar disease state, the botanical treatment for that condition is recorded in detail by the ethnobotanist. If several independent and reliable shamans describe a similar treatment for a disease, the plant is collected.

Additional plant collections and observations can also be made when Western trained physicians provide health care to the local people. The patient and the local healer are asked about the types of plants used to treat the disease state. Those plants that appear interesting are also collected for later analysis.


Once the plants have arrived at the company's research site, processing the plants for medicinal purposes begins. The plants are tagged with the information from the field study. The plants are processed and tested in studies completed by ethnopharmacologists, using state of the art laboratory equipment (which may include High Pressure Liquid Chromatography studies and in vivo transgenic animal studies). The objective is to screen the plants metabolites to determine how relevant they are to the therapeutic areas of interest. The most promising initial plant compounds are fractionated to obtain pure samples in milligram amounts. These natural pure compounds are compared to the best available therapeutics by in vitro testing. If the bioassay is successful, the compound is structurally characterized and is subject to a confirmatory biological test.

Promising compounds are scaled up to provide gram quantities for animal testing to determine safety and efficacy. Pharmacologists with backgrounds in metabolism, pharmacokinetics, medicinal chemistry and formulation design experiments to determine whether the selected compounds have activity. After this testing is completed, the samples are compared with the best available marketed therapeutics. The scale up process occurs again and hundreds of grams of selected compounds are provided for further studies which will, it is hoped, eventually lead to an effective, marketable drug suitable for human consumption. This new product is the reward for all the time and effort of many individuals.


M.J. Plotkin, an ethnobotanist,
with Sikiyana, a shaman.
Photo courtesy M. Plotkin

Often the traditional knowledge about the plants can be obtained only by specialists within an indigenous community-for example the shamans, beekeepers, and master fisherman. The ethnobotanist establishes credibility in the community and a relationship with the specialists based on trust. Ethnobotanists sometimes obtain information that may even be kept from the rest of the native community. This brings up some ethical issues on ownership to the plant information.

There is an unwritten guideline that ethnobotanists, because they are in a privileged position of trust in the indigenous community, should not abuse this trust by "stealing information" or plant material. In the past ethnobotanists have dealt with this issue on a case-by-case basis. But the times are changing and many are reconsidering. Anthropologist Darrell Posey asserts that indigenous people who provide information must be compensated as a matter of course. He reiterates that financial compensation is used to preserve the land, the people, and their cultures. Without compensation, the knowledge of indigenous cultures will be lost because cultures themselves are in danger of extinction unless they can acquire the financial means to retain control of their destiny. Where indigenous knowledge is lost through acculturation the people will be drawn into destructive Western ways of using the environment, such as clear cutting for logging and cattle pasture. In order to survive, native peoples will be forced into destroying the environment that has sustained them. Ethnobotanists in industry must address the same ethical issues as the field ethnobotanist. Companies like Shaman Pharmaceutical, Inc. have made it a policy to provide financial compensation to the indigenous people.


As we have seen, ethnobotany as a field is on the rise. However, it is still the laboratory-based molecular biologists whose work centers in the laboratory that garnish more status and funding. Field ethnobotanists have not yet received the same level of support and respect, primarily because interest in this field has only just reemerged. Yet, the field is growing. New scientific journals and societies have begun to disseminate the studies of the ethnobotanists to peers, other scientists, and policy makers worldwide.

The 1990's is an exciting time to be an ethnobotanist. Ethnobotany issues are the focus of much public attention. Due to increased public interest and policy making in conservation, companies are looking to plants for new approaches to food, medicines, and energy sources. University departments are opening positions for interdisciplinary-trained ethnobotanists. The future looks promising for these dedicated scientists in a fascinating and vital field of research.

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Botany of Sages and Salvias:

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