Anthropology Culture and Medicine

1. What has been the historical approach of pharmaceutical companies toward plant medicines from areas such as the South American tropical forests?  What kind of approach has Shaman Pharmaceuticals adopted toward uncovering plant medicines and how does it differ from corporate pharmaceutical companies’ approach? Based on your reading of Plotkin’s book, discuss how successful ethnobotanical research can be conducted and what kinds of contributions it must make in order for it to continue.

Plants historically have been vital in serving civilizations as a source of medicinal and healing purposes for centuries. The natural chemicals found within plants in tropical rainforests are and were vital to western medicine. Without the knowledge and known uses of plants, these plants would have continued to be untouched and sicknesses uncured. Many medicines that are used even to this day originate from different areas with large plush forestation and knowledge comes from the indigenous tribes of the land.

When it comes to pharmaceutical companies, what is stated above was true to the westernize medicine world as well. Westernized cultures wanted and essentially needed to learn about different types of plants and their uses in order to create medicines. “This began to change in the 1930s, with the advent of synthetic chemistry, and was cemented in the 1950s with the introduction laboratory-bred “wonder drugs,” such as the antibacterial sulfonamides, or sulfa drugs” (Plotkin 14). Because of the advancement of science from the 1930s on, the American pharmaceutical companies rapidly lost interest when it came to using natural plants and goods as a basis of potential new medications. Plotkin continues to describe how with the power of laboratory manufactured drugs; it has “given some chemists the illusion that synthetic chemistry is the sole future of new drug discovery” (Plotkin 14). Also, the pharmaceutical companies took the knowledge from the native Indians and gave them no compensation for their knowledge of the plants, and took the credit as well as the profits. Without Shaman and medicine men or women, for a lot of western medicines and drugs we currently have we would not. Since now technology can manipulate and analyze plant molecules, there is no need to give someone else the credit but our own western medicine scientists.

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Shaman are people who take only what they need from nature during that time as well as essentially nurture nature. Typically, when it comes to healing practices with plants Shaman will have some sort of ritual that aids the healing process. The knowledge of the Shaman has been passed on from parent to child for centuries and understands the plants better than western people do; they know plants as living beings. The approach for Shaman Pharmaceuticals is a more moral and true way of potentially finding cures from everyday colds to potential diseases. Shaman Pharmaceuticals is located in San Carlos, CA and as Plotkin states, “Lisa has been able to garner the support of indigenous rights advocates and venture capitalists, as well as recruit a staff that includes ethnobotanists, biochemists, and physicians” (Plotkin 286). A non-profit organization was established as well called Healing Forest Conservatory in which all the profits from these potential medicines go back to the indigenous people. This approach is more hands on with the indigenous people truly learning plant life and plant worth. The goal is to continue the legacies and knowledge from these wise men and women because after tribes are long gone and the shamans are gone as well, their keen knowledge of nature and medicinal plants will be gone forever as well. Plotkin refers to Shaman as doctors, philosophers, singer of songs, as well as keeper of legends. The Shaman approach compared to corporate pharmaceutical companies can be seen clear in the description of both above. One glorifies, while the other uses until there is no need then began marginalizing and is only interested if there is a profit to be gained. A good way of comparing both as well is nature is a Shamans paradise while corporations are ignorant to the natural world.

Ethnobotanical research is the reason why we have so many kinds of medicines here in the US. It is vital that this research continues because there are many plants around the world that have vital healing abilities that have still yet be discovered. According to Plotkin, gathering the particular plant (as many as 30 of the same sample at a time), putting it in a press, drawing our the specimen, keeping it in a herbarium with the name, where it grows, and what the particular tribe uses it for is the way to gather plant research. Successful ethnobotanical research is conducted by doing exactly what Plotkin does; he puts himself out in the middle of the forest and immerses himself in the field with everything he has. He is passionate and concerned about learning and preserving knowledge of plant life and the people within these native tribes. The problem now is that the ancient rainforests are about ½ way gone and only a handful of tribes are still living in the forests. In order to make ethnobotancial research even just continue, something needs to change with the rate of trees being cut down and tribes being marginalized. Another factor is the need to have people want to continue to do ethnobotanical research. As our generations continue, the less we care about other cultures and countries. Also, the language barrier is a huge obstacle, but the researcher needs to be willing to learn the language of the native people. We need young aspiring individuals to conduct research the way that Plotkin has in his book. Overall, society needs to shift its perspectives on plant medicine and realize how vital it is we learn what we can while we still have some native tribes in what is left of our forestation.


Plotkin, Mark J. Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Viking, 1993. Print.

The Shaman’s Apprentice. Prod. Mark Plotkin. N.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.