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The Life & Legacy of Richard Evans Schultes

The Life & Legacy of Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes; The Father of Contemporary Ethnobotany

Richard Evans Schultes is one of the most important plant explorers known to the 20th century. Initially a medical student at Harvard, he later went on to do a course in economic botany, finding himself completely enthralled by the subject, and changing his degree entirely.

In December 1941, Schultes embarked upon a quest in the Amazon rainforest to study how indigenous peoples utilized plants in medicinal, ritual and everyday contexts. He is often referred to as the ‘father of contemporary ethnobotany’ because of the well-known extensive field studies that he carried out in South America, particularly in the northwest Amazon. Schultes spent over a decade engaged in continual fieldwork, collecting over 24,000 species of plants, 300 of which were previously unknown to science.

Schultes was one of the first Westerners who lived amongst the isolated tribes of the northwest Amazon, and the first scientist to explore certain areas in that region which have not been researched since. The notes and photographs that he took during his research remain some of the only existing documentation on indigenous cultures in regions of the Amazon which are currently facing external threats to their existence.

Our Rainforests Under Threat

Richard Evan Schultes in the Amazon (1940) (via Harvard University Herbaria & Libraries/Wikimedia)

According to the World Wildlife Fund, in the Amazon “around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.” Rainforests cover less than 3% of the Earth’s surface, with the Amazon rainforest being the world’s largest. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ because it is thought that more than 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced there. Further, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, and estimated to be home of 390 billion trees, among them 16,000 different species, and is the tribal home of 1 million indigenous people.

With the days of the rubber boom long gone, new trajectories of economic exploit now threaten the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s president, the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to develop Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, aiming to open up and allocate more rainforest to the production of beef and soya in order to meet sustained international demands. Further, Bolsonaro stated that he wanted to dissolve the Environmental Ministry, planning to merge it with the Agriculture industry, favoring the interests of those who have stakes in converting forest into farmland. During last year’s election campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to end demarcation of new indigenous lands in order to free up mining and commercial farming on indigenous reserves.

Recently, Bolsonaro made a tweet stating:

“More than 15% of the national territory is demarcated as indigenous land and Quilombolas. Fewer than 1 million people live in these isolated places of real Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. We will together integrate these citizens and value all Brazilians.”

The Preservation of Knowledge

Due to economic exploit, the ways of life of indigenous groups are on the verge of being lost, alongside many species, plants, and trees, having tragic implications for our planet as a whole. Thus, it is important in today’s quickly changing world to make efforts to preserve and deepen our knowledge about such biologically and culturally rich areas of our planet. More than preserving knowledge, we need to make collective efforts to protect the peoples that steward it.

In line with this goal, the non-profit Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) who are committed to working alongside indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin in order to help them protect their bio-cultural heritage launched an interactive educational map, the Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. This fully interactive map enables you to dig deeper and retrace Schultes’ illuminating adventures into ritual, medicinal plants, and indigenous cultures.

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes

Former student of Schultes’ and founder and President of ACT, Mark Plotkin, and cartographer Brian Hettler gave a talk at the Harvard Museum of Natural History about their newly developed interactive map Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. Through this fully immersive map journal, you can navigate Schultes’ extraordinary adventures, retracing the landscapes and cultures that Schultes explored in his first 14 years of research (1939-1953).

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes (screenshot by the author for Synergetic Press)

The launch of the map serves as a tribute to the life and work of Schultes, charting the magical history, cultures, and biodiversity that he uncovered on his travels in Latin America through the lens of his field notes, ethnobotanical research, and beautiful photography.

“In an era of climate change and rapid acculturation, it is urgently important that we improve how we communicate science and research, in order to engage new audiences and inspire people to pursue careers in these fields.” ㄧBrian Hettler, Senior Manager of ACT

Explore the travels of Schultes


Amazon Conservation Team

Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is a non-profit founded by Dr. Mark J. Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal in the mid-1990s. From its beginning, ACT veered from the well-worn paths of the conservation community, enlisting the support of indigenous communities that live in the forests in order to achieve conservation results that were as impressive as they were sustainable. Today ACT partners with 55 indigenous tribes and other local communities to map-manage, protect, and bio-culturally conserve of 80 million acres of ancestral land.

 

Keep up to date with the ACT’s latest developments in conservation @AmazonTeamOrg and find out how you can help support their efforts through amazonteam.org


Books by Richard Evans Schultes 

Vine of The Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants, and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia

Vine of the Soul is an exceptional photographic essay accompanied by detailed descriptions of the Amazon Indians’ use of medicinal and other sacred plant substances. Over 160 documentary photos, some of the most significant ever taken on the subject, bring the reader along a journey in which healing with plants is the norm, and ritual and magic play an essential role in everyday life. Richard Evans Schultes, former Director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, led an extraordinary life that bridged the worlds of academia and tribal cultures.

 

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research (1967-2017)

A defining scholarly publication on the past and current state of research with psychotropic plant substances for medicinal, therapeutic, and spiritual uses. 

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs features a prominent essay by Mark Plotkin, Brian Hettler & Wade Davis named, “Viva Schultes – A Retrospective”, highlighting the important work that Schultes’ pursued throughout his life and illuminating the legacy he left behind.

 

Tracing the Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes

Tracing the Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes

This article is reposted with permission from the American Botanical Council. You can see the original post here.

By Mark Plotkin, PhD

Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes, PhD, was the greatest Amazonian explorer of the 20th century. Boston-born and Harvard-educated, he set off for the Amazon in 1941 for a six-month expedition. He was so entranced by the plants and the peoples of this great rainforest that he essentially extended this expedition for more than a decade. Now, interested readers can follow his journeys in an interactive, informational story map.

Schultes (1915-2001) first learned of the concept of “ethnobotany” in an undergraduate course at Harvard University taught by the prominent orchidologist Oakes Ames. After Schultes wrote his term paper on the traditionally revered peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii, Cactaceae), Ames sent Schultes to Oklahoma to experience the sacred cactus firsthand in a traditional Kiowa tribal ceremony. Later, Schultes returned to Harvard, and decided to pursue a PhD under Ames, focusing on the “magic mushrooms” of Oaxaca, Mexico. As a newly-minted PhD, he headed south to the northwest Amazon to study arrow poisons from the curare vines (e.g., Chondrodendron tomentosum, Menispermaceae), which, at the time, were being used as pre-surgical muscle relaxants in abdominal surgeries.

Richard Evans Schultes

Young Richard Schultes taking tobacco snuff, May 1952 (photo: R.E. Schultes) via Harvard Square Library

Cartographer Brian Hettler of the Amazon Conservation Team decided to recount Schultes’s travels and research in a compelling new story map.1 With commentary and explanations supplied by this author, Hettler traces Schultes’s phenomenal journeys through the rainforest in search of healing plants. Using the capabilities of the story map format, Hettler has organized this information in a way that allows readers to click on a location and see photos of the location and/or the people that lived there. Perhaps even more impressive, readers can click on a list of plants collected by Schultes and see the actual herbarium specimen he collected in high resolution.

Hettler’s story map allows readers to follow the late ethnobotanist into some of the world’s most remote locales in search of exceedingly rare plants. It is hoped that this intriguing initiative will not only teach about the history and importance of the science of ethnobotany, but also will inspire others to use the story-map format to teach about botany in general, and medicinal herbs in particular, in new and compelling ways.

Mark J. Plotkin, PhD, is an ethnobotanist whose field research focuses on the plants and peoples of northern Amazonia. He currently serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, a nonprofit organization that conducts environmental and cultural sustainability activities in the Amazon basin (www.amazonteam.org). He is the author of several books and is a member of the American Botanical Council Advisory Board.

References

  1. Amazon Conservation Team. The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. Amazon Conservation Team website. Available at: http://amazonteam.org/maps/schultes/. Accessed May 4, 2016.
  2. Cox PA. Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes. HerbalGram. 2013;98:73-75. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue98/hg98bkrvw-schultes.html. Accessed May 4, 2016.
  3. Davis W. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. HerbalGram. 2005;66:50-59. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue66/article2831.html. Accessed May 4, 2016.
  4. Blumenthal M. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. HerbalGram. 2005;65:73-74. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue65/article2788.html. Accessed May 4, 2016.
  5. Davis W. One River: Excerpts from the new book about the life of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. HerbalGram. 1996;38:32. Available at:http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue38/article1219.html. Accessed May 4, 2016.

To travel further into the explorations of Amazonian peoples and sacred plant medicines with Richard Evans Schultes, explore Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia and Where the Gods Reign: Plants and Peoples of the Colombian Amazon written by Richard Evans Schultes himself.

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Embrace of the Serpent at the CCA in Santa Fe

Embrace of the Serpent at the CCA in Santa Fe

Life of legendary ethnobotanist and Synergetic Press author, Richard Evans Schultes, portrayed in Academy Award nominated film, Embrace of the Serpent, starting March 25 in Santa Fe at the CCA.

An image from Embrace of the Serpent with Schultes in the background

An image from Embrace of the Serpent with Schultes’ character in the background

Embrace of the Serpent was Academy Award Nominated for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers: Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and difficult-to-find psychedelic Yakruna plant.

Filmed in stunning black-and-white, SERPENT centers on Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who, over the course of 40 years, build a friendship with him.

Embrace of the Serpent will be playing at The Center for Contemporary Arts , Santa Fe

Starting March 25

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vineofthesoulcoverRichard Evans Schultes classic book, Vine of the Soul, is published by Santa Fe based Synergetic Press.

VINE OF THE SOUL: MEDICINE MEN, THEIR PLANTS AND RITUALS IN THE COLOMBIAN AMAZONIA By Richard Evans Schultes & Robert F. Raffauf Preface by Wade Davis

Read more about the connections between Vine of the Soul and Embrace of the Serpent.

About the Book

This book is the story of a time that was—a time when the Amazon Indian was free to roam the forest and rivers, happy with their social institutions, unencumbered by acculturation or the cultural destruction of their ancient societies and virgin forests. The story is told through over 160 black & white photographs taken by renown Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes during the ‘40s and ‘50s when he spent fourteen uninterrupted years living with the Indian tribes of the Amazon. Combining his scientific eye for documentation with a photographers eye for lighting, composition and character, he created an extraordinary record of the medicinal plants and flora of the Colombian Amazon.

Co‐authored by Robert F. Raffauf, an outstanding plant chemist, VINE OF THE SOUL contains some of the most significant photographs on this subject ever taken accompanied by detailed descriptions of the Amazon Indians use of medicinal and other sacred plant substances, with information on the bioactive chemistry and medicinal properties of the plants.

VINE OF THE SOUL (or ayahuasca) is a sacred drink used for millennia by shamans throughout the Amazon basin. This book is not just for readers interested in ayahuasca, and other psychoactive drugs; it is a remarkable record of a rich heritage that is in danger of disappearing altogether and should be examined by anyone interested in preserving the Amazon rainforest and the cultural heritage of its people. Thanks to attention drawn to the Amazon Indians by Schultes and others, the former President of Colombia, Virgilio Barco, in 1988 returned over six million hectares of land to the Indians for their exclusive use. The Colombian government further created a number of biological reserves, bringing the total area under protection to more than 20,000,000 hectares.

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes in Vine of the Soul

The second edition contains a Preface by Wade Davis, Explorer‐in‐Residence for the National Geographic Society; a Foreword by Sir Ghillean Prance, Former Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England (Emeritus); and Epilogue by Michael Balick, Director of Institute of Economic Botany, NY Botanical Gardens.

Recipient of numerous national and international awards including the annual World Wildlife Fund Gold Medal, Schultes was awarded in 1983 the Cross of Boyaća, the highest honor offered by the Republic of Colombia. In 1992, Dr. Schultes was awarded the Linnean Gold Medal, the highest award a botanist can receive. Possibly more famous on the streets of Bogotá, Schultes was nevertheless the quintessential Harvard man, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Bostonian, a gentleman and a scholar.

Co‐authors Drs. Schultes and Raffauf passed away in recent years. This reissue is in commemoration of the authors life’s work. Remarkable plants; remarkable people; remarkable men.

“The medicine men of the Kamsa and Inga tribes of the valley of Sibundoy have an unusually extensive knowledge of medicinal and toxic plants. One of the most renowned is Salvador Chindoy, who insists that his knowledge of the medicinal plants has been taught to him by the plants themselves through the hallucinations he has experienced in his long lifetime as a medicine man. It is such knowledge, fast disappearing, that we must salvage for the potential benefit of all mankind.”

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