Why Losing Amazon Tribes Is a Disaster for Modern Medicine

Many tribes living in the Amazon are in possession of a large body of knowledge about the medicinal uses of local flora. (Image: Apollo via flickr  CC BY 2.0 )
Many tribes living in the Amazon are in possession of a large body of knowledge about the medicinal uses of local flora. (Image: Apollo via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

The advent of modern medicine has truly been a blessing for humankind. Cures for diseases that were once thought to be incurable have been discovered, infant mortality has declined, and the average lifespan of human beings has increased. However, modern medicine is not the only source of medical knowledge. Many tribes living in the Amazon are in possession of a large body of knowledge about the medicinal uses of local flora which could one day prove to be very useful for humanity.

Tribes and medicine

The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. As such, it is natural that the people who have lived in the land for centuries would test the plants for medicinal uses and eventually come up with a sophisticated medical system. Mark Plotkin, a Harvard and Yale-trained ethnobotanist who has spent more than 30 years studying Amazonian medicine, is dismissive of the usual tropes that tribal medicine is voodoo or witchcraft, and that only modern medicine can offer real treatment.

“Amazonian natives have been using this stuff for thousands of years. Of course, they have observed whether it works… The mistake that some people make is thinking that Indians know everything. Clearly, that is nonsense. But thinking that they know nothing is also rubbish,” he said to PRI. Plotkin also dismisses the claim that because tribal medicine involves useless rituals and practices, the medicine itself will also be useless. After all, whether something works or not should be determined by testing it rather than judging it based on other factors linked to it.

(Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Amazonian natives have been testing plants for medicinal use for centuries and have developed sophisticated systems of tribal medicine based on their observations. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Over the past centuries, several tribes in the Amazon have gone extinct without passing their medical knowledge to others. To remedy the issue, the Matsés tribe of Peru and Brazil published a 500-page encyclopedia in 2015, listing out their traditional system of medicine. In late 2017, a second volume was added, taking the total number of pages to about 1,000. The project was aided by a conservation group called Acaté, which helped five shamans from the Matsés tribe to systematize and compile their medical information.

“One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize the Encyclopedia before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them,” Christopher Herndon, president and co-founder of Acaté, said to Mongabay.

Amazon’s top medicinal plants

According to estimates, about 25 percent of modern drugs are derived from rainforest plants. The Amazon is basically a goldmine for potential medicines. At the top of the list is a plant named cat’s claw, which has been used for hundreds of years in native medicine. Locals have been using it for treating inflammation, ulcers, dysentery, fevers, and arthritis. Research has shown that cat’s claw can stimulate the immune system and may even be useful in treating patients with HIV.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

According to estimates, about 25 percent of modern drugs are derived from rainforest plants. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Cordoncillo has been in use by the natives as an anesthetic. “By chewing on the leaves, your mouth goes numb. Rub it on a wound for the same effect. The plant has a variety of other traditional uses, including disinfecting wounds, treating respiratory illnesses, stopping haemorrhages and treating gallstones,” according to The Telegraph.

Cinchona is a famous tree that grows in the jungles of the Amazon basin. What makes it popular is that the tree is the source of quinine, a medicine that is used to treat malaria. Another potential medicine could come from the tawari tree. Its bark is believed to have anti-cancer properties and is used in treating infections.

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