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Amasina, a Trio shaman in Suriname and co-author on the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine paper. Photo courtesy of the Amazon Conservation Team.
The need for preservation of medicinal plant knowledge is often cited as a compelling argument for biocultural conservation and ethnobotany in particular. One cannot ‘save’ the medical systems of indigenous tribes alone through written inventories of their medical plant knowledge. Trio ethnomedicine, not unlike our healing tradition, is a complex art of diagnosis, examination, communication, ritual and treatment that can only be transmitted through active practice. The disintegration of traditional systems of health is most devastating to indigenous peoples, who at the same time often have very limited access to extrinsic medical resources. The adoption by organizations of programs that strengthen and retain tribal peoples’ self-sufficiency is critical for their health as well as to enable the transmission of these remarkable medical systems for the benefit of future generations.
The knowledge and treatments of shamans is the product of their own scientific method, accumulated from a progressive cycle of trial, experiment and observation repeated over countless generations. It may not be transmitted in Science or Nature but in many ways is fundamentally based on the very same empirical and pragmatic principles as Western science.
Lead author Christopher Herndon, currently a reproductive medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says the findings are a testament to the under-appreciated healing prowess of indigenous shamans.
“Our paper contests a prevailing view in the medical establishment that we, as scientists, have nothing left to learn from so-called ‘primitive’ societies,” he told mongabay.com. “Our ‘Western’ medical system is itself but a compendium of knowledge, wisdom and therapeutics accumulated from past cultures and societies from around the world. We should be justifiably proud of the accomplishments of medical science, but at the same time not lose perspective that these advancements, in many cases, emerged only in the past half-century. My point is that we should not be so quick to sever the umbilical cord of our medical system from the womb of the last remaining cultures that helped gave it birth. We do so at our great loss.”
Shamanism is a product of accumulated knowledge of past generations as well as deep ties—spiritual and physical—to the natural environment. But in a world where forests are being rapidly destroyed and profound cultural transformation is occurring among younger generations in traditional societies, the healing knowledge of shaman is disappearing. Among the Trio, the trajectory was accelerated by the missionaries who initially demonized shamanic practices, ostracizing healers from their communities and leaving an entire generation without the traditional apprentice/mentor relationship that is the basis for passing on knowledge from tribal elders to youths.
We are looking for any ethnobotanists to work with the indigenous education foundation and specifically the suku mentawai project. Please contact us if your are interested.