Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Bio-Cultural Plant Diversity in Shaman Transformative Knowledge and Practice

L. J. Slikkerveer (Leiden University)

Paper presented to the Symposium "Plants in Health and Culture",

Leiden University, February 16-17, 2004 - Session 1: 'Plants and Culture'.


Since the early accounts of the late 16th century, the attitudes of Western travelers, explorers, naturalists, botanists and anthropologists towards the enigmatic shaman have changed from the obscure 'Ministers of the Devil', 'Impostors', 'Diviners', and 'Magicians' to the more luminous 'Masters of the Animals', 'Traditional Healers', and 'Indigenous Botanists', reflecting a process whereby 'modern' scientists eventually have come to respect, study and analyse shamanism as a complex of knowledge and practice that opens up new avenues of dialogue and mutual understanding.

As the traditional belief that virtually all plants possess their own spirit, some of which are enabling the shaman to acquire his transformative knowledge and power to 'travel to the other world', is central to most manifestations of shamanism around the globe, we seem now to have reached a point in time where we should direct our special attention to this most elusive element in the conceptual triad of 'knowledge-practice-belief' of useful plants.

Although so far 'modern' science - particularly bio-chemistry - seems less interested in the effects of hallucinogenic plants as far as they produce the shamanic visions and dreams as to make the diagnosis of the illness, find a suitable remedy and restore the balance of the patient, but rather in the potential application of their bio-active components for possible industrial development of new drugs, ultimately the underlying systems of indigenous knowledge, practice and belief of these traditional specialists will enable us to understand the crucial, albeit yet 'invisible factors' which tend to determine the ongoing interaction of humankind with its bio-cultural environment.

In this context, this contribution seeks to further explore the perceptions, cosmologies and principles involved in the shamans' use of consciousness-expanding plants, focusing on the human dimension of their relationship with the biodynamic plants of their environment.

While embarking on the role of hallucinogenic plants in local health care improvement, particular attention will be given to the significance of shaman wisdom and experience for the management and conservation of the bio-cultural diversity of these indigenous plants. Such an emic approach will eventually enable us to further substantiate the non-experimental validation of hallucinogenic plants for the future health and well-being of humankind, and as such extend the interdisciplinary field of ethnobotany.