Ethnobotany and Cancer Plants

by Ingrid Naiman

Though plants have been the primary source of nutrition and medicine since life on Earth began, the term "ethnobotany" was only coined in 1895. Today, it tends to refer to plant uses by traditional societies, often those without written histories of plant uses. In actuality, ethnobotany is rapidly becoming the primary discipline to provide reasons for preserving rain forests, endangered species plants, and indigenous knowledge of the medicinal value of the plants.

For me personally, the boundaries between medical anthropology and ethnobotany and medical history are sometimes not distinct. A good example of how modern science and tribal culture come face-to-face is in the efforts of cancer researchers to determine how Amazonians shrink heads—because if we knew what substances they use to promote this shrinkage, we might discover herbal agents that can be used to shrink tumors.

Another example of cross-disciplinary interests is in the burgeoning field of zoopharmacognosy, the study of how animals medicate themselves. À propos my own work, one of the most promising and controversial cancer treatments, that of the Hoxsey family, was attributed to a horse who was set free to graze when it was discovered that the horse had cancer. When it was observed that the horse healed, the great-grandfather of the controversial 20th century figure developed an internal herbal tonic from the herbs growing in the meadows where the horse had found the cure for cancer.

Scientists who spend years acquiring the educations necessary to perform sophisticated work in the laboratory scoff at the notion that an illiterate individual much less an animal could have a cure for cancer. This attitude is best summed up in a statement by William Grigg, Public Information Officer of the FDA:

The idea that the American Indians, or this person or that person . . . would accidentally stumble upon some herb that would cure (cancer) is rather farfetched. It's like the idea that if you put three billion monkeys in room, one of them might write a Shakespearean sonnet.

Despite his evident wounded pride, it is apparent to all who have devoted the necessary time to these investigations that traditional societies—and animals—have, in fact, been successfully curing cancer. In an almost routine survey of the literature on Podophyllum peltatum, Jonathan L. Hartwell discovered that twenty years before he had identified the chemical agents in podophyllin responsible for the anticancer activity of the resin obtained from the rhizome of the mayapple, it had been reported that the Penobscots of Maine had used this plant to treat cancer. Then, he found that a hundred years earlier, the resin had been recommended as a cancer treatment in the early American materia medica and that it was used by physicians in Mississippi in 1897.

Harvard educated Hartwell was hooked. He poured over 5000 years of published literature, starting with the Shen-Nung, 2828-2698 B.C., the Ebers Papyrii ca. 1550 BC, and so on through modern times. In all, he catalogued at least 3000 references to plants used in the treatment of cancer. These he published in eleven volumes of Lloydia between 1967 and 1971. He retired in 1975, but James Duke picked up more or less where Hartwell left off. He screened 35,000 plants for anticancer activity and found 3000 plants possessing some power to inhibit cancer.

While these findings are not astonishing to botanists, herbalists, or medical anthropologists, many scientists have been slow to accept the idea that a cure might be found outside the laboratory. In any event, the relatively new discipline of ethnobotany finally has a proper seat in the halls of academia.

The fact is that none of us would be alive today if the ways of our ancestors had not sufficed to sustain life and viability against a host of threats to survival. Thus, it is somewhat incredulous when we think that the fervor of modern science has been so bold—arrogant—that it almost eradicated knowledge of the ways that had served humanity for countless eons before the advent of the modern era.

This said, it is not difficult to see how those who take a certain comfort in believing that smallpox was eradicated in less than a century following acceptance of the germ theory of disease would see a line between historic and modern, especially if they really believe that prior to Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865), no one really understood the need for hygiene and aseptic procedures. Speaking for myself, I certainly grew up believing we only understood the need for washing our hands when, in the face of enormous opposition and ridicule from erudite doctors, Lister proved Semmelweiss correct. What perhaps neither knew is that Iroquois medicine men already knew what science needed to prove to its satisfaction before it could make believers of skeptics.

Many traditional methods survive because they work. Moreover, the knowledge now sought by those pouring through the rain forests in search of cures for what ail mankind is a very specific kind of understanding, one based on intimate observation of Nature and long oral traditions passed along through apprenticeships that school people in such a way as to preserve both knowledge but also supply of the plants needed to make medicine.

In short, it is very different to assume trusteeship for a plot of land in a forest and to observe the growth cycles and life of the plants than to collect specimen, press them between boards, and send them to a modern laboratory for chemical analysis. Ethnobotanists have contributed greatly to our appreciation for our natural medicine chest as well as the individuals who have kept alive the diverse traditions of our Planet, for the shamans, curanderas and curanderos, medicine men and women, witchdoctors, alchemists and herbalists. Thanks to their dedication to their tasks, we have found reasons to preserve what seemed to facing destruction, reasons to cherish our lands and its peoples, and reasons to turn to Nature for relief.

Cancer Salves:
A Botanical Approach to Treatment




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Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2003, 2006, 2014