TROPICAL RAINFORESTS: Human Inhabitants

Medicinal Plant Knowledge

One of the most amazing aspects of tribal peoples is their boundless knowledge of medicinal plants, but even more remarkable is how they could have acquired such knowledge. There are more than 100,000 plant species in tropical rainforests around the globe, how did indigenous peoples know what plants to use and combine, especially when so many are either poisonous or have no effect when ingested. Many treatments combine a wide variety of completely unrelated innocuous plant ingredients to produce a dramatic effect. Some like curare of the Amazon are orally inactive, but when administered to muscle tissue are lethal.

No one knows how this knowledge was derived. Most say trial and error. Indians say the knowledge was bestowed upon them by spirits of the rainforest. Whatever the mechanism, evidence from Amazonian natives suggests that indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants can develop over a relatively short period of time.

Ethnobotanists studying medicinal plant use by recently contacted tribes like the Waorani of Ecuador and the Yanomani of Brazil and Venezuela reported a relatively limited and highly selective use of medicinal plants. They had plants for treating fungal infections, insect and snake bites, dental ailments, parasites, pains, and traumatic injuries. Their repertoire did not include plants to treat any Western diseases. In contrast, indigenous groups that have had a history of continuing contact with the outside world have hundreds of medicinal plants used for a wide range of conditions. It seems that after contact, in response to the introduction of Western diseases, these tribes accelerated their experimentation with medicinal plants. This notion contradicts the idea that indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants was accumulated slowly, over hundreds of years.

More on medicinal drugs derived from rainforest plants.

Suggested reading
  • The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey Of Richard Evans Schultes by Andrew Weil, Chris Murray, and Wade Davis
  • Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures by Wade Davis
  • Last Place on Earth by Mike Fay and Michael Nichols
  • One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis by Wade Davis




  • Continued: People of the Rainforest
    Unless otherwise specified, this article was written by Rhett A. Butler [Bibliographic citation for this page]

    Other resources

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