For decades, scientists have been working with the indigenous peoples who live in the world’s rainforests. In the process, they’ve come to appreciate the depth and complexity of the local knowledge of – among other things -plants and chemistry.
I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.
Mark Plotkin is executive director of the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team.
“When you start to see the forest through the eyes of indigenous peoples, be they pygmies in Central Africa or the Indians in the Amazon, these guys look at the forest and they see a sporting goods store, a grocery store, a toy store, a perfume store and more importantly than just this utilitarian aspect, it’s home. It’s home in a material sense and it’s home in a spiritual sense. And because of that there is a connection with the forest which allows these people to draw on the forest in a way which has led to these marvelous discoveries.”
Amongst the discoveries has been curare, one of the most potent poisons known to man.
“Well for years, scientists looked down on Indians in the Amazon who made their arrow poison, who made their curare by taking a very poisonous plant, either from the moon seed family or from the strychnine family and mixing it with other things- it might be other plants, it might be insects, it might be snake fangs. And they dismissed this as so much mumbo jumbo. Not too long ago, we found out that one of the most persistent mixtures, which are plants of the black pepper family, increase the bio-availability of the blood. In other words, it makes the body take the poison up faster. So these guys, living in the forest, without a university education. Living in breech cloths, sleeping in hammocks, thatch huts, turned out to have been, in this instance, better organic chemists than we are.”
Additional funding for Pulse of the Planet has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.