On the Side of the Angels : TALES OF A SHAMAN’S APPRENTICE: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest, <i> By Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D. (Viking: $22; 319 pp.)</i>

<i> Alan Ereira is a British filmmaker who has worked with the Kogi Indians of Colombia, the author of "The Elder Brothers" and founder to the Tairona Heritage Trust</i>

Mark Plotkin is the chief ethnobotanist for Conservation International, and these tales of his apprenticeship are a lesson in the meaning of his world. They are accounts of a number of journeys to remote Amazonian communities in pursuit, not of new medicines, but of old ones--remedies known to a rapidly dwindling number of tribal healers, the “shamans.”

The knowledge possessed by these old men (for generally they are old, and isolated, and have not apprentices) represents serious money. Jamaican peasants used pink-flowered periwinkle to treat diabetes; when scientists grasped what this meant, they extracted from the plant two drugs whose annual sale exceeds $100 million. The total annual expenditure on medicine derived from tropical plants is $6 billion in the United States alone.

Plotkin’s purpose, however, is not to treat the rain forest as a gold mine to be plundered. For him, that money-making potential is simply a means to an end: “The tribal healers hold the key to unlocking one of the great mysteries of our day and age--how to demonstrate the value of the rain forest in concrete economic terms and, in so doing, provide the rationale for protecting Mother Nature’s ultimate creation.”


“Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” reads like a travel adventure. Plotkin has a gift for evoking a sense of place, and the characters he meets come alive on the page. He approaches the Indians with cautious respect, and they become his friends, guides and teachers. He is always aware that he is a passing guest in their world, lacking the knowledge, understanding and skills necessary for simple survival.

He is also fully aware of the history of earlier explorers, and puts his own experiences into the context of their accounts. The contrast with their language and attitude (on which, tactfully, he never comments) indicates what Plotkin has learned, and what he is really teaching. His description of a fishing trip with the Tirios of Surinam is full of detail about the hunting party, and biological information about plants and animals. He also quotes British explorer Barrington Brown, 100 years ago, describing “the naked savage, in all his glory, drawing his bow with strength and ease and letting his arrow fly with unerring aim.” Plotkin then goes on to describe his own attempt to shoot a fish:

“After three unsuccessful attempts to spear a large, unconscious pacu drifting my way, I lay down my bow and reached for the fish with my hand. As I did so, an Indian from a neighboring canoe fired an arrow at the same fish. Just as I grabbed for my catch, the arrow passed between my third and fourth fingers, striking the fish in the gills. I looked over at the other canoe, stunned. “Better not to use your hands,” said the Indian with a sheepish smile.”

He also expresses a very proper awe for the charismatic and mysterious powers of the shamans, especially the Jaguar Shaman who teaches him by day and prowls his dreams at night.

His descriptions of his education in botanical lore--and a little more--by his hosts are fascinating, and are a tribute to the innate generosity and hospitality of the Indians. His visits, after all, were very short--between two and eight weeks--and he was often with people whose language he could not speak, and who have received little but harm from white men throughout history. Nevertheless, they opened many doors to him.

Plotkin has tried hard to repay the debt. A “young, hip” businesswoman has set up a pharmaceutical company for him to produce new drugs from rain forest plants, and it returns a percentage of profits back to the indigenous people and their countries. And “shaman’s apprentices” have been found in the indigenous community to learn the ethnobiological data he has collected and translate it into books that can be used by their own people.


Indigenous people are usually deeply pessimistic about the future of their own knowledge. It was, they believe, given to them at the beginning of time, and in each generation some of it is lost. As cultural colonization moves into its final phase, the young have been reluctant to learn from their elders. They have preferred to imitate the strangers who have appeared among them.

This is changing. There is a new spirit of self-assertion among a great many indigenous cultures, and the “shaman’s apprentice” program has a natural place in that revival. No on should suppose, though, that this sort of exercise is a way of preserving indigenous culture. It is a new way of changing it. The shaman does not understand disease as a physical problem, or medicine as a specific mechanical remedy. He lives in a different kind of universe, in which maintaining a healthy balance of life is a holistic work; he travels through mysterious and dangerous realms in order to diagnose and correct what has gone wrong, and medicine may be thought of as an appropriate offering.

This kind of knowledge, this way of thinking, may actually be destroyed by literacy. There are also dangers in well-intentioned programs to sustain tribal cultures by returning profits to them. Those dangers have already been seen in problems created by such programs in Brazil. Tribal politics are infinitely complicated, and outsiders inevitably become associated with factions that they may not understand.

It seems sour to sound these warning notes about a project which is so clearly on the side of the angels. In an ideal world, after all, Plotkin will discover new cures for our diseases, the profits will give some rain forest tribes economic power, and the world will realize the value of preserving the staggering biological diversity of the jungle.

Even in that ideal scenario, however, it will be almost impossible for a new generation of shamans to acquire their grandfather’s understanding. They are more likely to be the distant inheritors of our own intellectual world, in which knowledge is compartmentalized, rooted solidly in physical “reality” and learned from books. Plotkin’s first chapter is devoted to his own education by the granddaddy of ethnobiology, Richard Evans Schultes. That is the shaman to whom he was apprenticed, and whose teaching will, even in that best of all possible worlds, replace that of the Jaguar Shaman.