Ethnobotany is a field of study that combines botany (the study of plants), anthropology (the study of human cultures), and medicine. Plants have been the original sources of many medicines used in all past and current societies. Many species of plants are biochemically quite complex, in part because they have had to evolve chemical defenses to deter herbivores and protect against attack from fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases. Thus, many of these same chemicals have been exploited by humans as treatment or prevention of diseases.
Ethnobotanists visit and learn from traditional healers in order to try to identify plants with valuable uses, particularly medicinal uses. Sometimes referred to as shamans, healers of every traditional culture are still using specific plants to treat specific health conditions based on generations of traditional knowledge and experience. In many cases, subsequent research by scientists has shown that the plant extracts used by the shamans contain chemical compounds that have natural healing or disease-fighting effects. In some cases, once the active chemical compound has been identified, scientists are able to synthesize, or create, it in the laboratory, and the plant is no longer needed. In other cases, the chemical or chemicals are too complex for easy synthesis, and the plant remains the raw material for the drug.
One controversial issue associated with ethnobotany is who should share the money that is produced when a plant compound, identified with the help of a traditional healer, is used by a major drug company to produce a very profitable drug. In many cases, the traditional peoples believe that they should receive some compensation since their knowledge was used by the drug companies for financial gain. In addition, sometimes the government of the country in which the plant grows believes that it should receive compensation since the plant species grows within their national boundaries. Compensation arrangements may be worked out in some cases. Another problem is that the culturally transmitted knowledge base of many traditional cultures is disappearing at a very rapid rate, as the traditional cultures themselves disappear or begin to adopt a more technology-based form of health care using manufactured medicines. Ethnobotanists may be in a race against time to preserve the knowledge of traditional healing systems before the practitioners die.
Mark A. Davis
Plotkin, Mark J. Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1993.