The Last of the Shamans

The Amazon: an area of land two thirds the size of the United States, boasting 1.4 billion acres of dense forest, where the river at its widest is 300 miles across, where the tallest trees reach 200 feet, and where the majority of the world’s remaining indigenous communities live. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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The Amazon is home to some of the strangest and most unrecognizable (to an American) cultures in the world. Yesterday I read about an Amazon tribe whose language made linguists second-guess some of the most basic assumptions about human communication. Today, I read about Amasina, a shaman (an elder of an indigenous community) in the Trio community in Suriname. Amasina co-authored a paper with an ethnobotanist from the University of California, San Francisco, in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine in 2009. Amasina has never lived outside his village and has no training in Western medicine. Instead, he learned his trade by apprenticing himself to his father, also a shaman.

While several ethnobatanists have published studies cataloguing the different plants and their associated healing powers utilized by shamans, this study was the first to observe shamans as they practiced their craft, to gain a deeper understanding of their practice of medicine: “Trio ethnomedicine, as a healing tradition, is a complex art of diagnosis, examination, communication, ritual and treatment, which cannot be “saved” through the collection of herbarium voucher specimens or the documentation of written inventories but rather only transmitted through active practice.” No western ethnobotanist can rival an Amazon shaman’s understanding and knowledge of the healing and medicinal powers of plants.

The article’s conclusion was that the Trio shamans have as complex an understanding of disease and cures as do doctors in Western medicine. And for several diseases specific to the jungle, their knowledge surpasses any in Western medicine. Using the scientific method, Trio shamans diagnose and treat such varied illnesses as cervical cancer, malaria, pneumonia, acute gastrointestinal conditions, dermatitis, rheumatism, anemia, and Lymphadenopathy. The shamans’ ability to diagnose without our advanced technology, medical schools, or pharmaceutical companies is nothing short of amazing.

In the past several decades, indigenous contact with the Western world—often in concert with the rapid deforestation of the Amazon—has disturbed the traditional “passing down of medicinal knowledge” to such an extent that traditional shaman healing methods are in danger of disappearing. Compounding this problem were the missionaries that descended upon tribes and “demonized” shamanic practices, foreclosing an entire generation from apprenticing with shaman elders. Today, the average age of Trio shamans is approximately 68; it is just a matter of time before the ancient—and, the evidence suggests, effective—practice dies out.

Alarmed by the passing of the shamans—and their unique body of knowledge—the Amazon Conservation Team, along with Amasina, and the Suriname Ministry of Health, bonded together to create traditional health clinics throughout the Trio community which not only diagnose and treat Trio individuals, but impart Trio medical knowledge to younger Trio community members with hands-on care and apprenticeships. As described in the paper, Shaman healers diagnose and treat well over 75 conditions and have identified 127 anatomical terms.

In several instances, the shaman had anatomical terms for places we do not (“inside the elbow” and “back of the knee”—the latter of which means, roughly translated, “The place where snakes like to bite.”) Their explanations of highly detailed and specific disease characteristics and associated symptomatology hints at the value that can be gleaned from approaching medical problems in a new language. In one example, shaman healers discovered an aortic aneurysim, entirely through feeling and observation—before two Western physicians were able to. Thanks to the new health clinics, less of this knowledge is now in danger of extinction.

In a TED talk, Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist famed for his work in understanding the healing properties of plants and animals in the Amazon described his experience with shaman medicine:

Four years ago I injured my foot in a climbing accident and I went to the doctor. She gave me heat. She gave me cold. She gave me aspirin, narcotic pain killers, anti-inflammatories, cortisone shots. Didn’t work. Several months later I was in the Northeast Amazon. Walked into a village and the shaman said “You’re limping.” And I’ll never forget this as long as I live. He looked me in the face and he said “Take off your shoe and give me your machete.” He walked over to a palm tree and carved off a fern, threw it in the fire, applied it to my foot. Threw it in a pot of water and had me drink the tea. The pain disappeared for seven months. When it came back I went to see the shaman again. He gave me the same treatment and I’ve been cured for three years now. Who would you rather be treated by?

(Your answer to that question is the western medical doctor–probably. But still. It’s fascinating to think about.)

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