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Academic & Professional Books  Botany  Economic Botany & Ethnobotany

The Ethnobotany of Eden Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative

By: Robert A Voeks(Author)
321 pages, 49 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A nuanced book that delivers a wonderful history lesson, The Ethnobotany of Eden critically interrogates the jungle-as-medical-panacea story without disrespecting traditional knowledge.
The Ethnobotany of Eden
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  • The Ethnobotany of Eden ISBN: 9780226547718 Hardback May 2018 In stock
Price: £38.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In the mysterious and pristine forests of the tropics, a wealth of ethnobotanical panaceas and shamanic knowledge promises cures for everything from cancer and AIDS to the common cold. To access such miracles, we need only to discover and protect these medicinal treasures before they succumb to the corrosive forces of the modern world. A compelling biocultural story, certainly, and a popular perspective on the lands and peoples of equatorial latitudes – but true? Only in part. In The Ethnobotany of Eden, geographer Robert A. Voeks unravels the long lianas of history and occasional strands of truth that gave rise to this irresistible jungle medicine narrative.

By exploring the interconnected worlds of anthropology, botany, and geography, Voeks shows that well-intentioned scientists and environmentalists originally crafted the jungle narrative with the primary goal of saving the world's tropical rainforests from destruction. It was a strategy deployed to address a pressing environmental problem, one that appeared at a propitious point in history just as the Western world was taking a more globalized view of environmental issues. And yet, although supported by science and its practitioners, the story was also underpinned by a persuasive mix of myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia for a long-lost tropical Eden. Resurrecting the fascinating history of plant prospecting in the tropics, from the colonial era to the present day, The Ethnobotany of Eden rewrites with modern science the degradation narrative we've built up around tropical forests, revealing the entangled origins of our fables of forest cures.


1. God’s Medicine Chest
The Jungle Medicine Narrative
The Biochemical Factory
Pharmacy in the Forest
The Environmental Claim

2. Terra Mythica
The Sexualized Forest
Dark Eden
The Illusion of Virginity
Cultural Rainforests
Footprints in the Forest

3. People in the Forest
Tropical Monsters
New World Natives
Noble Savages
Are Africans Noble?
Environmental Determinism
Instinctive Ethnobotanists

4. Green Gold
First, Do No Harm
Ethnobotanical Axioms
“The Woods Are Their Apothecaries”
Benefit Sharing
The Age of Biopiracy
The Nutmeg Conspiracy
The Fever Tree

5. Weeds in the Garden
Disturbance Pharmacopoeias
The Palma Christi
Food as Medicine

6. Gender and Healing
Sex and Space
Women Healers

7. Immigrant Ethnobotany
Candomblé Medicine
Botanical Conversations in the Black Atlantic
Maroon Magic and Medicine

8. Forgetting the Forest
What Is Traditional Plant Knowledge?
Ethnobotanical Change

9. Environmental Narratives
A Forest of Fables
Jungle Medicine Revisited


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A nuanced book and a wonderful history lesson
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Nov 2018 Written for Hardback

    When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.

    In the unlikely case the notion of a “jungle medicine narrative” does not ring a bell, this trailer for the 1992 movie Medicine Man (with the eternally charming Sean Connery) perfectly encapsulates the defining elements: the mysterious Amazon rainforest, the promise of a miracle cure for cancer, the old medicine man, and the threat of civilization encroaching in the form of a logging company.

    Voeks situates the emergence of this narrative in the mid-1970s. A time when global environmental problems such as deforestation and the hole in the ozone layer entered the public consciousness. But equally, a time when the threats of new pandemics such as AIDS and Ebola arose (see Spillover). Against this backdrop, the promise of undiscovered miracle cures was a powerful and irresistible argument that well-meaning scientists and environmentalists could yield to try and stop the destruction of tropical rainforests. Both Richard Evans Schultes (see his Vine of the Soul) and Mark J. Plotkin (see his Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice) are prime examples of scientists who were instrumental in introducing ethnobotany to a wide audience.

    In order to pick apart the finer points, The Ethnobotany of Eden offers an informed history. Our notion of the rainforest as a place of mystery has been heavily influenced by explorers and colonists from the time of Columbus onwards. They both romanticized these far-flung destinations, and sexualized it, birthing the notion of the virgin forest. Similarly, later explorers, from Alexander Von Humboldt to Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin, were staggered by the rich biodiversity. But, as Voeks points out, this idea of pristine wilderness is largely illusory. Decades of research have shown that appearances can be deceptive and that vast swathes of the jungle have been shaped by millennia of human inhabitation.

    The colonial conquests from the 15th century onwards saw various colonial powers warring with each other to gain the upper hand in the trade of spices and new botanical riches such as rubber. With it came the ruthless exploitation of local populations and the rise of the slave trade, but also the spread of disease (see e.g. Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease). Hailing from filthy, crowded cities, surrounded by livestock, colonist introduced new pathogens to the Americas, decimating indigenous populations that lacked immunity. This is known as the Columbian exchange and, next too superior technology and weaponry, is considered an important reason that Western conquest was so successful (Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism are classic, if perhaps slightly dated books on the subject). Interestingly, as Voeks points out, this decimation of indigenous populations and the subsequent rapid rebounding of both plant and animal life may well have contributed to the notion of a pristine wilderness untouched by humans.

    Simultaneously, explorers, traders, and missionaries were exposed to tropical diseases, but also to botanical cures employed by locals. This is the kernel of truth at the heart of this narrative. One of the success stories was the discovery of cinchona or fever-wood, a plant that contains the alkaloid compound quinine that effectively combats malaria. Voeks here highlights several more flaws in our narrative. Ironically, most medicinal plants are not associated with pristine rainforest. Careful ethnobotanical study has shown that most of them are found in disturbed habitats such as home gardens, trails, swiddens (areas cleared for cultivation by slashing and burning vegetation), or secondary-growth forest, and often derive from weeds and domesticated food plants. Furthermore, the cliché of the mystical (male) shaman completely overlooks the role of women, whose knowledge often overlaps, complements, or outshines that of men.

    There is another very interesting strand that Voeks adds here. The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the forced migration of millions of Africans whose descendants now populate Brazil and the Caribbean reveals that ethnobotanical knowledge is not necessarily accumulated over thousands of years. Plants and knowledge flowed in both directions across the Atlantic, and Africans in South America were able to rapidly recreate their botanical traditions, even in the face of European oppression.

    Though Voeks thinks that most important discoveries have already been made, he willingly admits that the potential for undiscovered cures remains. In his opinion, the jungle medicine narrative got one thing right: these undiscovered cures are under threat from encroachment by Western civilization. Both the loss of tropical forest, but also the loss of knowledge as younger generations grow up in a more globalised world and eschew the traditions of their parents, present big threats.

    The Ethnobotany of Eden ends up being a carefully written book that manages the balancing act between a respectful treatment of indigenous knowledge and an incisive critique of our environmental myth-making. Voeks casts no doubt on the idea that the jungle can and has provided botanical cures, but the reality is both far more nuanced and far more fascinating than the stories we have been telling each other.
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Robert A. Voeks is professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at California State University, Fullerton, and the editor of the journal Economic Botany. He is the author of Sacred Leaves of Candomble African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil and coeditor of African Ethnobotany in the Americas.

By: Robert A Voeks(Author)
321 pages, 49 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A nuanced book that delivers a wonderful history lesson, The Ethnobotany of Eden critically interrogates the jungle-as-medical-panacea story without disrespecting traditional knowledge.
Media reviews

"It is about time that a scholar criticizes the 'jungle narrative' that the rainforest is full of undeveloped medicines that can save us (i.e., the Western world) from disease. Based on sound scientific data, personal field experiences, and relevant literature, Voeks's clear and well-written argument against the general clichés of ethnobotany, medicinal plants, indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge, and rainforests is original and refreshing. Especially in this time of fake news, racial debates, and environmental destruction, I welcome this rational debunking of the prejudices and myths of ethnobotany, written by one of the leading and most respected scientists in this field."
– Tinde van Andel, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Wageningen University, and Leiden University

"From ancient Greek accounts of tropical peoples as cannibalistic savages to modern tales of wise shamans, Voeks covers two thousand years of ethnobotanical history. There exists no shortage of books focusing on medicinal plants or colonial exploitation of tropical peoples, but the authors often either are poor historians or fail to cover relevant areas of botany and ethnobotany. Voeks is a serious scholar, and his knowledge of subjects as diverse as history, chemistry, and botany is both broad and deep. As such, The Ethnobotany of Eden will be an important contribution. This book is an accurate and compelling account of the non-native discovery of tropical plants and peoples from the ancient world to the modern."
– Mark J. Plotkin, PhD, President of the Amazon Conservation Team and author of Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest

"Voeks provides a rich historical and contemporary account of the narratives constructed around the West's conflicted love-and-fear relationship with tropical forests and their inhabitants. This eloquent book presents the reader with a mirror that reveals the solipsistic face of the intellectual North, a face more than ready to forget about, and trample on, the rights of those who inhabit tropical regions rich in plants but lacking access to mainstream economy. Voeks's love for his scientific field of study shines through in the details with which he carefully examines and unravels the history of the jungle medicine story. It is a narrative that will draw the reader into a book that is scientifically compelling and successfully bridges the humanities and natural sciences. Bravo!"
– Ina Vandebroek, Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden

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