“How Traditional Knowledge Opens Nature’s Medicine Cabinet”
by Jane Palmer
Sapiens, March 2019
Can anthropology help revive medicine’s ancients arts?
We talked at the pitch fest of the Association of Health Care Journalism conference about a medical anthropology story I have been investigating based in northern Peru. I’ve done quite a bit of research on this project already and I feel it is ready to pitch. I’ll be traveling out to Peru on June 29 and, during my second week there I will be meeting with a team of anthropologists conducting research on locals’ attitudes to curanderos and the integration of medicinal plants into the healthcare system.
Reviving Medicine’s Ancient Arts
Peru faces challenges folding centuries-old practices into its healthcare system. Can anthropologists help?
For the last five hundred years, if a resident on the north coast of Peru was sick, they could seek out a curandero, one of the region’s shamanistic healers. Their treatment would consist of a nightlong diagnosis whereby the troubled individual, the curandero and perhaps some family members would gather around a symbolic alter known as a mesa. Here, strategically placed power objects such as bottled herbs, sacred images, or magnetic stones would represent the opposing forces of good and evil, and the center point between the two. The Andean healers’ mission was, and still is, to restore a patient to balance so that he can allow and accept the natural flow of extremes without being swayed in one direction or another.
The night’s ceremony would include ritual chants, whistling and rhythmic rattle shaking and the curandero might employ small doses of the hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro to put those present at ease. After the spraying of perfumes and the lighting of incense, the curandero would question the patient, and diagnose or divine their ailment. After a final cleansing ritual, which involves showering everyone assembled with a mixture of white corn meal, clear-colored perfumes and ivory flowers, the curandero would then prescribe treatment for the weeks or months to come: typically a mixture of precisely prepared medicinal plants and lifestyle changes.
This healing tradition, and the ceremonies that accompany it, are still common in northern Peru today, says anthropologist Douglas Sharon who has studied the curanderos practices for nearly fifty years and witnessed many such rituals. Since the turn of a century, however, inhabitants in certain locales of Peru have a new option: They can simply visit a physician at their local health clinic and be prescribed one of a selection medicinal plants now available through one of the Peruvian public health system’s natural pharmacies.
In the late 1990s, Peru, a major innovator in third-world public health, organized a National Program of Complementary Medicine and opened three complimentary medical centers in the country’s major urban centers of Lima, Arequipa and Trujillo. Now 18 such centers exist, offering a range of alternative treatments including the medicinal therapy historically prescribed by curanderos.
This brave move, designed to take advantage of Peru’s diverse pharmacopeia and centuries-old knowledge base, has faced challenges. A much narrower selection of plants are available through the clinics and the local communities still hold biases that some illnesses can only be treated successfully by curanderos. “It is a step towards the integration of traditional medicine into the public health system but it doesn’t address the cultural context of medicinal plant use,” Sharon says.
Moreover, the current system could face a supply chain problem: Peasant herbalists are not being adequately paid for growing and collecting the plants and overharvesting, deforestation and climate change all pose a threat for future use by both curanderos and the public health system. “There’s a danger, and that danger is already manifesting, because of the increased interest,” Sharon says. “There’s no training, there’s no effort at conservation, and before you know it, as we’re seeing elsewhere in the world, there’s not going to be anything left.”
To ease the transition and address some of these challenges, researchers in the U.S. and Peru have joined forces to understand the ethnobotany and medical anthropology of medicinal plant use in the region around Trujillo, Peru. As the director of a project synthesizing this multi-disciplinary approach for 16 years, Sharon and his students have also conducted several medical anthropology studies assessing the use, knowledge and perspectives of local communities on medicinal plants administered via curanderos and public health physicians. In addition, scientists are attempting to establish native plant gardens including one developed by Peruvian researchers at the at the archaeological site museum of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian urban center in the Americas.
I’m proposing a story about the challenges faced by the Peruvian public health system in trying to incorporate a centuries old healing art and the attempts to address those challenges via scientific research and medical anthropology. The story will analyze whether the public health system can navigate such challenges, attain some of the successes previously achieved by shamans and whether the local communities will develop a similar faith in allopathic medicine.
Ultimately, I believe this story raises questions about the nature of healing and whether successful treatment of diseases and disorders has to take into account the cultural beliefs and expectations of the society in question. Douglas Sharon is a key character in this story. He dropped out of high school in Canada in the 1960s and then spent ten years on archaeological digs in northern Peru. During this time he met up with curandero Eduardo Calderón Palomino, who was also in charge of artistic reconstruction at the archaeological site of Chan Chan. Sharon became interested in the northern curanderos and eventually obtained a PhD in anthropology and went on to study the curanderos for the next forty years. In the early 1970s he served as Calderón Palomino’s apprentice but since then has closely studied the practices of 14 curanderos and collaborates with Calderón Palomino’s daughter and successor, Julia.
Sharon has directed a National Institutes of Health project since 2002, which studies the use of medicinal plants from a variety of perspectives. He will be conducting the latest in a series of medical anthropology studies in Trujillo this summer with Spanish-speaking minority students from the U.S. I will be meeting with Sharon and his students in the data analysis phase of his project and he plans to introduce me to some of the Peruvian scientists working on the project and also several archaeologists who are also involved in similar research.
I think Sharon’s personal story would be a good way to craft the narrative. His early apprenticeship with Calderón Palomino and his studies of the curanderos gave him an appreciation of the skills of the traditional healers, their immense knowledge of medicinal plants and their readiness to embrace western medicine. The NIH invited Sharon to do research on the use of medicinal plants in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s and then Sharon shifted the focus of his research back to Peru. He teamed up with U.S. and Peruvian scientists and his current project aims to bring “valuable information to the table” that will help ease the integration process. That being said, Sharon questions the current integration model and has other suggestions – I think this could lead to a nice ending for the story.
I am a science journalist who has written for a variety of outlets including Nature, Science, Mosaic Science and BBC Earth. Previous examples of my features can be found on my website: http://www.tjanepalmer.com/category/features/
Two examples of longform features that I have written are the following:
I am available to answer questions or provide more information about this pitch via email or on the phone before I leave for Peru on Friday June 29.
Thank you for your consideration,