Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Rain Forestby Mark J. Plotkin
For thousands of years, healers have used plants to cure illness. Aspirin, the world's most widely used drug, is based on compounds originally extracted from the bark of a willow tree, and more than a quarter of medicines found on pharmacy shelves contain plant compounds. Now Western medicine, faced with health crises such as AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer, has begun to look to the healing plants used by indigenous peoples to develop powerful new medicines. Nowhere is the search more promising than in the Amazon, the world's largest tropical forest, home to a quarter of all botanical species on this planet—as well as hundreds of Indian tribes whose medicinal plants have never been studied by Western scientists. In Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, ethnobotanist Mark J. Plotkin recounts his travels and studies with some of the most powerful Amazonian shamans, who taught him the plant lore their tribes have spent thousands of years gleaning from the rain forest.
For more than a decade, Dr. Plotkin has raced against time to harvest and record new plants before the rain forests' fragile ecosystems succumb to overdevelopment—and before the Indians abandon their own culture and learning for the seductive appeal of Western material culture. Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice relates nine of the author's quests, taking the reader along on a wild odyssey as he participates in healing rituals; discovers the secret of curare, the lethal arrow poison that kills in minutes; tries the hallucinogenic snuff epena that enables the Indians to speak with their spirit world; and earns the respect and fellowship of the mysterious shamans as he proves that he shares both their endurance and their reverence for the rain forest. Mark Plotkin combines the Darwinian spirit of the great writer-explorers of the nineteenth century—curious, discursive, and rigorously scientific—with a very modern concern for the erosion of our environment and the vanishing culture of native peoples.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 18 Years
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Meet the Author
Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D., was born and raised in New Orleans and educated at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts. Trained as an ethnobotanist, he has done extensive research throughout the lowlands of tropical South America. He currently serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. His research has been featured in Life, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Time, and The New York Times as well as PBS's Nova and the Academy Award-winning documentary "Amazon."
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Another required reading for school. Loved it!
I have been interested in plants, their edibility and natural healing abilities for several years now so when I saw this book on the shelf of a used book store, it caught my eye immediately. Plotkin starts off by explaining how he became interested in ethnobotany, and discusses some plants and natural chemicals, their purposes, and how they have been involved in Western Medicine after their discovery in the Amazon. He then goes on to talk about his journeys to Suriname and Brazil, and his time spent in native villages of the jungle. I found his description of the many plants that he learned about, and how the natives traditionally used them. Plotkin also describes some of the ceremonies performed by the tribal medicine men who somehow can miraculously heal illnesses and are incredibly in tune with the jungle and other metaphysical things as well. It amazed me that our western society does not harness and utilize more of these powerful organic compounds but instead produce synthetic versions of these chemicals as if we have to prove that we do not need nature, that we can create better cures than it. When, if we had not discovered these plants and isolated the active compounds. We would still be suffering from many illnesses that the Indigenous peoples of the amazon can cure with a tea brewed from a commonly found plant. I found this book to be fascinating and most definitely a worthy read.
What the author Mark J. Plotkin, PhD wrote in the first 50 pages can often be what is read in a full book of several hundred pages. It is very well written and filled with stats, mentions of notable scientists in botany, and a bit of historical ethnobotany--all as the author writes of his tough exploratory journeys through the the jungles of South America as he gains information from the Shamans of different indigenous tribes about medicinal plants. He travels through territories with Shaman where a regular person would not live for more than a few days without a medicine man due to the jungle hazards. Dr. Plotkin writes "Brazil is home to more plant species than almost any other country in the world, yet according to Dr. Otto Gottlieb that country's leading plant chemist, 'we know little or nothing about the chemical composition of 98.6% of the Brazilian flora.' In fact, only about 5,000 of the world's 250,000 species have been extensively screened in the laboratory to determine their therapeutic potential, and approximately 120 plant-based prescription drugs on the market today are derived from only 95 species. A quarter of all prescription drugs sold in the United States have plant chemicals as active ingredients. About half of those drugs contain compounds from temperate plants, while the other half have chemicals from tropical species..." (page 7). Of course, this means there are at least millions of undiscovered plant-based medicines, and then also the vanishing indigenous tribes and their knowledge of plant medicines. Dr. Plotkin also gives positive approaches to how indigenous tribes can profit from their knowledge of medicinal plants via pharmaceutical companies, how the tribes can retain their medicinal plant knowledge even if their culture is being lost, and touches on a host of other situations involving these issues. Also, mentioned is the importance of friendship--if he as a molecular bio student at UPenn had not visited his friend at Harvard U where he found Harvard's zoology department, he would not have switched majors/universities and become an ethnobotanist...Also, covered are women's issues, such as how women of many indigenous tribes have their own female botanical medicinal plants that the male Shamans do not have knowledge of, and the mention of a few notable women ethnobotanists of history that did travel to rain forest areas in South America. There is quite a bit of information about indigenous cultures and Shaman, the jungle, medicinal plants, and more in this book. What is uncertain is if plant medicine discovery will continue to any great extent if the spiritual relationship between the jungle and the indigenous people are destroyed.
Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice was an extremely riveting story of Mark Plotkin's journey through the Amazon. He recounts his expedition from his first visit to South America in search of Guyana's Black Caiman with Russ Mittermeier to subsequent visits to Suriname that lead Plotkin into the depths of the Amazonian interior. From the locals Plotkin begins to learn and record the many plants that the natives use for medicinal purposes. In order to continue to catalogue the different species and uses then compare them to other native villages Plotkin travels to different communities over a ten year period, creating friendships and bonds with medicine men and villagers alike. Throughout the pages of this entrancing narrative Plotkin's story illustrates a race against time-the Amazon is being overdeveloped and as the Indians abandon their culture for a new western material world their knowledge of the rain forest and the value of the flora fades with them. Mark Plotkin's recount of his adventures in the Amazon is definitely one worth reading. I picked this up as extra credit for an Anthropology class and couldn't put it down. Each page contains a wreath of fascinating information and is narrated in a humorous and easily comprehended fashion. I definitely recommend this book for anyone with an interest in culture and the ways in which civilizations have evolved and adapted to new and old influences.
In this extrodinary text, Mark Plotkin carefully examines culture and medicine while reminding us to be ever so watchful of the disease called Afluenza. A great book for the informed or the casual reader, Mark Plotkin gives a stunning magical view into a deep jungle world that sadly may not be here long. I could not put this book down! I have introduced this book in my college level courses and my students love it. More importantly for the rest of us, they are inspired to action by it!
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to hear the author speak about his adventures in the Amazon. That night, I purchased this book.This book is as wonderful to read as it was to listen to him tell his tales first-hand. I have rencently bought his second book and it is as good as the first.
I read this book several years ago, and it is a favorite of mine. The author writes beautifully. The adventures he has make me wish I were an ethnobotanist. The wonderful potential of the rain forest makes me even more aware of how much we stand to lose and fear we may have lost it. The plight of the native peoples and what they have already lost fills me with grief. The fact that there are ethnobotanists attempting to capture this gives me hope.