One of the most exciting areas of research in tropical forests is ethnobotany, which is the study of how people use plants to treat illness and disease. Forest people have an incredible knowledge of medicinal plants, with remedies for everything from snakebites to tumors.

To date, many of the prescription drugs used in the western world have been derived from plants. Seventy percent of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as having anti-cancer characteristics are found only in forests.

The shaman or “medicine man” of a village typically holds knowledge of medicinal plants. The shaman treats the sick, often during elaborate ceremonies and rituals using plants gathered from the surrounding forest.

Shamans have incredible healing powers, but their knowledge is rapidly disappearing as rainforests are cut down and tribes abandon their traditions. Shamans are going extinct faster than rare and endangered species.

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Review questions

  • What is ethnobotany?
  • What's another name for a traditional indigenous healer or 'medicine man'?
  • What's happening to traditional indigenous knowledge?
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