Plants of the Machiguenga
To access the large version of each photo (only about 60k), simply click
on the thumbnail photo. These were taken by Ethan Russo, a neurologist who
spent two months in Eastern Peru, searching for treatment for headache.
He travelled with Glenn Shepard, a PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley,
and local guides.
Mamperikipini, Fittonia sp. Acanthaceae, with guardian insect.
Elias, our guide, said that the insect was really a shaman, who had chaged
his form just moments before our arrival. I asked if he would mind that
we were harvesting specimens. He replied that our good intentions were apparent.
Mamperikipini, Fittonia sp.
This species is employed by the Kofan and Siona-Secoya tribes of the Ecuadorian
Amazon as a headache treatment. The Machiguenga know it as an hallucinogen,
used in large amounts as part of the kamarampi mixture in previous generations
before they gained knowledge of the use of Psychotria sp. for this
purpose. They say that it produces visions of eyeballs.
Passiflora sp. Passifloraceae.
The fruit is filled with sweet-sour pulp and numerous seeds. It is an ingredient
in many tropical fruit drinks. Old Quispe says that upriver there is another
species whose leaves are good for headache.
Costus sp. Zingiberaceae. These beautiful
blooms exude a spicy-sweet scent. The stalks can be used to treat headaches,
or help with cough.
Mariano smell some leaves crushed by
Mateo. The Machiguenga employ all their senses systematically when evaluating
plants as to identity and utility for medicinal application.
Pressing plant specimens on the trail
helps to catalogue them systematically, and allays the inexorable fungal
attack that commences in hours on leaves and flowers exposed to the elements.
Sampakatishi, a Psychotria
sp. Rubiaceae. Mateo squeezes drops of leaf juice into the eyes of a
youth. This has a dual purpose. For the hunter, when the burning subsides,
there is a sharpening of the senses that aids him in his task. It also is
an extremely effective treatment for migraine, as the author can attest.
The ocular mucosa is a rapid avenue into the systemic circulation, obviating
the need for gastric absorption that is often problematic in treating this
The author holding specimens of ibenkiki,
Cyperus sp. Cyperaceae. These are congenitally infected with a Balansia
fungus, that likely is the source of the medicinal properties. The Machiguenga
have numerous strains, with uses as varied as fish attractants, hunting
aids, and even one that soothes domestic squabbles!
Ibenkiki, Cyperus sp., close-up,
demonstrating the Balansia infestation of the seed-head. These have proven
to contain novel ergot alkaloids, thus suggesting the probability of new
agents for treatment of migraines, and drugs affecting uterine contraction.
Muishi, Paraponera sp. These
ants are known elsewhere as bullets ants, or veinte-cuatro, due to the severe
nature of their bites. Given that they are 2.5 cm. in length, they are justly
given a wide berth.
Oscar, one of our main guides,
undergoes testing by Glenn with novel tastes and smells. The experiment
is designed to ascertain how these senses are integrated by the tribe in
their selection of medicinal plants.
Oscar's family. Even young children
contribute to the collective labor from an early age. Here, they are peeling
sekatsi, or manioc root, Manihot esculenta Euphorbiaceae, the staff
of Amazonian life. It is eaten boiled or roasted at every meal. We know
it in the West as the source of tapioca.
Maseropini, Justicia sp. Acanthaceae.
This is widely held by the tribe to be an agent of witchcraft, causing an
often fatal disease characterized by fever, stiff neck, and dark black blotches
on the skin. My interpretation was that this suggested meningococcemia,
an epidemic infectious disease, but who knows? We were told to avoid it.
Not ten minutes after taking this picture, I fell off a log bridge 2 m.
into a creek.
sp. Gesneriaceae. This plant was one of my most eagerly sought, and
elusive specimens. The Kofan and Siona-Secoya of Ecuador make a tea of the
leaves which is snorted to treat headache. This parenteral mode of administration
is ideal for a migraine treatment. It is also employed by them to soothe
ant bites. The Machiguenga name means "plant of the White-Fronted Capuchin
Monkey", Cebus albifrons. They use the plant to bathe their babies
to protect them from the animal's vengeful spirit. Although seemingly rooted
in superstitious belief, the Machiguenga use many plants similarly. Glenn
and I suspect that there are more practical underlying reasons for the practice
such as insect repellancy, antibacterial properties, etc. Many of the "baby-bathing
plants" are likely psychoactive; Machiguenga children are unusually
placid and happy compared to offspring of any other culture I have encountered.
Oshetoshi, Drymonia sp. Gesneriaceae.
This beauty is another one of the baby-bathing plants, but used for protection
from the Black Spider Monkey, Ateles paniscus chamek. As a
family, the Gesnerieaceae are noteworthy for an almost total lack of biochemical
assay information, a situation that requires rectification.
Passiflora sp. Passifloraceae.
Another beauty with edible fruit and the promise of possible medicinal use.
Commelina sp. Commelinaceae,
no local name. After a futile 2 month search, I noticed a bunch of this
species in the machete-mowed weeds next to our hut on the way home from
Yomuibato. The Shuar of Ecuador and Peru infuse the tiny blue flowers as
a tea for headache. It eliminated Glenn's in a short time and provided 10
hours of relief on a subsequent brutally sunny and sultry day of river travel.
Liana employed for hunting magic, tentatively
Solandra sp. Solanaceae. Elias is chopping off the bottom of this
vine he had harvested the week before. It has already sprouted roots in
an effort to re-establish contact with the ground. He planted this one closer
to his primary residence. The leaves were not visible, somewhere high in
the canopy. The Machiguenga recognize this species as hallucinogenic, but
it is not considered suitable for human use.
Solandra sp. fruit, tentative
identification. This fruit was found lying on the ground and was given to
us some weeks later. Though 10 cm. in diameter, it was not ripe. Since we
still had no leaves, nor flowers to allow positive botanical identification.
I collected seed in a likely vain attempt to cultivate it, and these promptly
Solandra seedlings, in the Amazonian Jungle
in Exile, Blackfoot Canyon, Montana. After a treatment with Hydrogen peroxide,
the seeds were resurrected and have grown prodigiously in the author's home.
If and when they flower, a positive identification will be possible, allowing
publication of the ethnobotanical information, and any biochemical assays.
The genus is a small one, and it may well be a new species.
The author, with a bunch of gathered
mamperikipini, Fittonia sp. Acanthaceae. Leaf tea is quite effective
for headache, without side-effects, and is tasty, as well. Preliminary lab
study reveals activity of an extract on serotonin 1a and 2a receptors, suggesting
the possibility of isolating components that may hold promise for migraine
treatment both symptomatically, and prophylactically.
Jungle canopy, height in excess of
30 m. The layers are so efficient in collecting the available sunlight that
only 1-2% reaches the forest floor. Be that as it may, it is lovely.
Sap from bark slash, hoyo, Virola
sp. Myristaceae. The Machiguenga employ the sap as a remarkably effective
application on cutaneous fungal infestations, and oral candidiasis, or thrush.
Unfortunately, the active principals are unstable tannins which do not permit
preservation. It must be used "on the hoof". Elsewhere in the
Amazon, the sap is employed as an hallucinogenic snuff.
Cesar, holds tuiruibanto, Voyria sp.
Gentianaceae. This tiny saprophytic plant is a "triple threat species".
Before the advent of knowledge of Psychotria sp., it was used in the Kamarampi
admixture. It is currently employed as eye drops for hunting, and as a headache
Sanogarishi, Geogenanthus sp. Commelinaceae.
This plant was mistakenly labelled as a Piperaceae in the past, not only
the wrong genus, but a dicot as well! This is another plant that was employed
as part of the kamarampi mix in the past, reportedly for the patterned visions
it produces, much like those of its leaves.
Kemishitsa, tentatively Stelis sp.
Orchidaceae. Oscar very excitedly brought us this specimen one day after
he found it on the trail. Apparently, it was the plant that his master used
to help him attain status as a seripegari, or shaman. He reports that it
is very powerful, and we began calling it "the hallucinogen that falls
from the sky". If corroborated, it will be the first such claim for
this, the largest plant family, with some 30,000 species.
Urubambashi, Psychotria sp. Rubiaceae.
This is so named because its knowledge as a hallucinogen in the kamarampi
admixture was brought from the Rio Urubamba region. It provides dimethyltryptamine
(DMT), a powerful agent, but one that is not orally active.
Kamarampi, Banisteriopsis caapi Malpighiaceae.
This semi-domesticated liana is known elsewhere as ayahuasca, or "vine
of the soul" in Quichua, and is used throughout Western Amazonia as
a healing ally, and agent of divination of plant knowledge and hunting success.
It provides the monoamine oxidase inhibitors that render the DMT orally
Cesar pounds a 5 m. length of the kamarampi
vine with a special wood mallet.
It is combined in the pot with 170
urubambashi leaves, and cooked for two hours. The resultant brew was shared
by 10 people over several hours.
Epiphytic jungle cactus, tentatively Epiphyllum
sp. This specimen was brought to us as one which could be rubbed onto
sore muscles. I did not think much of it at the time. However, upon examining
literature at home, it appears that the Kofan employ a similar species exactly
the same way. Coming from linguistically incompatible tribes 1500 km. apart,
the stories must have some rational basis. Mexican species contain steroids.
Perhaps an anti-inflammatory agent is contained in this specimen which now
graces the entryway to our home.