Origins of Ethnopharmacology

Plant Medicine has been present in several cultures worldwide, from the use of Ayahuasca in Indigenous tribes from the Amazon Rainforest, Iboga in Gabon, Kratom in Thailand, Peyote in Native America, and ma huang in Asia. Several of these practices have been passed from generation to generation until today, alongside various ritualistic consumption, folklore, and historical values.

As a prefix of the word pharmacology, it’s only defined that Plant Medicine branched out of Pharmacology, thus, ethnopharmacology wouldn’t be existent if it weren’t for the discovery of Pharmacology. Despite the term Plant Medicine still being used in general media, the correct scientific term would be ethnopharmacology, the word derives from the word Ethno (a word with Greek roots meaning people, nation, and race) + Pharmacology (also derived from Greek, Pharmakon- poison/drugs+ Logy meaning the study of).

Therefore it is only safe to say that there is no way to cover the origin of ethnopharmacology without going through the history of pharmacology first. It’s said that pharmacology first started in the 19th century in three independent sites:

Paris, France- Where Magendie and his successors paved the way.

Edinburgh, Scotland- Sir Robert Christison and others discovered the ordeal poisonings of the Coca plant and advocated against the rapid withdrawal of Opium in addicts.

Dorpat, Estonia- Where pharmacology started as an academic science in the middle of the 19th century.

These studies were complemented by the work of Carl Linnaeus, who was researching several other plants included in his 1753 book Species Plantarum which contained over 7,300 species. Linnaeus’s intentions are often considered to be part of the first steps of Ethnobotany. 

“Man, ever desirous of knowledge, has already explored many things; but more and greater still remain concealed; perhaps reserved for distant generations, who shall … make many discoveries for the pleasure and convenience of life. Prosperity shall see its increasing Musuems, and the knowledge of the Divine Wisdom, flourish together; and at the same time all the practical sciences… shall be enriched; for we cannot avoid thinking, that what we know of the Divine works are much fewer than those of which we are ignorant.”


Alongside Linnaeus’s work, the chemist and pharmacologist Arthur Heffter was also interested in Ethnobotany, more specifically the Peyote cactus. Heffter worked with Peyote for some time and became the first person to identify and extract “Mezcalin” now named Mescaline from the species after the compound, years later this compound was synthesized by Erns Späth.

These were the first known steps towards what we now call Ethnopharmacology.

Such steps brought to life various modern-day pharmaceutical products including Aspirin (from willow tree bark), Digoxin (from Digitalis lanata), and morphine from opium, hence it’s safe to confirm Juerg Gertsch quote:

“Ethnopharmacology tries to understand the pharmacological basis of culturally important plants.”

In the current day, Ethnopharmacology and Indigenous communities have an essential role by providing us with ancient knowledge of plants that have been used for centuries, plants such as Peyote, Ayahuasca, Iboga, Kava Kava, and Psilocybe which have shown positive results in mental illnesses such as anxiety, resistant depression, and PTSD, forming an alliance between modern psychology and ancient knowledge.

For this reason, it would only be unfair not to integrate indigenous members in Psychedelic conferences, and ethnobotanical conferences. 

As part of this integration, various associations, organizations, and churches such as: 

    • NAC (Native American Church)

    • IPCI (Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative) 

    • NARF (Native American Rights Fund)

    • NAHA (Native american Heritage Association)

    • Benefit Honoring

In between many others in the United States


    • COIAB (Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia)
    • APIWA (Associação dos Povos Indígenas Wayana e Aparay)
    • Apitikatxi (Associação dos Povos Indígenas Tiriyó Kaxuyana e Txikitityana)
    • Associação Indígena Ulupuwene (alto Xingu)
    • Associação do Povo Ãwa (Apawa) do Tocantins
    • Associação Indígena Moygu Ikpeng
    • The Amazon Conservation Team
    • Amazon Watch
    • OPAN (Operação Amazónia Nativa)  

In between many others in Brazil.


Were created to protect and restrain exploitation, and discrimination, and preserve as well as credit indigenous knowledge of herbal medicine, churches, organizations, and associations to protect indigenous rights were implemented, giving rights over their land (including native title), language, religion, and other elements of cultural heritage as well as basic human rights.


Factually, there are still several tribes that still haven’t made any contact with western civilizations. Amongst them are the isolated tribe, who are known to live in the river Envira, some tribe members were first observed by the Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio) on July 17, 2014, while making an exchange for food with another tribe. The members spoke in a dialect unknown to the white folk and used mainly body language. When entering into contact with an isolated tribe, there are certain concerns, issues such as miscommunication resulting in violence, and the spread of diseases, viruses, and bacteria that can be fatal and eradicate a tribe.


In the video, we can observe that one of the tribesmen was trying to take some sort of cloth, probably a shirt, and the cameraman instantly gets worried that the shirt might contain bacteria or viruses that can be propagated to the tribe.



                FUNAI members engage with an isolated tribe for the first time. July 17, 2014. 

The new dialect and communication are only a droplet into the ocean of untold history, filled with various customs, beliefs, and several new medicines that can be tools for various diseases, marking once again the importance of knowledge brought to us by ancient knowledge.


Various tribes are yet to be unfolded, and so is yet our knowledge of various plants native to several regions, could Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, Iboga, and Peyote just be a sample of what indigenous intelligence has to offer us?


Most certainly.








B. Holmstedt, Historical perspective and future of ethnopharmacology, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 32, Issues 1–3, 1991, Pages 7-24,ISSN 0378-8741.


Heinrich, Michael; Jäger, Anna K. (2015). Ethnopharmacology (Heinrich/Ethnopharmacology) || Ethnopharmacology: A Short History of a Multidisciplinary Field of Research. , 10.1002/9781118930717(), 1–10. doi:10.1002/9781118930717.ch1


Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs
McKenna, Dennis (EDT); Prance, Ghillean, Sir (CON); De Loenen, Benjamin (CON); Davis, Wade (CON)
Published by Synergetic Press, 2018
ISBN 10: 0907791689ISBN 13: 9780907791683


Sunil Mathur Clare Hoskins. Drug development: Lessons from nature. May 9, 2017


Portal Amazônia- July 2014-


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