We owe a debt of gratitude to indigenous cultures around the world for many of the medicines that have become staples of the modern health system. With the proliferation of medical technologies and chemical substitutes for natural medicines, it is easy to forget that today’s pharmacies are stocked with modern, synthesized versions of traditional plant medicines that were used around the world for centuries and even millennia. Additionally, many of our natural medicines have roots in indigenous medical wisdom.
I have had the pleasure of working with indigenous communities in my country and see the wealth of traditional medical knowledge, as well as the wealth of traditional plant medicines at risk of being lost forever. Many of these cultures have relied on an oral tradition for passing information from generation to generation, and like the medicine itself, this traditional teaching method is also impacted by the modern world.
While some indigenous cultures are resistant to sharing traditional medicine with the outside world, the Matsés people of Brazil and Peru have taken the bold step of documenting their traditional medicine in a 500-page encyclopedia. In an attempt to lessen the risk of theft by outside researchers and corporations, the Amazonian tribe has written the encyclopedia in its traditional language.
This massive undertaking was a collaboration between the Matsés and the conservation group Acaté. With offices in the United States and Peru, Acaté works with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest to protect and preserve this special part of the planet. Their projects extend beyond traditional medicine to include initiatives like permaculture and sustainable commerce.
The encyclopedia is a compilation of knowledge from five shamans and became a priority after one of the Matsés’ distinguished elder healers passed away before his knowledge could be conveyed to other healers in the community. In addition to being the first ever Amazonian tribe to record its traditional medicine system in writing, the Matsés have built a stronger bridge connecting elders and youth in the community and creating a tool that helps young shamans train in the traditions passed down from more experienced healers.
In an interview with Mongabay, Christopher Herndon, M.D., president and co-founder of Acate stated, “The Matsés live in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and have mastered knowledge of the healing properties of its plants and animals. Yet, in a world in which cultural change is destabilizing even the most isolated societies, this knowledge is rapidly disappearing.”