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Plants, Health and Healing

Plants, Health and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology

Elisabeth Hsu
Stephen Harris
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Plants, Health and Healing
    Book Description:

    Plants have cultural histories, as their applications change over time and with place. Some plant species have affected human cultures in profound ways, such as the stimulants tea and coffee from the Old World, or coca and quinine from South America. Even though medicinal plants have always attracted considerable attention, there is surprisingly little research on the interface of ethnobotany and medical anthropology. This volume, which brings together (ethno-)botanists, medical anthropologists and a clinician, makes an important contribution towards filling this gap. It emphasises that plant knowledge arises situationally as an intrinsic part of social relationships, that herbs need to be enticed if not seduced by the healers who work with them, that herbal remedies are cultural artefacts, and that bioprospecting and medicinal plant discovery can be viewed as the epitome of a long history of borrowing, stealing and exchanging plants.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-821-8
    Subjects: Anthropology, Botany & Plant Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Introduction. Plants in Medical Practice and Common Sense: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology
    (pp. 1-48)
    Elisabeth Hsu

    There is a dearth of scholarship on the interface of ethnobotany and medical anthropology, which is surprising considering that plants are frequently used in ‘traditional’ medicines and ritual treatments. Roy Ellen (2006: S10) comments: ‘Medical anthropology has seemed hitherto to lack in full engagement with phytomedical reality, and the acceptance that the health care practices of most people on this planet depend on plants and animals. At the same time, many accounts of folk medicinal uses still lack serious consideration of local ethnographic context. Here, it seems to us, is an enormous opportunity and challenge for research.’

    This volume takes...


    • Editorial Introduction
      (pp. 49-51)
      Stephen Harris

      Despite the central role of plants in our health and happiness, we largely overlook them. Landscapes apparently devoid of humans or other mammals, although teeming with plant life, are regularly dismissed as barren. Yet plants often have long histories of associations with man. Beyond the role of plants as fuel, shelter and food, humans discovered how to harness plant chemistry as medicine. Ethnobotany, the study of the interactions between humans and plants, is integral to human natural history.

      The value of different medicinal plants to different cultures must have been discovered on numerous occasions and that knowledge passed from generation...

    • 1. Non-Native Plants and Their Medicinal Uses
      (pp. 53-82)
      Stephen Harris

      Humans rely on plants for food, medicine, shelter, energy and beauty. Bread wheat is the product of ten thousand years of domestication. The EgyptianEbers Papyrus(c. 1550 bce) refers to knowledge of medicinal plants that dates back to at least 3000 bce. Substances extracted from hallucinogenic plants have enabled man to encounter his gods. Wood and coal have been humans’ primary sources of shelter and energy. The beauty of plants has inspired the transformation of landscapes. The scientific investigation of plants and their conservation has been justified, and is still justified, by the explicitly anthropocentric objectives of medicine and...

    • 2. Qing hao 青蒿 (Herba Artemisiae annuae) in the Chinese Materia Medica
      (pp. 83-130)
      Elisabeth Hsu

      Artemisia annuaL. (Asteraceae), ‘sweet wormwood’, is one of the few plants of ethnobotanical interest that contains a biomedically acknowledged, highly effective chemical compound: artemisinin orqing hao su青蒿素, which is currently recommended as an anti-malarial by the WHO (World Health Organisation). Modern Chinese scientists identified this molecule over thirty years ago after purifying a plant extract composed of plants used to produce the traditional Chinese medical drug calledqing hao青蒿 (HerbaArtemisiae annuae). A drug of this name had been been known to Chinese physicians for more than two thousand years. However, while the literature on the...


    • Editorial Introduction
      (pp. 131-133)
      Stephen Harris

      Trial and error must have played a significant part in the discovery of the healing properties of plants. Clues to the biological activities of some plants may have come from observations of animals, yet the observation that a particular species has certain biological activities is only one node in a network of interactions that lead to a plant being described as medicinal. Complete knowledge of the properties and efficacy of a medicinal plant can only be obtained through multidisciplinary investigations. Detailed observations and experimentation are necessary since the active principles in plants are not absolutes. At one dosage, and applied...

    • 3. Shamanic Plants and Gender in the Healing Forest
      (pp. 135-178)
      Françoise Barbira Freedman

      Shamans are experts who have agency in promoting, maintaining and restoring the connection between the bodies and souls of humans in an animated cosmos. This underlies the culturally understood notion of health in Amazonia. Healing implies the dissolution of body boundaries in order to extract or project material or immaterial entities that are markers of relationships with cosmic entities. Human social identity and personhood are remodelled again and again in function of contact, wanted or unwanted, with cosmic entities throughout the life cycle. ‘Master plants’ (Spanish:plantas maestras; Quechua:mamayuk) with psychotropic properties, handled specifically or preferentially by shamans, facilitate...

    • 4. Persons, Plants and Relations: Treating Childhood Illness in a Western Kenyan Village
      (pp. 179-223)
      P. Wenzel Geissler and Ruth J. Prince

      This chapter is the result of long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Uhero,¹ a Luo village in western Kenya. We have lived in Uhero – first by ourselves and eventually joined by our children – for several extensive periods over the past decade (totalling around four years). In the end of our last two-year ethnographic fieldwork (2002), Uhero had 956 inhabitants distributed across 105 scattered patrilineal, virilocal homesteads. Most people of Uhero (JoUhero) engaged in subsistence agriculture (maize, millet, potatoes), some planted locally marketed cash crops, many of the men fished, and men and women engaged in short-distance fish trade. Many of...


    • Editorial Introduction
      (pp. 225-227)
      Stephen Harris

      The use of plants in Western medicine has often been ‘corrupted’ by dogmatic statements, for example, that herbs cannot harm, only heal and that whole herbs are more effective than their purified active constituents. Two broad approaches to the medicinal exploitation of plants have been described: bioprospecting and ethnopharmacology. The overall goal of bioprospecting is to discover and purify natural products for use as drugs for international markets; in ethnopharmacology the goal is the development of complex plant extracts, as drugs for local use within cultural and social contexts.

      Currently, the pharmaceutical industry has little interest in natural plant products,...

    • 5. East goes West. Ginkgo biloba and Dementia
      (pp. 229-261)
      John Grimley Evans

      All cultures are constrained by their history and transmitted value systems and the communities of the West are no exception. Among the lay public, the supposed medicinal virtues ofGinkgo bilobastimulate responses ranging from instinctive acceptance of a pluripotential remedy provided by beneficent Nature, to a contemptuous dismissal of witchcraft or charlatanry. Contemporary Western medical science is challenged byGinkgo bilobabeing presented both as a traditional Chinese remedy and as a European manufactured and commercially successful extract. In particular, ginkgo offers a probing challenge to the epistemology of British medicine, an epistemology that has its own interest as...

    • 6. Medicinal, Stimulant and Ritual Plant Use: an Ethnobotany of Caffeine-Containing Plants
      (pp. 262-301)
      Caroline S. Weckerle, Verena Timbul and Philip Blumenshine

      Of approximately 10,000 angiosperm genera, only six,Camellia, Coffea, Cola, Ilex, PaulliniaandTheobroma, are known to have evolved caffeine synthesis (Figures 6.1–6.3). A seventh genus,Citrus, has been found to contain small amounts of caffeine (Kretschmar and Baumann 1999). Most of these six primary caffeine-containing genera are distributed in the tropics and sub-tropics; the Asian tea plant (Camellia sinensis[L.] Kuntze) is the only caffeine-containing species that extends into temperate regions.CoffeaandColaoriginated in Africa, whilstIlex, PaulliniaandTheobromaoriginated in the Americas. Not only do these plants have different places of origin, they are...

  9. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 303-305)
  10. Index
    (pp. 307-316)