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Four bundles of different dried herbs, plants, and flowers.

On the Recognition of Shamanism as a Traditional Medicine


Traditional medicine long predates pharmaceuticals: its legacy and conservation depend on being aware of its importance to the past, present and future.

When we think of the shaman, what comes to mind is the image of a man or woman covered in animal skins, bird feathers, probably dancing or singing near a fire, chanting admonitions to unknown gods, and all within the logic of a magical thinking far from our own rational Western paradigm. But magic in shamanic traditions and lineages around the world doesn’t deal (only) in communication with the spirits and the preservation of tribal rites. It can be a valuable source of medical and scientific knowledge if studied within its own context.

Mark Plotkin is an activist who’s worked for more than three decades for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest, both in forestry and ecosystems. He’s also worked on the recognition of its inhabitants, and original inhabitants. In his travels through the South American Amazon, Plotkin has often been successfully treated by shamans who’ve cured ailments and diseases that Western medicine failed to solve.

“Like physicians,” Plotkin writes, “shamans are not infallible and vary in abilities.” This recognition is important because a patient or someone sick will often seek out a Western physician or a traditional shaman for healing from an ailment, regardless of the methods used. But both depend on their tools and knowledge to carry out the healing work and to reintegrate the patient’s health. Only, unlike Western physicians, the shamans’ approach doesn’t deal only with the physical ailments of the body. The body itself is treated as a material and spiritual complex, in the same way that medicines – from plant sources, minerals or animals – are treated with the same spiritual dignity.

Group of Amazonians walking along water's edge.

Dr. Christopher Herndon, a physician, and ethnobotanist at Yale University, has noted in his travels and contacts with Amazonian shamans that “when asked about disease conditions, shamans present highly detailed and specific descriptions of the characteristics of the disease and associated symptomatology. They often comment on disease associations and their responses to therapy, not rarely demonstrating a remarkable focus on the natural history of disease processes as it is understood.”

On the other hand, any recognition of traditional medicine and herbalism also has a political component, as numerous economic interests in the West reject the value of these types of treatments. A most recent case is the resistance of the Lakota people in Standing Rock, North Dakota, who are fighting against the construction of a 1,600-kilometer pipeline that would cross their land. Cases, such as that of the Wixárika (Huichol) people in Mexico and their defense against mining on the Wirikuta sacred land are another example. In the Amazon, the devastation caused by companies that cut down forests to take advantage of their resources not only undermines the territorial heritage of the original inhabitants of the region, it also destroys the natural pharmacy of the Earth, preventing us from knowing and classifying the enormous biodiversity still to be studied there. In addition to the direct exploitation of the land, large pharmaceutical companies benefit directly from the destruction, even though many prescription drugs – from aspirin to beta blockers – were developed in laboratories from fungi and poisonous animals in use for hundreds of years by practitioners of traditional medicine.

Sunflowers growing in valley with mountains in background.

Plotkin and his colleagues have been working on the Amazon Conservation Team project for 20 years. Their aim is to protect both the forests and the knowledge and culture of tribal populations, not from a white colonialist position, but working alongside the councils of elders for the conservation of the territory and its resources. Programs and clinics are also proposed to allow new generations to learn traditional medicine directly from shamans and healers so that the tradition and wisdom aren’t lost.

*Images: 1) Collage – Creative Commons; 2) Public Domain; 3) Flickr: / Creative Commons

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