SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

reviewed: 6/98 Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Seaches for New Medicines in the Amazonian Rain Forest. Mark J. Plotkin. Penquin Books (1993). ISBN 0-14-012991-X. 328pp.

Mark Plotkin takes us on an adventure with him "through the emerald door" to the Amazon rainforest, rich in wildlife, rich in people with different ways of life, and rich in potential medicines for the West. The book reads like a travelogue and, with each chapter, Plotkin takes us deeper to more remote and exotic places. At the same time, we share in a quest to preserve the knowledge of native healers and to bring valuable fragments home to us.

We observe two forms of science. The first is the ethnobotanist on the trail of learning from local healers—apprenticing in a way not unlike a graduate student would in a Western lab. Plotkin's experiences with mosquitoes, new languages and unpleasant foods, as well as his excitement in seeing dramatic treatments, remind us of the work of science—frequently missing in the classoom and disguised by textbooks. The field ethnobotanist must press plants, as well as collect adequate samples, the basic work prior to any chemical analysis or animal investigations.

The second science is the native medicine itself. How did the shamans come by their extensive knowledge, which often shows subtle distinctions in uses of plants, their preparation, dosages, etc.? There is testing, surely, but hardly done on large clinical populations or recorded in lab notebooks. How is the knowledge stored and transmitted? (There are no textbooks or libraries, here!) For example, in the Tirió tribe of southern Suriname, practices about women's reproductive health remain with women and were unavailable to a male visitor. Plotkin also reminds us that the typical Amazonian shaman "served not only as physician but also as priest, pharmacist, psychi-atrist, and even psychopomp—one who conducts souls to the afterworld" (p. 96). We must reconsider how we divide the world and how we set boundaries for "science." Are the periodic incantations not part of the biology of the cure, even if mediated through the mind? What is minimally essential to developing reliable knowledge and how is it integrated with society?

Plotkin has, in a sense, participated in the indigenous science himself by recording it, returning it to the tribes he visited, and helping them translate it so that future generations will have a more premanent record. Indeed, two of his tribal guides later became apprentices to the shaman he interviewed.

Plotkin also highlights how the Amazon basin is special: one of every four plant species grows there. As Western culture expands, native cultures and their knowledge are lost. So, too, are the plants that offer us potential cures.

Readers eager for information will find both a good bibliography and glossary.

--Douglas Allchin

  SHiPS helps teachers share resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology in the science classroom. E-mail us at for our quarterly news.