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Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest
by Mark J. Plotkin
Penguin Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Arnson, 3/24/2009

“Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.” —Mark Plotkin

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice is one of the first in what was to become a veritable wave of books on ethnobotanical and shamanistic practices in the Amazon. Mark Plotkin, who now runs an Amazonian preservation organization, delivers a fascinating story about his travels to the jungles of South America in search of medicinal plants. Like many who follow similar paths, he was inspired by the godfather of twentieth century ethnobotany, Harvard’s late Prof. Richard Evans Schultes, who wrote the introduction to this book.

In an articulate and entertaining style, the author recounts his first trip to South America, accompanying a research scientist’s investigation of Guyana’s black caiman, a crocodilian of behemoth proportions. Subsequent journeys to Suriname find Plotkin heading to the country’s remote interior to research and pick the brains of the local people on which plants have medicinal properties. This process, which takes him years, involves him living and bonding with various tribes, bit by bit gaining their trust and learning their languages. He has the initial good luck to come upon a settlement (arranged years ago by missionaries) that consolidates a number of tribes into one area, so he is able to spend time with several different shamans.

Open this book to any page, and you will find something interesting. Several fascinating chapters cover the hallucinogenic epena snuffs, and the zealously guarded recipes for curare poisons. Among countless other anecdotes, Plotkin describes local bow and arrow sets with built-in birdcalls, being bitten by a vampire bat, psychological tips on how to goad a shaman into divulging plant secrets, eating a delicious stew only to find it’s made from a kind of huge rat, various histories of the spice and palm trade, and so on. This type of field work is definitely not for the faint of heart, body, or mind!

Plotkin is quite the crusader for preserving knowledge of the jungle, especially with regard to the medical benefits for mankind. As it turns out, many trees and plants are employed for several different purposes, and the back of the book has a comprehensive multi-language 18-page glossary detailing their uses as specific medicines, fibers, dyes, spices, etc. For example, “Ay-ah-e-yah” (a Lonchocarpus species) is a source of rotenone, a biodegradable insecticide; “pah-nah-ra-pah-nah” (Phytolacca americana, aka pokeweed) is eaten as a green vegetable and used as an antiviral, even though the plant can be toxic at certain stages of its growth; and so on.

In light of an encroaching modernity, those dedicated to the preservation of forest lore and resources face an ongoing and complex series of challenges. Upon returning to one of his villages after a three-year absence, Plotkin found the natives dressed in western clothes and its shamans almost all gone. He has subsequently helped kick-start several programs that provide tribes with direct economic compensation for their resources and knowledge.

Plotkin repeatedly emphasizes that the Amazon basin is an incredible source of myriad plant-based remedies—of which the surface has barely been scratched—and that knowledge of these remedies is almost exclusively the domain of tribal shamans, whose numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. Ethnobotany enthusiasts are likely already aware of these facts; nevertheless, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice is so elegantly detailed and well-written that even 16 years after its initial publication, it is still a must-read for anyone remotely interested in plant-based shamanism, or even for those just looking for a great book about life and adventure in the jungle.

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