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. detail.
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 problem.



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.



Kosharishi, Codonanthopsis 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 molded.



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 treatment.



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 active.



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.

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