Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America (#469)

Dr. Mark Plotkin with a Waura shaman, Xingu, Brazil
Photo credit: Amazon Conservation Team

“Hallucinogens are vegetal scalpels, and scalpels can heal you and scalpels can hurt you. They are the vegetal or fungal two-edged swords.”

— Dr. Mark Plotkin

Dr. Mark Plotkin (@DocMarkPlotkin) is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with 55 tribes to map and improve management and protection of 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests. Educated at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts, Plotkin has since spent much of the past four decades studying the shamans and healing plants of tropical America from Mexico to Argentina, although much of his work focuses on the rainforests of the northeast Amazon. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books about the rainforest. His new book from Oxford Press is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know.

His upcoming podcast series is titled Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens: Culture, Conservation, History and Healing, and it will be coming out in late October. More information will be available on Mark’s website.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#469: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America
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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

Want to hear another episode with someone seeking to understand humanity’s relationship with the natural world’s unknown variables? Listen to my conversation with Paul Stamets, an intellectual and industry leader in the habitat, medicinal use, and production of fungi.

#340: Paul Stamets — How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World
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SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE

  • Connect with Dr. Mark Plotkin:

Website | Amazon Conservation Team | Twitter | Facebook

SHOW NOTES

  • Who is Richard Evans Schultes, how does his story cross paths with Mark’s, and what is ethnobotany? [06:12]
  • When and how did Mark’s interest in ethnobotany begin? When was the moment he knew he was hooked? [10:37]
  • What was the next step for Mark in making a career out of this interest? [12:22]
  • In what way was Schultes a “trickster” in the shamanic tradition, and was he the template for Indiana Jones? [13:30]
  • There are between three- to five-hundred indigenous cultures in the Amazon, with an equally diverse array of healing traditions. Here’s how a shaman in the northeastern part of the Amazon cured Mark’s foot pain instantly when no one else could. [15:19]
  • What does Mark see as the “holes” in Western medicine’s understanding? [18:32]
  • On electric eels, pink dolphins, fires in the Amazon, and an urgency to protect the unknown before we destroy it forever — whether or not it has practical applications. [20:27]
  • Ayahuasca may get all the hype, but it’s only used by a small percentage of shamans in the Amazon. Mark talks about hallucinogenic frogs used for hunting magic and a psychedelic snuff called yopo. [23:30]
  • Mark considers yopo his favorite Amazonian hallucinogen, but how does it compare to ayahuasca? [29:24]
  • To Mark, what qualifies someone as a “shaman?” [31:47]
  • What has compelled Mark’s 87 experiences with ayahuasca? What’s to be learned beyond the first few times of trying it? [34:32]
  • What are the risks of doing ayahuasca and other Amazon-derived hallucinogens? Aren’t they all-natural and harmless? [37:26]
  • That time Mark got bitten by a vampire bat and bled like a stuck pig thanks to an anticoagulant in its saliva called — no kidding — draculin. [41:16]
  • How the Amazon Conservation Team’s Shaman’s Apprentice clinics aim to preserve knowledge of obscure compounds (and their sources) when traditions are eclipsed by the temptations of the outside world for younger people among indigenous populations. [43:02]
  • How Mark and his team have used technology to help the indigenous people of the Amazon protect their land, resources, health, and culture rather than entice them away from them. [47:05]
  • What Mark did to illustrate for the chief of a tribe the importance of keeping a written record of their collective knowledge for future generations, and why he insists on leaving it untranslated from their native language. [50:24]
  • When Western expertise insisted that there was no such thing as a male aphrodisiac, but shamans in the Amazon knew otherwise. [53:39]
  • Do indigenous tribes ever profit from introducing their knowledge of preciously guarded compounds to the outside world? [57:43]
  • Mark details two common failures in sustainable development, and one success story. [59:57]
  • Is there anything in Mark’s experience in the Amazon that might help prevent future pandemics? What do the people who live there and in other remote areas know that we in the West haven’t seemed to wrap our heads around? [1:02:28]
  • What official policies would Mark like to see put in place to protect the world’s remaining wildlife, natural resources, and indigenous people? [1:05:28]
  • Does Mark see the Amazon rainforest as a glass that’s half-empty, or half-full? [1:08:27]
  • As a boundary walker who’s been good at finding common ground between disparate causes, what does Mark see as the way toward bipartisan support for the Amazon Conservation Team’s mission? [1:09:50]
  • How common are matriarchal societies and female shaman among the Amazon’s indigenous people? [1:13:46]
  • Among tribes with which Mark has spent time, how often are hallucinogens used specifically for hunting and/or warfare? [1:16:06]
  • How can those of us in the West who benefit from compounds derived from the Amazon ensure they’re sourced responsibly and not being outright stolen from the people who live there without any type of reciprocation? How can we help people who don’t necessarily benefit from just having a bunch of money thrown at their problems? [1:18:04]
  • Mark shares the story of how a shaman healed one of his old wounds 13 years ago with no recurrence — where Western physicians had only failed before. [1:24:26]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:26:44]

PEOPLE MENTIONED

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8 Replies to “Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America (#469)”

  1. First, I super appreciated you getting someone on the podcast representing a more traditional viewpoint regarding these indigenous medicines; as contrasted with the western medical view that has seemed so far from the podcasts I’ve listened to to make up the majority of the speakers talking about entheogens and psychedelics.

    I have a potentially tricky question to ask, recognizing the position you’re in with promoting MAPS and psilocybin/MDMA research in the mainstream, that it may be impossible for you to answer this question politically, even if you are aware of the subject matter.

    One thing i’ve seen as totally missing in the current mainstream discussion of the use of traditional entheogenic use, is the topic of ‘Brujo’s’. I think the term may be translated differently in different tribes: in the tribe I worked with, the term was translated roughly “Dark Magician”

    Alot of the talk of people having psychotic breaks, and turning into walking zombies and the like, generally fails to mention this at all, probably due to the fact the western mind is essentially allergic to the idea of accepting a world where “magic’ is real: Instead, the breaks are most often written off as a side effect of drug interactions or genetic predisposition.

    I’ve personally witnessed the sons of the taita’s I was studying with (themselves in training to be full taitas), enter into a ceremony, the two of them with one newcomer, and then engage in full on shamanic battle through song; later to emerge and both get sick for three days.

    So my question is this; Do you have any thoughts on the ‘appropriation’ (for lack of a better word- of the traditional psychedelic cultures, by taking some of their tools, divorced from the larger cultural container they grew up in? In that I mean, Have you considered that we might be missing something essential from taking only part of the medicine that is to be found in these traditional cultures?

    I’m all for the growing acceptance of psychedelics in the western mainstream; and I understand, lest we make the mistake of the 60’s with overzealousness and kneejerk reactions, that progress necessarily must move step by step. But, there’s a part of me that feels like for all the positives that these substances show in treating PTSD and Depression and other illnesses, that we’re essentially repeating Western medicines general MO of finding a substance that has the ability to heal, isolating it’s active component, multiplying it times 1000 and then discarding the rest of the shell due to a lack of understanding, and a lack of interest because of a lack of that understanding.

    Thanks for you’re work!

  2. Tim (& Mark), Thank you! Powerful timing with your podcast and an important request here that passes your reply criteria (and my 1st ever comment to a blog or podcast). If you can’t read on, thank you, thank you for the range of content, the pre-work and the insights offered through your podcast. I run and bike longer because of it!

    Your discussion with Mark took me back to my undergrad senior essay on biodiversity and my first read of Shaman’s Apprentice in the early ’90s. I listened this morning, became re-inspired and then found an email from my friend at the Bio-Itza Association based in San Jose, Guatemala. In the note was a picture of the the association’s 80+ year old Founder/Director, Mayan priest and shaman lying in a hospital bed due to COVID-19. His name is Don Reginaldo Chayax Huex. His son Aderito sent the note today.

    Don Reginaldo created the 36 km2 Bio-Itza Biosphere Reserve in 1991. He survived many years of indigenous Maya persecution including three different shooting incidents and now faces a challenge that even a shaman with a life of learning medicinal plants is struggling to overcome. On my family’s first visit in 2018, we had the experience similar to what Mark shared about his foot and a shaman’s natural cure. Don Reginaldo prepared a leaf extract for my 7 year old son’s swollen insect bite and a bucket of bark-infused water to be used as a hair conditioner for my wife’s migraine. On our last day, my wife and I committed to funding the Ranger program at the reserve until a more sustainable funding source could be developed. This is occurring through a partnership with The Resource Foundation.

    On our 2nd trip in 2019, we traveled with a team of student engineers from the Colorado School of Mines as part of their senior year eco-village design project. The Mines team designed the solar power, rain catchment, waste functions and lodging for what is intended to be a value-creating, self-sustaining asset for the Association. Don Reginaldo suggested treehouses and there are 3 in the plan. The students won the design competition at Mines and are now helping a broader team of us design/build phase 1 of the project in partnership with Rotary.

    In line with your discussion, the Reserve is feeling the increasing threat of deforestation from loggers of precious woods and poachers of wildlife. During the fire season of 2020, 40% of the Reserve was affected (2X that of 2019). They replanted 4500 trees compared to 1100 last year. And, now, there is COVID-19 which is impacting this community and the remaining elders of the Itza culture in a major way.

    Two requests:
    1. Can you or members of this community suggest other potential partner organizations similar to the Amazon Conservation Team that could help support the preservation of the Itza culture and development of the eco-village?
    2. Can you shed some of the special TF “light” on the immediate situation and opportunity to preserve a threatened culture/ecosystem and help extend Don Reginaldo’s life and legacy well into the future?

    Thank you!

    From Don Reginaldo …

    We the Itzá, the last descendants of the Maya lineage in the Petén forest, are watching the forest vanish, its herbs and trees, the animals of its land and water. Our Mayan language is disappearing too, and the traditions of our great fathers. The forest is dying, the animals are dying, and we are dying also. To live, we need the forest, and the forest needs us. We must take care of the forest, and the forest must care for us, because we are partners of the jaguar, owner of the forest; partners of the scarlet macaw, ornament of the Mayas; partners of the tapir, animal of seven skins; partners of the mahogany, tree of our canoes; partners of the Ramón tree, the food of our ancestors; partners of the smoke of the copal tree, the spirit of our great ancestors. United together, we make our home in a piece of jungle, land of the Maya Itzás, on the shore of the great Lake Itza in San Jose, where once lived Kan Ek, the last Maya king.

  3. Tim, you hoopy frood, this comment is related to 5 B Friday and not this podcast.

    Tip for British to American translation: if you replace Ford Prefect in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with Ford Fiesta in your head the joke gets funnier. Not that Douglas Adams wasn’t a comic genius, but I had no idea what a Ford Prefect was so it just didn’t sound funny to me when I first heard it.

    Adams wrote for the Doctor Who TV show for a number of years before writing the Hitchhikers Guide. The Doctor and Ford are basically the same character, Ford is the more irreverent* version. After Adams died, the Doctor Who folks wrote a tribute episode set in Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

    *Proof of its delicious irreverence is that you said it’s shifting your mood as it gets colder and darker. It’s a gem, I’m glad it’s lifting your spirits. It was written as a radio play before it was a book, so hearing it (and from Stephen Fry!) is brilliant. I

  4. Hi Tim
    I really appreciate the great work you’re doing and I continue to learn from you and your guests. I have a suggestion for a guest for your podcast; Reza Aslan. I think he would be great in terms of variety and having different perspective.

  5. I listened to your podcast about repressed childhood memories and I think the best way for you to deal with them would be to volunteer or support an organization like ourrescue.org. Personally, I will leave forgotten what I have chosen to forget.

  6. I’ve been soaking up this interview with so much curiosity.
    Thank you for another fantastic interview Tim, and for raising the awareness about plant medicines with so much care.
    One of my favorite takeaways was “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur (was that the quote Mr. Plotkin shared?)

  7. Thanks for exploring this side of …. humanity, from shamans to myths … can you interview the folks at rebel wisdom?
    Alexander Beiner [Moderator: link removed.]
    David Fuller at [Moderator: link removed.]

    And Daniel Schmachtenberger.