Shamanism is the Technology of the Spirit — an Interview with Dr. Mark Plotkin

A little known fact is one of the greatest breakthroughs in 20th century medical science came from a preparation used to shoot monkeys down from the tops of trees. Naked “primitives” running around the jungle with blowguns turned out to be master chemists whose curare, a paralyzing muscle relaxant, revolutionized the practice of anaesthesiology, making possible the open heart, organ transplant and hundreds of other surgeries now performed daily in hospitals around the world.

Many experts claim the teeming life of the rainforests continues to promise cures – to AIDS, cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disorders. Yet where are these miracle drugs? Have we exhausted Nature’s cornucopia? Or are we wearing blinders that prevent us from seeing them?

We decided to pose this question to Dr. Mark Plotkin. One of the generation of swashbuckling ethnobotanists trained by the legendary Amazonian explorer Richard Evans Schultes at Harvard, Plotkin is as intimate with the shamans of the jungle and their healing practices as any Westerner now alive – and he claims the cures are there. He’s seen them.

As a young man, Plotkin heeded his mentor’s call to go forth and apprentice himself to the Indians. Living for many years with different Amazonian tribes, Plotkin eventually authored several books, including Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice and Medicine Quest. He also co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team with prominent Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal.

ACT is one of the few non-profit organizations that seems determined to put itself out of a job by handing all its powers over to those it is trying to save. And “save” it literally is: hundreds of tribes and their ancient systems of knowledge have gone extinct in the years since European contact, and just as the survival of the Amazon rainforest is now at stake, the ancient cultures of the forest could vanish as well within a generation. That is, unless astute visionaries like Mark Plotkin and his tribal colleagues have their way.

The fifty-two year old ethnobotanist appeared for our interview nearby the UC Berkeley campus accompanied by a shaman from the Ingano tribe, a soft-spoken middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap named Don Fernando, whom Plotkin had brought to the United States as part of a campaign to protect his people from the violent incursions of timber and oil companies. Before arriving, Plotkin had emphasized, “You can photograph me, but no photos of the shaman. If his image got back to Colombia, it could be very dangerous.” Both of them wore jeans and native jewelry and spoke with an easy familiarity that indicated mutual respect.

In gathering to discuss the medicines of the Amazon, we also discovered familiar backgrounds. “They’re ayahuasqueros,” Plotkin informed Don Fernando, when he learned those present, Lorna Li, editor of Mariri Magazine, my wife Susana, a researcher on the healing power of icaros (the sacred songs of the shamans) and myself, had all drunk ayahuasca, that most potent of medicines, with an Ashaninca shaman in the Peruvian rainforest.

Plotkin, we soon discovered, is a practiced raconteur, savoring the colorful details of his adventures in the Amazon, but – as you will see – he is also a profoundly strategic thinker. Not content to just spin a good yarn, Plotkin wants to save the elder stories of native peoples that may just be key to our own culture’s survival.

Robert: Mark, you have written extensively and quite movingly about the issue of indigenous medicine and what is has to offer the West, and I would like to ask you about the issue of translation. In terms of bridging these medicines to the West, what are the obstacles that you see, both technological and cultural?

Mark: It seems to me the way that Western medicine works is basically two fold: it’s chemical, what’s in the medicines, what’s in the prescriptions; and it’s physical, going in there and cutting out your appendix. It also seems to me the way these shamans work is two fold: it’s chemical, which is what is in the plants or the insects (since we know that they use insects), and the spiritual, which through the prism of Western science is nonsense, magic, mumbo jumbo, placebo, whatever you want to call it. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes…. it works! Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes, these guys can cure things that Western medicine cannot. Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes they can see things that Western medicine cannot. Don Fernando and I were in a meeting in Los Angeles recently and this fellow said to him, “So what do you know? You haven’t been to medical school.” And he says, “Look, if there’s a scientific cause to your ailment, like bacteria, you should go to a doctor. But many ailments,” he said, “are caused by sickness of the heart, mind and soul, and that’s what I cure.” So, the answer to your question is, some of this stuff is transferable. Some of these plants will work irregardless of setting or whether the doctor is wearing a penis-string or a white coat. Some of this stuff is magical, religious, spiritual, invisible and we’re never going to understand it. So the point of what we need to do here is protect the forest and protect the knowledge of the forest, which is the people. You have organizations devoted to protecting Indians. You have organizations devoted to protecting the rainforest. We’re the only organization working across the Amazon to do both.

Robert:Do you see Western science beginning to understand indigenous healers in their own terms?

Mark: Absolutely, to some degree. You look at studies of brain scans done under ayahuasca you can elicit information that was never before possible. Do I think that is going to explain everything? No, I don’t. Because I was with a shaman, who’s on the cover of my book Medicine Quest, who looked in a woman’s eyes and said, “You are healthy,” and then he said, “but your husband isn’t.” Okay, she was sitting right in front of him. Now, iridology is thousands of years old…but her husband was five thousand miles away: we were in Manaus, Brazil but her husband was in Boulder, Colorado. Explain that using any Western approach to understanding! So, the answer to your question is: some of it we WILL be able to understand, and we’re getting better all the time. But the idea that we’ll be able to understand all of it, I don’t think is ever possible.

Robert: It sounds like for us to understand their medicine it’s going to require a reversal of roles, of which culture considers itself superior to the other.

Mark: When I wrote my book The Shaman’s Apprentice an agronomist went to study an Indian garden in Guatemala and thought, “What a rat’s nest! These guys really don’t have it together.” And then he realized by having just one of every species and just one of every variety, there was no problem with pests. So he came to the conclusion it’s not that they’re lazy, it’s just that they value time more than we do and they don’t want to put any more time into work or gardening than necessary to feed their families and keep the pests out without pesticides. So who’s smarter? I want you to ask the question to Don Fernando.

Long pause on the part of the shaman.

Don Fernando: I think this is going to take time. There are things that can be understood, and other things that cannot be understood. Invisible things…

Robert: You give an account of the woman who was healed of diabetes by a shaman with a potion of made of many plants, and how when the potion was analyzed in a laboratory no active ingredient could be found that was effective in treating diabetes. We know that the goal of Western medicine is to identify what you call “the silver bullet,” that one molecule that will be patentable and will make a fortune for the company. But how well positioned are we to understand how shamans work with the synergistic properties of plants, where it’s not just one chemical that produces the outcome, but the entire recipe that includes both the visible and invisible elements?

Mark: It seems to me that we’re working on this, but we’re not getting much better at dealing with diversity because we still want that magic bullet instead of looking for a magic shotgun blast. Look, if somebody – whether he’s a shaman or whether he’s some oddball on the corner of Telegraph Avenue – tells you he can cure cancer and you’ve got cancer, are you going to say, “Well it better be one molecule or I’m not interested?” Of course not! “Give me the mixture, whatever it is.” But our system just doesn’t function that way. Also, when you’re dealing with plants, and remember, every plant is full of hundred of compounds, when you talk with shamans they say, “It’s the bark at this phase of the moon on this soil mixed with something else.” So, if the Amazon has 80,000 species, and every plant has hundreds of different chemicals, you know, roots, bark, stem, wood, fruit, flowers, how the hell are you going to figure out what’s in there? I’ve heard people say, “Well, we don’t need shamans because we have combinatorial chemistry and we can just rock with this stuff.” I don’t see the wonder drugs of the jungle pouring into the pharmacy shelves. For a variety of reasons. Some people say, ‘cause they’re not there. Well, they’re wrong and we’re right.

Here’s a perfect example. We just met the wife of one of the richest men in world, two days ago, and Don Fernando gave her a limpieza. Do you know what a limpieza is? It’s a cleaning at the end of an ayahuasca session. At the end of which, she said, and I quote, “Shit, I can’t believe I spent all that money at the orthodontist’s and now my bite feels right.” Okay? Now who would you rather be treated by? An orthodontist who’s putting you in braces and charging you thirty grand, or some guy who goes, blah blah blah blah blah, for twenty minutes and all of a sudden your bite goes right. Easy choice, right? So some of this stuff is reproducible in a lab, some of it isn’t, and I’m less interested in finding that magic bullet than protecting all those bullets that are out there and the people who know how to fire those bullets in a shotgun blast, because a lot of healing is much more than shooting something into somebody. You got a Staph infection, you want an antibiotic. But even a guy like Don Fernando can work with your immune system to jack it up into a higher gear. Doctors CANNOT do that, so they don’t understand that. Shamanism is the technology of the spirit.

Robert: Now this gets into an interesting thing. Sometimes when I hear you talk it makes me think of vitalism, because you speak of our not knowing all the constituents that go into a plant, and yet at the same time you are not saying that their efficacy is simply reducible down to a chemical. The vitalistic interpretation is that the chemical is the expression of the spirit and the other levels that exist, a paradigm which was lost from Western science. Do you subscribe to that to some degree?

Mark: I don’t subscribe to anything. I’m a biologist. I believe in molecules. But I know enough to not reject what I don’t understand. That’s the mistake to avoid. I’ll give you a concrete example. In 1982, when I went to the Trios in the Northeast Amazon for the first time they showed me a plant and they said, “It’s a male aphrodisiac. You can pound in nails with this stuff.” Laughter. I’m twenty seven years old. I wasn’t the guy to test it on, right? I go back to Harvard, I call the Medical School and I go, “Hey, I’ve got a male aphrodisiac” and they go, “Sorry pal, there’s no such thing. It’s physiologically impossible. Even Spanish Fly doesn’t work. It’s bullshit, just another one of these witchdoctor’s tales.”

A year later I go back and I go to the Wayanas east of there. “Here’s an aphrodisiac man, this stuff, you just won’t believe it.” It’s not the same plant, it’s not the same species, not same the genus, not the same family. I got back to Harvard, call the Medical School, they say, “We told you there’s no such thing as a male aphrodisiac.”

A year later, I’m with the Maroons (Bush Negroes) north of there. “We’ve got…” “Oh, yeah, yeah…” Laugher I didn’t even bother to call the Med School this time…

A couple of years later, somebody gets the blood pressure medicine dosage wrong: shwing! Viagra. What’s that worth? Hundreds of millions of dollars? How many people take this stuff? Guess what, the Indians were right! It IS physiologically possible, but until WE discover it, nah, it’s bullshit. So when you reject what you don’t understand and can’t explain, sometimes you throw the baby out with the bathwater. So is it vitalism, is it luck, is it laying on of hands, is it calling down the howler monkey spirit? I don’t know, but I try to keep an open mind. And I don’t want this stuff to disappear and literally go up in flames because, “Oh, we couldn’t explain it, so we can afford to destroy it.”

Lorna: In Medicine Quest you state because the Europeans arrived so early and wiped out the indigenous tribes of the vast rainforest of eastern Brazil, we don’t actually have much knowledge about the medicinal uses of the plants in the area. I’m wondering if there is a way around that. Do you think those areas are just lost along with their medicines, or can we somehow bring in shamans or medicine people of other tribes to see if we can recover some knowledge from these areas?

Mark: Well, what’s lost is lost in terms of oral tradition. In our lifetime we will see Woolly Mammoths brought to life, because they’re finding those things frozen in the permafrost and, given the way genetic engineering is going, they’ll be able to recreate those extinct mammals. But when you lose an oral tradition, it’s gone, and gone forever. Can we find medicines in the remnant patches of the Atlantic Forest? Yeah, we know about medicines there. There are some Indian tribes left in eastern Brazil, not many and not much – they’re pretty beat up. There exists a pretty powerful Afro-Brazilian tradition in Bahia. So yeah, there’s some knowledge of these plants, but the knowledge of extinct indigenous groups like the Botocudos is long gone. They’re extinct and are never coming back. Could we bring guys like Don Fernando to go through there and he’ll recognize some of the plants, because they’re in the Amazon? Yeah, or he’ll say that’s related to a plant that we have in Colombia. There are some little pockets left, peasant communities, black communities, some of these acculturated communities, but most of it’s gone. And there’s just no way of getting it back.

Robert: In Medicine Quest you describe the extraction of a botfly larvae from a man’s arm. An Indian, who had the larvae growing in his arm, went to a missionary who knew how to cut them out with a scalpel. But there was a Shuar shaman there who told the missionary to wait, and he sang out the larvae instead, so there was no need for surgery. You speculated it might have been a frequency in the song that maddened the insect, or it might have been tobacco smoke that had driven the larvae out. It made me think of what Rosa Giove at Takiwasi Center in Peru witnessed. In a similar circumstance, a larvae had inserted itself in a little girl’s eye socket, but in this case the old woman who had sung the larvae out offered an explanation: she was singing the song of the larvae’s mother, and the little larvae had responded by crawling out. I wonder if you avoided depicting the shaman’s abilities to communicate directly with the natural world for reasons of credibility, considering who your target audience is?

Mark: When I see stuff I can’t explain, I’d rather simply recount what happened and let everybody draw their own conclusions. Instead of saying, here’s the seven things that could’ve explained it. Was it real or was it Memorex? Did they talk this thing out, did they charm it out? Did they curse it? Better to let the reader draw their own conclusions because the ethnobotanist doesn’t always have the answer. Just like when I talked about the jaguar dream in Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. There’s all sorts of explanations I could have given. I ate too much. I read too much about jaguars. I read Reichel-Dolmatoff’s book about shamans and jaguars. Instead I just said, hey, this is what I saw: you guys decide. It’s like when you hear a song and you meet the songwriter and you say, I really like that song because… I had that happen once with my pal Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues who’s been a supporter of the Amazon Conservation Team. We were walking down the street in Cambridge and this fan ran over and shrieked, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s the guy from the Moody Blues. I love such and such a song because it’s about such and such.” He just said, “Thank you very much.” Later, I asked him, “Is that what that song is about?” and he goes, “Not as I wrote it. But it doesn’t matter.”

Robert: I wonder if – with time – the explanations that seem patently obvious become more obscure, or at least more ambivalent. The question of the urgency of science, especially corporate and government driven science, to recognize the wider sentience of the world they are dealing with. How do we best address this issue?

Mark: Hmmm. I wish I knew the answer. Does anybody else? Laughter. I think you’ve just got to keep putting the information out there. Look, I’ve been criticized for exaggerating stuff in my books, which makes me smile…

Robert: Are you saying you are holding stuff back?

Mark: I had a fabulous book review in Nature, which is as good as it gets for scientists and the reviewer said something like, “I think Mark may bend these stories a bit, but it’s okay for the greater good.” I’m thinking, “The only way I am shading something is when I am holding stuff back!”

We live in an age of fractured media. You know, I’m fifty two. When I grew up there were three TV channels, and if you wanted to put out a story about racism, you put it on All in the Famil,y and sixty percent of America would watch it. Well, how many TV channels are there now? Five hundred? Internet, iPODSs, DVDs… if you want to tell a story, you got to tell it on the radio, you got to tell it on the internet, you got to put it on MySpace, you got to write kid’s books, you got to write adult’s books, you got to do IMAX.

The mistake that people make is they focus on the converted. I’d much rather do some outreach to Popular Mechanics than put something in the National Geographic because everybody in National Geographic already knows this stuff and cares about it, including me.

We just did some outreach to Google because they are a powerful ally to have on your side. So sometimes you have to pull in some allies that might not be obvious.

Robert: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?

Mark: A major focus of the Amazon Conservation Team is ethnographic mapping. A lot of people do mapping, but we do it differently. We don’t do the mapping. We train them to do the mapping. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of these iconic images of guys in loincloths walking around with GPSs, but it’s a perfect marriage of ancient shamanic wisdom and twenty-first century technology. How cool is that? Instead of saying, you got to be a white man or you’ve got to be an Indian, you can do both. When you work with shamans you’re not working with three dimensions, you’re working with six.

When Google saw this, they were blown away. It’s not about, how do we teach the Indians what to do? How do we tell the military what to do? How do we threaten the government what to do? It’s creating alliances where possible and seeing what happens, you know? These are the guys who should be in the driver’s seat, not riding shotgun: It’s about empowering them. If you make a map for somebody, whether it’s some kid in the inner city or some Indian in the Amazon, it may help them. But if you teach them how to make their own map, it’s empowering them and it’s teaching self-reliance. We now have Indians on Google Earth, not only making maps but looking at the gold mines coming in from here and the campesinos coming in from there, so they can make risk maps. They’re mapping in time, they’re mapping in the future. They’re looking in the future where the threats are coming from instead of just worrying about today, today, today… but tomorrow as well.

Lorna: Is your program accessible on Google Earth? Do you have a presence…?

Mark: We’re meeting with them tonight. We have an ongoing relationship with them. Part of this mapping thing is, what do you put on, and what do you not put on? I was out hunting with a shaman’s apprentice once and he said, “Look!” And we looked down into the creek and it sparkled. It just sparkled yellow. I said, “Is that what I think it is?” He goes, “Uh huh.” So we didn’t put gold on the map, but it’s sure there. So they decide what they want on, and they decide what they don’t want on.

Susana: I have a question for Don Fernando. How are you confronting the issue within your tribe of preserving the tradition of healing? Is the new generation interested, or are they looking toward the cities? How does one preserve the tradition?

Don Fernando: We have a group of youths who are practicing medicine and are interested in recuperating the tradition and knowledge.

Susana: Are they supported by the healers in your group?

Don Fernando: The Kofan tribe have their youths they are teaching. We are five linguistic groups and we’re all teaching the young. We participate in the Indigenous Medical Union of the Columbian Amazon. There are Kofanes, Sionas, Kamsa, Correguajes, Ingas: each tribe with own language. And it’s teaching the traditional medicine. We’re in the union to fortify the tradition of medicine and exchange knowledge between one people and another.

Susana: So you’re enriching this tradition by sharing knowledge with one another?

Don Fernando: Yes.

Mark: And who is supporting your group?

Don Fernando: Right now, the Amazon Conservation Team. We’re working with that organization.

Mark: Thank you! Laughter.

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