Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Exploring the Potential Contributions of Amerindians to West Indian Folk Medicine

Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Exploring the Potential Contributions of Amerindians to West Indian Folk Medicine

Article excerpt

This paper is an initial examination of possible Amerindian contributions to West Indian folk medicine using Montserrat us a case study. Montserratian folk medicine is compared with Dominican Carib, a surrogate for Amerindian data. Despite limitations in the comparison, the data suggest that perhaps 15% of the Montserratian pharmacopoeia may derive from Amerindian sources. It calls for particular searching of Spanish, French, and Dutch historical documents in sorting out cultural information. It suggests "repeat ethnobotanies" be used to document and analyze culture change, especially in an ever increasing age of globalization and commodification of knowledge, us seen in the evolving debates of intellectual property.

KEY WORDS: Carib ethnobotany, intellectual property, Montserrat, neotropical medicinal plants, West Indies


This paper, both a work in progress and a call for research, assumes that it possible to identify cultural influences in a place. Like other researchers in the West Indies, I agree that Amerindians contributed to both material and ideational aspects of local and regional culture. However, I want to answer the specific question, "What contributions did Amerindians make to West Indian folk medicine?" It is an unanswered question from my dissertation on the origins of Montserratian medicinal plants and knowledge of their use, emphasizing colonial English contributions (Berry 1999). The search for Amerindian contributions to West Indian folk medicine also represents a biogeographical and epistemological approach to understanding culture and its changes. As a body of "folk" knowledge, ethnomedicine is increasingly involved in debates over intellectual property rights.

The West Indies was the crossroads of the Caribbean and one of the main entryways for the repopulation of the New World. The are of islands from the Greater Antilles, through the Lesser Antilles, forms the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea. First colonized from Central America about 6,000 yr ago, Amerindians, variously and perhaps erroneously called "Arawaks" and "Caribs," were part of many migration streams from the Orinoco delta area into the Antilles beginning about 4,000 yr ago (Keegan 1992; Wilson 1997). Geopolitically, the West Indies were pivotal pieces of real estate during the colonial era. The islands served as refueling stations for continental explorations and exploitations as well as plantations that were integral to both European and Native American economies. Many cultures vied for their possession, consequently modern West Indian culture(s) is multifaceted. Several different indigenous groups (Wilson 1997) lived in the West Indies during the time of Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Swedish colonization. Less politically powerful cultures such as from Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and later East India, also contributed to the repeopling and potential creolization of culture(s) in the Antilles and Bahamas.

Folk medicine is an aspect of culture. Folk medicine in this region began in the colonial period and many detailed works from that period were consulted (e.g., Ligon [1657] 1970; Davies 1666; Hughes 1672; Trapham 1679; Sloane 1707). A number of researchers, primarily anthropologists and botanists (e.g., Beckwith 1927; Gooding 1940; Laguerre 1987; Handler & Jacoby 1993) have examined folk medicine in this region and have also tried to unravel the various cultural elements. Geographers have made important contributions applicable to this issue by examining vegetation origins and change (especially Merrill 1958; Harris 1965; Watts 1987; Kimber 1988).


"Montserrat is an island with a diverse flora and a rich heritage of plant folklore, the latter encompassing traditions passed down from Africans, Caribbean Amerindians, and Europeans" (Brussell 1997, 1). The same could be said of any island in the region. What is lacking from modern examinations of folk medicine, however, are specific examples to support Brussell's (1997) assertion. …

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