Ethnobotany of Amazonia

  • Guillaume OdonneEmail author
Living reference work entry


Guiana Shield Euterpe Oleracea Ficus Insipida Medical Ethnobotany Common Cultural Background 
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Amazonia is a place for myths and legends, and if it has been described for a long time as a “green hell,” it tends now to be perceived as a “green treasure,” with Native people keeping jealously the hidden secrets that may heal the whole planet. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Many people in Amazonia have a really good knowledge of their surrounding biodiversity and its uses, but this knowledge is unequally shared and rapidly eroding. Moreover, how Amazonian inhabitants use plants is a very dynamic field, due to the movements of people and the evolution of their culture. Summarizing Amazonian ethnobotany in a single encyclopedia entry is a challenging goal.

Amazonia is generally understood as the Amazon basin. Nevertheless, from ecological or anthropological points of view, this area is anything but coherent. In this entry, I will speak about the practices of the people from the tropical South American lowlands. This area encompasses the Amazon basin, i.e., the drainage area of the Amazon River and its tributaries, the Guiana shield, the North Brazilian shield, and the southern part of the Orinoco River basin. This region has an ecological homogeneity and a common cultural background. Mankind has been present in Amazonia for at least 10,000 years (Roosevelt et al., 1996). People came down from the north and appear to have spread over the area in a short period of time. According to the first Europeans testimony in the sixteenth century, human occupation in Amazonia was well organized and dense along the Amazon, with cities hosting thousands of inhabitants. But rapidly Amazonian societies faced an intense disorganization and split into smaller settlements. Now, Amazonia is a complex geopolitical region, encompassing more than 250 cultural groups. The majority of them are Native Americans, but many of them are mixed from African or European descent. These different ethnohistories led to a rich corpus of plant uses that relies on a common Pan-Amazonian basis.

Historical Aspects of Amazonian Ethnobotany

Since the European discovery of South America, in addition to precious metals, plants became rapidly some of the most coveted goods. At the beginning it was simply wood for ships, then dye woods (pau-brasil, Caesalpinia echinata Lam.), and, finally, plants with medicinal properties (Manzali De Sá & Elisabetsky, 2012). The Jesuits early interest in Amazonian plant uses was followed, during two or three centuries, by a huge interest from the European countries for Amazonian economic botany. This led to many scientific (as well as political) expeditions, due to the dependence of European societies on natural fibers, spices, and remedies. The main part of the inventories was done by European naturalists such as the German C. F. P. von Martius or the French A. de Saint Hilaire, and their missions were scientific as much as diplomatic (Brandão et al., 2008, Brandão, Pignal, Romaniuc, Grael, & Fagg, 2012; Breitbach, Niehues, Lopes, Faria, & Brandão, 2013). The series of “legendary” botanists-explorers ends probably with the American R. E. Schultes, author of The Healing Forest, among other books, a milestone in Amazonian ethnobotany.

Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was an intensive exploitation of natural resources. The main natural product exported was rubber (Hevea brasiliensis (Willd. ex A. Juss.) Müll. Arg. and related spp., Euphorbiaceae). The close-to-slavery management system of the rubber harvest, the aviamento, led to the enrichment of a handful of seringual (Hevea grove) owners in the main harbors: Iquitos, Manaus, and Belem. Besides rubber, plants such as the barbasco (Lonchocarpus utilis A. C. Sm. and related spp., Fabaceae) were also exploited for export as agricultural insecticides. These cultivated or wild lianas, also called timbo or cubé, are traditionally used as a fishing poison. People crush their roots and drop them into water to stun fishes so that they can collect them easily (Duke & Vasquez, 1994). These plants are rich in rotenoids, a class of isoflavonoid-derived compounds known for their ichthyotoxic properties. They were largely cultivated during the middle twentieth century and exported under the name of cubé resin (Fang & Casida, 1999; Schultes & Raffauf, 1990).

Different Faces of Amazonian Medical Ethnobotany

Two levels have to be distinguished when speaking about medical ethnobotany. Each group has its own specialties, and even every single village from the same cultural group has its own knowledge. On the other hand, there are common Pan-Amazonian popular medicines, which are shared from Iquitos to Belem. This common pharmacopoeia originates from a history of exchange between all these Amazonian cultures, as people move constantly from villages to the cities (San Lorenzo, Iquitos, Tabatinga, Manaus, Santarem, and Belem are some of these) to sell local products and return with goods and money. This has been one of the pillars of Amazonian economy (Emperaire, Aubertin, Bahri, & Bressolette, 1996). It consists in harvesting, in a relatively sustainable way, products or raw materials from the forest. Among them, we find piassaba fibers (Leopoldinia piassaba Wallace, Arecaceae), babaçu oil (Attalea speciosa Mart. ex Spreng., Arecaceae), Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl., Lecythidaceae), açaï (Euterpe oleracea Mart., Arecaceae), copaiba (Copaifera spp., Fabaceae), and many more. Those products are known by everybody in Amazonia and are found in every market in the region.

On the other hand, specific pharmacopoeias are found in different cultural groups, with some overlapping. It is now estimated that approximately 3,000 plant species are used medicinally in Brazil (Manzali De Sá & Elisabetsky, 2012). Nowadays, the plant uses of many groups in Amazonia are well described. Some of the most consistent works are those by Schultes and Raffauf (1990), Balée (1999), or Grenand, Moretti, Jacquemin and Prévost (2004), and a good compilation has been established by Duke and Vasquez (1994).

Amazonian ethnomedical practices rely on a kind of dual system, which can be schematized as follows. Illnesses may be caused by spirits. Those spirits, often called “mothers,” are related to places, games, animals in general, meteorological events, or plants. They can harm people, and the main way to be healed is to consult a spiritual healer who will intercede between the malevolent entity and the patient. The therapies often rely on psychoactive plants, such as tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L., Solanaceae), ayahuasca (a combination of Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Griseb.) C. V. Morton, Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis Ruiz. and Pav., Rubiaceae), toé (Brugmansia aurea Lagerh., Solanaceae) or chiric sanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora D. Don ssp. schultesii, Solanaceae) (Schultes & Raffauf, 2004). But healers (curanderos in Spanish-speaking parts of Amazonia) may also be harmful, as they can send their own allied spirits to harm other people. This makes Amazonia look like a complex network of curanderos, spirits, and patients, involved in relationships of healing, killing, and revenge. Lay people are also aware of a certain number of magical plants, among which the piri piri are probably the most important. They (nearly) all belong to the genus Cyperus (Cyperaceae) and are cultivated around the houses and jealously cared for (Plowman, Leuchtmann, Blaney, & Clay, 1990), and their uses are often kept secret so they will not be stolen by neighbors.

However, a majority of daily ailments, considered “naturals,” or at least not from malignant origin, are healed at home or by people who have a particular knowledge of medicinal plants. These practices are still vivid, although primary health centers are now present nearly everywhere and accessing biomedicine is no longer a challenge. Knowledge of these plants is seen as a common phytotherapeutical background and is often shared at the community level. The diseases they heal are mostly perceived as not related to spirits. The complementarities between these two medical levels, the curanderos and the medicina casera (home medicine), are the basis of Amazonian medical systems.

Now there is a clear tendency towards homogenization throughout the region, as a global Pan-Amazonian pharmacopoeia is replacing the particular knowledge of each specific group (Lenaerts, 2005). It is characterized by the predominance of cultivated plants around the houses, a small number of highly valued panaceas known with their Spanish (or Quechuas) or Brazilian names (e.g., ajo sacha: Mansoa alliacea (Lam.) A. H. Gentry, Bignoniaceae), and a high use of these “Pan-Amazonian” plants found in every herbal market (e.g., sucuuba, Himatanthus sucuuba (Spruce) Woodson and other spp., Apocynaceae, or copaiba, Copaifera reticulata Ducke L. and other spp., Fabaceae).

Some Important Medicinal Plants from the Amazonian Markets

Among those plants whose knowledge is widely shared throughout Amazonia, there are a handful of important ones, either for their historical, medicinal, or economical points of view, and they can still be observed in the markets. All are known since pre-Columbian times by Amazonian peoples, even if their uses have probably changed since those times. Some of them have been subject to exportation since the seventeenth century.

Andiroba (Carapa guianensis Aubl., Meliaceae)

Andiroba’s oil is extracted mechanically from the seeds of Carapa guianensis, a tall tree from the Meliaceae family, and is sold in the main markets of eastern Amazonia. This fatty oil is principally used as a repellent against insect and tick bites and is the adjuvant of the anato red body dye (Bixa orellana L.) largely used by Amazonian Indians to paint their bodies. Andiroba oil is also claimed to be anti-inflammatory and contains molecules of the class of the limonoids (Silva, Oliveira & Figueiredo, 2009). It is used both on a small scale and industrially to produce soap.

Copaiba (Copaifera reticulata Ducke and Related Spp., Fabaceae)

Copaiba oil (or copahu), despite its name, is not a fatty oil but a sesquiterpene- and diterpene-rich oleoresin (Langenheim, 2003). It is extracted from several Copaifera species, trees from the Fabaceae family (Caesalpinioideae), after tapping (scarifying or piercing) the trunks. The most useful species seems to be C. paupera (Herzog) Dwyer, C. multijuga Hayne, or C. officinalis L. (Fabaceae) (Duke & Vasquez, 1994; Schultes & Raffauf, 1990). The composition and aspects of the oils vary depending on the species, but all are used as strong antiseptics, anti-inflammatories, and for wound healing (Veiga, Rosas, Carvalho, Henriques, & Pinto, 2007). Their commercial exploitation is very important in Brazil, and they have been exported to Europe and United states where they are still present in official pharmacopoeias.

Ipeca (Carapichea ipecacuanha (Brot.) L. Andersson, Rubiaceae)

Ipeca (or ipecac, ipecacuanha) is a small shrub not restricted to Amazonia, as it can be found in the humid forests of Central and South America. As many plants from the Rubiaceae family, it is rich in alkaloids, such as emetin. Its roots were used as an amoebicide but it is now better known as an emetic for people who ingested poisons. Ipeca roots syrup has been widely present in European, US and Canadian pharmacopoeias (Ferreira et al. 2012).

Ojé (Ficus insipida Willd.; Ficus anthelmintica Mart.; Moraceae)

El ojé (or lombriguera in Brazil) is one of the most valued anthelmintic [used to destroy parasitic worms] latexes of the Amazon, although it is more used in the western than in the eastern part (De Amorin, Borba, Carauta, Lopes & Kaplan, 1999; Hansson et al., 1986). It comes from tall trees from the Moraceae family. This latex, although controversial because of its high toxicity (Hansson, Zelada & Noriega, 2005), is still widely used by the native population. The latex is drunk pure or diluted with fruit juice or alcohol to get rid of intestinal worms. The properties are due to an enzyme of the protease class called ficin. The use of ojé is often associated with food and salt prohibition (Duke & Vasquez, 1994).

Sangre de Grado (Croton lechleri Müll. Arg. and Related Spp., Euphorbiaceae)

The dragon’s blood (sangre de grado) is a bright red latex (Fig. 1) extracted from several species of the Croton genus, medium-sized trees belonging to the Euphorbiaceae Family. The other numerous drugs with the same appellation, extracted from Daemonorops spp. (Arecaceae) or Dracaena spp. (Asparagaceae), are not American. The main species used is Croton lechleri Müll. Arg., but others, like C. draconoides Müll. Arg., C. urucurana Baill, or C. palanostigma Klotzsch, are also used the same way (Gupta, Bleakley & Gupta, 2008). The latex is used externally as a cicatrisant [to close a wound by scar formation] (Duke & Vasquez, 1994; Odonne et al., 2013), due to an alkaloid called taspine (Vaisberg et al., 2007).
Fig. 1

Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri Müll. Arg.)

Sucuúba (Himatanthus sucuuba (Spruce) Woodson and Related Spp., Apocynaceae)

Sucuúba (in Brazil), or bellaco caspi in the Spanish-speaking parts of Amazonia, is a small tree belonging to the Apocynaceae, exudating a white and abundant latex. Its external use against leishmaniasis or wounds seems to be widespread (Odonne et al., 2013; Schultes & Raffauf, 1990; Villegas et al., 1997) but it is sometimes sold on Brazilian markets against ulcers or digestive conditions (van den Berg, 1984). Its main compounds are iridoids and triterpenoids (De Miranda et al., 2000; de Silva, Amaral, da Silveira, Rezende & Pinto, 2007).


Amazonian ethnobotany is a multifaceted subject. Traditional uses of plants by the native inhabitants have changed a lot since the colonization of Amazonia by the Europeans. The place of the spiritual traditional healer, using few but powerful plants causing altered states of minds, is still paralleled by a general phytotherapy, individualized by each culture. Nowadays, it is also evident that a general Pan-Amazonian phytotherapy is emerging along the main routes of the Amazon, and it has not been established yet whether it is to the detriment of culture or not. Industrial plants also played a great part in the Amazonia’s exploration and history. If rubber and barbasco are no longer of importance, the emergence of açaï berry-derived products exemplifies the high dependence on foreign fashions.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNRSCayenneFrance