A Study of Religion, Culture, and Medicinal Plants of Three South American Indigenous Groups

Childs, Daniel
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University of Delaware
This project is focused around an inventory of medicinal plants which I compiled after conducting ethnobotanical fieldwork with three South American indigenous populations. These groups were the Shipibo Indians, of the Peruvian montaña, the Atacameño Indians, native to the Chilean Atacama Desert, and the Mapuche Indians, inhabitants of the temperate valleys of southern Chile. This information is critical during a time when both the habitats and cultures of indigenous peoples are disappearing at an alarming rate. While the efficacy of indigenous medicinal plant use has just recently begun to receive recognition by the Western scientific community, these individuals have known the therapeutic worth of the phytochemicals for millennia. In order to depict this information that I collected as knowledge passed down from for thousands of years, I have decided to mainly focus on the traditional histories of these groups, supplementing information from modern times by drawing on what I saw during my time conducting research with them. In order to do this, I describe the natural origins of these biomes, and how the indigenous peoples existed in the biomes in both in pre- and post-Columbian times. Furthermore, traditional religious practices also necessitate discussion when talking about tribal use of medicinal plants. Therefore, I present the reader with an account of animism, the doctrine of the spirits, and the shaman, the magico-religious practitioner whose duty it is to ensure harmony between the natural and spiritual worlds through a technique of ecstasy. His effectiveness in doing so ensures both societal and individual health, which is most important for this thesis. I then discuss how one becomes a shaman, the psycho-evolutionary components involved with shamanism, and the symbolism and meaning involved in the shamanic healing of “sickness,” which encompasses both illness (the psycho-social component) and disease (the biological component). It is the disease component that medicinal plants address, which leads me into my chapter on ethnoscience and ethnobotany. I offer the reader short ethnographies of the groups with whom I worked, followed by a reflexive account of my fieldwork for a modern perspective on the groups. I also include an inventory of the medicinal plants which I collected and a brief discussion of my results in my conclusion chapter. Finally, I try to bring everything together and show that there is something that the much more recent Western Biomedical system could learn from the millennia-old shamanistic healing practices. That is, that treating biological components of sickness is only half the battle. The other half is addressing the psychological factors of the individual. By attending to both, the mind-body connection can be addressed for an all encompassing treatment of a sick person.
Shipibo medicinal plants , Atacameño medicinal plants , Mapuche medicinal plants , South America , Peru , Chile