This podcast featuring Mark Plotkin is about working with indigenous peoples (Shamans in particular) to save their vast knowledge of ethnobotany.  Mark speaks of how our 'western cultures' are sneaking into and essentially ruining parts of indigenous societies.
    There were many important points made during the interview.  A few that I found to be the most interesting included the progress being made to teach the indigenous peoples how to map their land in order to protect and preserve it.  I particularly appreciated Mark's statement of "What you map, you own".
    Another interesting area was the information on female shamans.  Fascinating was the explanation of how Oaxaca female shamans treat with magic mushrooms.  Unfortunately, Mark explains that most of the female shamans are elderly with no apprentices.  For this reason, Mark states (and I agree) that he considers the most endangered species of the rain forest to be the female shaman.
    Also of interest, was the explanation of the Bush Negros, the Maroons.  I've always been fascinated in tracing how African tribes can have roots in many far away Caribbean rain forests. It was also enlightening to learn that calling the rain forest 'jungle' is politically incorrect and frowned upon.
    The interview {attached also} was very interesting also in the ways Mark explained what a shaman is; from a keeper of laws and legends to a psychotherapist.  I found his information of the Amerindians interesting enough to research on my own.  Either in the article or the podcast, I find the work Mark has done to preserve the ethnobotanical recipes of cures, etc. for the indigenous people in the form of a book to be one of the greatest gifts one could give the world, not just the tribes. By helping them to preserve their traditions, he has helped save a part of world history.  I think ethnobotany is a gift from our creator (whoever you choose that to be). A gift that we have shamelessly tossed away.  Conservation on research of plants and their relationship to us as human beings could in fact save this world.  I hope to continue my own research and studies of ethnobotany and possibly meet a real shaman one day.


Miranda Smith: What is an ethnobotanist?Mark Plotkin: An ethnobotanist is a scientist who studies how people interact with plants. He or she could study a farmer in Iowa, or a shaman in the Amazon. Most ethnobotanists tend to focus on indigenous peoples in rain forest areas because those are the biologically richest areas of the world and the chemically and medicinally least known areas of the world.

Ethnobotany is science and art. There is no handbook that tells you how to do it. You’re working with people, which is always the unknown component. My focus has been conservation of both the ecosystems and the culture.

Miranda: What’s happening in the rain forests?Mark: It depends where you’re talking about. Rain forests are found on several continents: Africa, Asia, Latin America, including the Caribbean, including the Pacific islands. If you look at a place like eastern Brazil, 98 percent of the rain forest is already gone. If you look at the island of Madagascar, 90 percent of the original forest cover is already gone.

If you look at the northeast Amazon, it’s all still here. Conservation by and large has been a reactive movement - we see a problem, we try and solve it. This[Suriname] is one of the few corners of the world where we can try and head off problems before they become unstoppable or unsolvable.

Miranda: What brought you here?Mark: I was really interested in following in my mentor’s footsteps in the northwest Amazon and was all set to go to Colombia to work with the Yakuna tribe. My mentor, Richard Schultes at Harvard, came back from Colombia and said, there’s a drug war that’s broken out in that river valley and they’re fishing bodies out of the river. He said, why don’t you go to the northeast Amazon, nobody’s ever worked there? So that’s how I got my start.

Miranda: Tell us about SchultesMark: Schultes is the father figure in the science of ethnobotany. He went down to the Amazon in 1941 for six months and ended up staying for fourteen years. His work has impacted everybody from Aldous Huxley to Allen Ginsberg, to E.O. Wilson. He has had a broad impact on our culture. There weren’t many Harvard professors in the early ‘40s who were willing to stand up and say, these guys in penis strings know more than we do. That belief, that fact, has impacted every ethnobotanist who’s followed since him.

Miranda: How did you meet Schultes?Mark: I had dropped out of college and was working in a museum at Harvard and a friend of mine said, as long as you’re working at a university you might as well get an education. So I got the night school catalog and I opened it up and there was a course on the botany and chemistry of hallucinogenic plants. Well this being the end of the ‘60s, it had a certain appeal at the time. It was this incredible lecture the very first night of these extraordinary scenes of these nearly naked people under the influence of these powerful hallucinogens doing these incredible dances.

It was one slide that did it for me. It was a picture of three Indians in grass skirts and bark cloth masks. He said, here you see three Indians of the Yakuna tribe, all of them are doing the Kai-ya-ree dance to keep away the forces of darkness. All of them are totally intoxicated on a hallucinogenic potion made from the Banisteriopsis liana. The one on the left has a Harvard degree, next slide please.

Well that got me hooked, hooked on plants, hooked on peoples, hooked on the Amazon.

I was so impressed and so taken with him that I ended up taking that course three times.

Miranda: When did you first come to the Amazon?Mark: My first trip to the Amazon was in 1977. I came down to Suriname actually as a gofer, just following around some other biologists, trying to get the lay of the land, and figuring out if this is really for me.

You know people still ask me, how can you stand to work in the Amazon? It’s hot, it’s humid, there’s mosquitoes, some of these countries there’s lots of political corruption. Well I’m always quick to point out that I grew up in Louisiana, so that’s all second nature to me.Miranda: Mark, you once told me that your interest in biology started when you were a little kid.Mark: When I was a kid growing up, like many kids I was fascinated by dinosaurs. I always had plastic dinosaurs, always had dinosaur books. I remember one of the saddest moments of my early life was finding out that there were no more dinosaurs, they were extinct, it was too late, they were gone. Now certainly the complexity of that was something I couldn’t really understand the way that I can now, but it created a certain sadness in me. I think that had something to do with the fact that I’ve been a conservationist ever since then.

Miranda: What is happening with the people of the forest?Mark: We hear a lot about the disappearance of the rain forest. It’s been on the cover of Time Magazine, it’s been on the cover of The New York Times, but what is less widely realized is that the peoples of the rain forest are disappearing much faster than the rain forest itself.

I firmly believe that if you want to save the forest, the best way to do that is to save the cultures.

If you look at the way that conservation of the rain forest has operated since its inception about twenty or thirty years ago, it’s the idea that people are bad, let’s get them out, let’s build fences around these areas and keep people out. Well these rain forest peoples, be they Indians in the Amazon or Baca peoples in the Congo, have a lot greater stake in these forests than we do in the industrialized world. In the best of all possible worlds it’s enlisting them as conservationists, it’s giving them some technical expertise, some encouragement, a little bit of financial support because I believe that’s the best way to protect the rain forest. And I think what we’ve seen here in much of Suriname is concrete evidence of that.

Miranda: Why is Suriname such a good place for conservation?Mark: Suriname is a very special place for a lot of reasons. In many ways it’s a microcosm of the tropics. You have the Indians, that’s the Amazon. You have the forest blacks, called Bush Negroes or Maroons, that’s a little bit of Africa. You also have Hindustanis, Chinese, Javanese, all from tropical Asia. So tropical Asia, tropical Africa, tropical South America all coexist together.

You have a very low population density, less than 500,000 people. Ninety-eight percent of country of Suriname is uninhabited. You don’t have these terrible population pressures. You don’t have this terrible poverty which afflicts so much of the rest of tropical America, from Mexico all the way down. There's an opportunity to be proactive here because you don’t have to find other solutions to this all-encompassing human misery. Conservation of the rain forest in Haiti isn't going to happen, it’s too late, it’s all gone.

Miranda: What other benefits to us, in our world, can be had from conservation of the rainforests?Mark:The greatest killer of our species is malaria. Malaria’s killed more people than cancer and AIDS combined. The front-line treatment for malaria is quinine, which was taught to us by South American Indians. The list goes on and on from there. Some of the hottest leads in the laboratory come from nature, right now.

We’ve just had this weird forty-year period after the antibiotic revolution where people believed for this half century that synthetic chemistry had all the answers. Mother Nature has been inventing weird chemicals for three and a half billion years and we’ve just scratched the surface. The potential is unlimited in the rain forest and everywhere else.

It’s not just a question of what chemicals are out there. There’s also medical practical practices here we can learn from. About half the medical schools in the U.S. have courses in so-called alternative complimentary therapies. Aromatherapy, massage, visualization -these are all shamanic techniques. These guys have been practicing this stuff for 50,000 years. I think we can learn a few things from them too.

Shaman's Apprentice ProgramMiranda Smith: What is a shaman?Mark Plotkin: A shaman is a medicine man or woman, but it’s much more than just a healer because it’s also a psychotherapist, it’s also a keeper of legends, it’s also a keeper of laws, even a psychopomp, the person who conveys souls to the underworld. So in a sense a shaman is one-stop shopping.

Miranda: How many real shamans have you encountered?Mark: There’s this one fellow who was described to me as a poisoner. And every time I’d ask about healing plants or poisonous plants, he’d say, I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know a thing about healing plants, don’t know poisonous plants, don’t know anything about medicine. Well twelve years later it turns out he’s the paramount shaman. And when I ask him why he spent twelve years denying that he smiled sweetly and said, I was just pulling your leg.

He’s a trickster. The figure of the trickster is something Western minds have trouble grasping because to us a trickster is a clown, a prankster, somebody who’s not very bright, kind of the court jester. But in Native American mythology, the trickster is somebody who plays practical jokes, but he or she may also be the person who brings fire to the human species.

You can’t just walk in and say, okay, take me to your shaman. I can’t say, oh well, this trip makes 37 shamans that I’ve worked with, because there are people that I’ve worked with who have yet to reveal themselves to be shaman,and there’s people I’ve worked with who claim they’re shamans who I truly believe are not.

Miranda: When did you meet the Jaguar Shaman?Mark: The old Jaguar Shaman was one of my first mentors down here, who was described as the greatest healer there. In December ‘82, civil war broke out in Suriname. They closed the borders of the country, no Americans, nobody could leave. The leftists were claiming the CIA was fomenting an anti-leftist coup and they were looking for American troublemakers. Well we know for a fact that was one of the few instances where the CIA was not involved, and this was just a giant political mess. It was very dangerous, it was very scary. And so I went to the local airstrip and found a pilot who was flying birds and reptiles out of Indian villages back to the capital city for eventual export. And I asked him if he could fly me to the closest Indian village to the Brazilian border. He said, if you’ve got the money, I’ll make space for you. And he flew me in. And I was greeted on the airstrip by a lot of Tiriós in red breechcloths. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

Miranda: How did you get to study with the Jaguar Shaman?Mark: When I sat down with the chief, the chief said, why do you want to learn this stuff? He said, this is old-fashioned, we don’t use this stuff much anymore. We now have Western medicine. And I said, I heard that you almost died of malaria and he said, yes that’s true. And I said, well what did you do? He says, the missionaries gave me quinine. And I said, really? I said, do you know that quinine is an Indian medicine and was taught to the white man by native peoples to the west of here? Well nobody ever told him that.

And I knew that he was areligious man. And I said, well you know Chief, I’m not a Christian like the missionaries, I’m Jewish, Jesus is from my tribe. And I said, if my ancestors hadn’t written down Jesus’s sermons and if my ancestors hadn’t written down the Bible, you wouldn’t have these things to read in church on Sunday. I said, if we don’t work together to write down your wisdom, then your grandchildren and my grandchildren won’t be able to learn from it in the future. Well that made a pretty good impression on him and he gave me permission to work in the village and the fellow he assigned to work with me was the Jaguar Shaman. And Koita [Mark's first Tirio friend in the village] was the translator.

Miranda: What was your relationship with the Jaguar Shaman?Mark: It was a very ambivalent relationship at the outset because on the one hand he resented the fact that I had come to learn his secrets. In fact he called me the "Pananakiri," which means "the alien." I mean that was another species as far as he was concerned.

On the other hand it was really clear to me that he really appreciated that I’d come from so far away to learn his secrets, especially in light of the fact that the kids of his tribe, his children, his grandchildren had virtually no interest in learning the old ways. So I followed him through the jungle for about three days, at which point he turned to Koita, who was a young Waiwai working with us and said, tell the Pananakiri I’ve told him all I’m going to teach him. He says, tomorrow I want to go hunting. Well that was fine with me because there were other shamans in the village with whom I wished to work. And I said that, okay, tell him that’s okay.

Well that night I was sleeping in my hut and I had this incredibly vivid, frightening dream of this enormous jaguar strolling in and fixing me with this terrible stare. I woke up with a shout, bathed in this cold sweat, and I looked around and there was nothing there. No footprints in the dirt floor, no sounds, just the sound of the wind blowing through the palm trees at the edge of the village. I finally managed to get back to sleep. The next morning Koita came to my hut and I said, before the old man goes hunting, bring him this message: last night I saw the jaguar. Mind you, no explanation. And he trotted off and came back a few minutes later. I said, did you find him? He said, yes. I said, did you tell him? He said, yes. I said, well what did he say? Koita said, the Jaguar Shaman broke into a big smile and said, "That was me."

Miranda: Do you think he was playing tricks with you?Mark: No, I think that was a turning point in our relationship. It really broke through the barrier between the different realities we lived in and gave me a glimpse, just a glimpse into the fact that people who could turn themselves into jaguars, people who could roam the jungle at night were as real to them as lawyers and mortgages are to us. And dismissing something I couldn’t understand, dismissing something that may seem strange or weird or silly to me would have been the absolute worst thing to do. Just by accepting something I could not explain and understand through the prism of Western science I think created something of a bond and has facilitated a relationship which continues seventeen years later.

Miranda: Do you think you have more to learn from him?Mark: Well I’ve been working with the man for seventeen years!

Let me explain it this way - a lot of ethnobotany’s been done very poorly because you take your graduate student and you drop her or him in some jungle village and say, "get a lot of data, cause I’ll be back in a year." Well three weeks, four weeks, six weeks, they’re interested, they want to help you, they want to teach you and then - they get kind of bored. So your data level tends to drop off. This isn’t always true, but I’d say by and large it often is. I think a lot of ethnobotany needs to be done in terms of long-term human relationships. There’s stuff he’ll show me now that he wouldn’t show me seventeen years ago and there’s probably stuff that he’ll show me three years from now, if I keep at it, that he wouldn’t show me five years ago. I feel that you meet these teachers, you work with them, you learn from them and they continue to teach you, and that’s the way it needs to be done.

Miranda: What happens when a shaman dies?Mark: When a shaman dies in a pre-literate culture it’s like a library burning down. In fact it’s worse, because everything that’s in the Library of Congress is found elsewhere. There’s Gutenberg Bibles found elsewhere, not many, but they’re found elsewhere. There are transcripts of the Declaration of Independence found everywhere. So if the archives burn down, it would be a terrible loss but we still know what’s in there, we have copies of it.

When these oral traditions are gone, they are gone forever, there’s no bringing them back. And these oral traditions are the key to understanding, utilizing, protecting the rain forest. These oral traditions are the key to developing new medicines from the rain forest. So when these shamans die, uh, the price we all pay is really quite potentially tremendous.

Miranda: How old are these cultures?Mark: We believe that Amerindians are the descendants of the people who crossed the Bering Strait many years ago. There’s been some argument over how long ago that was. Some people say it’s just a few thousand years ago. Recently they have found a site in Chile, southern South America, which was 12,000 years old. If you find something that’s 12,000 years old, there’s a very great possibility, almost a certainty that it’s older and a great probability that it’s much older. I would say these cultures are probably 50,000 years old.

In doing the research for my book, "Tales Of A Shaman’s Apprentice," I found chants among Siberian shamans which were almost identical to chants amongst the Yanomamo Indians on the Brazil-Venezuela border. So there’s clearly a connection there. And I’ve found the Tiriós have a legend of crossing a land that was so cold they had to wrap themselves in the skins of animals. This is the northeast Amazon, there is no cold weather there. This is a tribal retelling of crossing the Bering Strait, possibly 12,000 years ago, probably 50,000 years ago.

Miranda: How do the shamans acquire their knowledge?Mark: Shamanic wisdom comes about in many ways. Clearly they learn from watching the animals. Clearly they learn from generic experimentation. Clearly they learn from the concept of bitters, which is found in all cultures, if it’s bitter it may be good for you. Quinine is the bitterest substance on earth, it’s the best treatment for malaria. Cod liver oil is bitter, it’s good for you. Bitterness often indicates the presence of alkaloids.

Color equals chemistry. Slash the bark of a tree with your machete and the sap comes out red and it turns orange and it turns yellow you know there’s some wild chemistry happening there. Many saps have medicinal properties.

Perhaps the hardest for Westerners to fathom, understand, accept are the language of dreams. I’ve had shamans say to me they took a hallucinogenic plant and they dreamed a cure for something. I’ve had shamans say to me they took a nap and they dreamed about a plant and that’s a successful treatment for something. Well if you think about the history of Western science and Kekulé was trying to figure out the structure of the benzene molecule, he couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t figure it out so he went to sleep. And in his sleep he had a dream and in his dream he saw some snakes and in this dream the snakes started chasing each other. And he woke up and said, eureka, benzene is a ring, as indeed it is. So when witch doctors dream of things we say, oh that’s mumbo-jumbo; when Westerners dream of something, we say, oh scientific process.

Miranda: What's it like, working with these shamans?Mark: You know the great thing about ethnobotany, it’s like the Chinese box puzzle most of us had as kids, where you open it up and there’s another box inside. And you open it up and there’s another box inside. You open it up and there’s another box inside. And just when you get to the smallest box possible, what you think holds the ultimate answer to the question to the quest you’re on, to the question you’re trying to have answered, you open it up and there’s another box inside. That’s what working with shamans is really like.

Miranda: Why were the children in the villages not interested in the old ways?Mark: I’m always curious as to why indigenous cultures have been so quick to give up the old ways. A friend of mine recently said, because Western civilization has the best toys! It’s very seductive, Western civilization. Boom boxes, electricity, electric razors, VCRs. I don’t think we should be denying people that. I don’t think it’s right for us to decide what people get and what they don’t get. None of these shamans can cure or prevent polio as far as I know. I don’t think we have the right to deny them polio vaccine.

But seeing people trade an entire culture for the gewgaws of Western culture uh, trading in all their traditional music for Madonna -- it shouldn’t be an either-or situation. You have had people actively forbidding people to practice indigenous culture, religion, wear indigenous clothing, practice indigenous healing and I think that’s wrong. The world is a less interesting place if everybody is wearing Michael Jordan t-shirts and wearing Michael Jordan tennis shoes. These guys want to wear tennis shoes, fine. But don’t shame them into never putting on the old breechcloth for ceremonial dances. And that’s what I’ve seen happen time and time again.

When the Explorer Farabee made contact with the Tiriós in the 1800s he wrote that he didn’t speak a word of Tirió but they danced these dances of all the animals of the forest and they were so good at it that he recognized every animal immediately. Here we are now over a century later and the last few old men who remember those dances are still there, but they haven’t done those dances for over thirty years. T the reason they haven’t done those dances for over thirty years is they were discouraged or even forbidden to do so either by missionary activity or by the chief who was convinced that they shouldn’t be doing that anymore, by the activity of outsiders.

I told the chief, I said, all of your kids of your village love Bob Marley, they wear Bob Marley t-shirts, they carry boom boxes with Bob Marley playing. I said, do you think they’re going to get into heaven listening to Bob Marley and will not get into heaven if they do the dance of the "Cock of the Rock?" I said, I don’t think this is an either-or situation, so why not encourage old practices which are not harmful? We’re not talking about devil worship here, we’re talking about celebrating nature and who created nature? The chief said, God created nature. So dancing the "Cock of the Rock" dance is a way of celebrating the biological diversity, that they know and enjoy and benefit from so much more than we do.

Miranda: How do shamans use plants and insects in their medicines?Mark: Chemists aren’t forced to work with one chemical at a time when they try and come up with new compounds, why should we think that shamans don’t combine things to make new and useful, more effective, less toxic combinations? What we find now is that these combinations which have been dismissed and pooh-poohed in the past like curare [arrow poison] are actually very sophisticated chemical mixtures, where plants that are inert when added to these poisons potentiate the poisons. That is, they make them in effect, more poisonous, they increase the uptake in the bloodstream. We now have to go back and reexamine all of these shamanic potions, hallucinogens, curares and everything in between to figure out what’s really going on because these guys in breechcloths and penis strings turn out to be better chemists than we are in certain instances.

Miranda: What is the Shaman's Apprentice Program?Mark: The Shaman’s Apprentice Program is an effort to re-start the shamanic tradition. To make sure that transmission, that oral tradition from the ancients to the current generation to the next generation is continued. This [information] has been handed down for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. With the introduction of Western culture, with contact with the outside world, this connection to the past is sometimes lost. The Shaman’s Apprentice Program is about making sure that when they make this transition from pre-literate to literate societies, this oral tradition is passed on either orally, or orally and in a written form.

Miranda: Where did you get the idea for the Program?Mark: I promised the chief of the Tiriós, when I started the work in 1982, that I would collect the wisdom of his shamans and write it down in a form that he could read it and take advantage of, if he so wished. I kept my part of the bargain and after year eight I presented him with a manuscript of 300 different plants that his people had used traditionally for medicinal purposes. He called a meeting in the jungle to which I was not invited and the next day my friend, Koita, came out and said, chief says this stuff is important. Koita says, I’m to work with you and the Jaguar Shaman to translate this into our language so we will have it to use on our own to perpetuate our own traditions.

Up until then they had one book in their language, the Holy Bible provided by the missionaries. Now they have two books in their language, the Holy Bible provided by the missionaries, and the "Tareno Epi Panpira," the "Tirió Plant Medicine Handbook," provided by the Shaman’s Apprentice Program.

Miranda: What do you hope for from the Program?Mark: I think that the Shaman’s Apprentice Program has shown that it’s not too late. If you find the right individuals, empower them, finance them, encourage them, help them, the you really can make a difference. Look at a place like the Caqueta, Colombia [note: a river valley in southwestern Colombia, where the Amazon Conservation Team works with members of the Ingano, Kofan, and Siona tribes]. It’s the most difficult place in the entire Western Hemisphere. Every problem in the Western Hemisphere is found in that part of Colombia: deforestation, poverty, intra-cultural difficulties, military clashes with local peoples, landless peasants. The Shaman’s Apprentice Program has been a rip-roaring success, where these people have seized control of their environmental and cultural destiny. If they can do it in the Caqueta, you can bet your ass they can do it elsewhere.

Leave a Reply.


    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.
    William Blake



    May 2010
    April 2010
    April 2009

    RSS Feed