The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method

By Lola Romanucci-Ross; Daniel E. Moerman et al. | Go to book overview

4
POISONED APPLES AND HONEYSUCKLES: THE MEDICINAL PLANTS OF NATIVE AMERICA

DANIEL E. MOERMAN

Some time ago, I reported a statistical analysis of the medicinal uses of plants by Native Americans ( Moerman 1979). This chapter updates that analysis on a much larger sample, using data very nearly comprising a census of the medicinal plants of North America. In 1979 it seemed reasonable to focus on the issue of "efficacy," to attempt to demonstrate that Native American botanical medicine was not "only placebo medicine," that it was not simply a sort of random activity. While this is still a useful exercise, the field of ethnobotany and the world around it has changed enough in a decade that other emphases now seem more interesting. The primary question addressed here is, given the mass of available data, what sorts of plants were Native Americans most or least likely to select for use as medicines, and what can we learn from this about the human process of making choices -- how did people learn which plants to use?


THE DATA BASE

My earlier analysis was based on a sample of 4,869 uses of 1,288 species of plants. That database is referred to as American Medical Ethnobotany (AME) (see Moerman 1977). Since then a much larger database referred to as Medicinal Plants of Native America (MPNA) has been constructed ( Moerman 1986); the complete data set includes 17,634 uses of 2,397 taxa. The present report is based on an analysis of 15,843 uses of 2,143 species, for which complete taxonomic and botanical data are available (See Table 4. 1). 1 As in the earlier paper, botanical information is derived from the provisional checklist of species from the Flora North America (FNA) ( Shetler and Skog 1978).

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