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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 97 > Article

Healing with Ancient Remedies
by Jennifer T. Daly

For centuries, the highland Maya have relied on their strong tradition of herbal healing...

In the remote hamlet of Amantenango, far in the central highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, the indigenous descendants of the Maya define illnesses that strike their families by describing the effects.

"k'unk'un ya xlijk"
little by little it begins

Like the other Mayas in this region, the Amantenangans suffer from high rates of diarrhea and other gastrointestinal diseases. Over generations, they have chronicled such conditions in a litany of expressions in their native Tzeltal language; each description distinguishes among the observed nuances exhibited by various strains of an ailment.

As a result, the Mayas - despite, or perhaps because of, their poverty - are among the world's leading medical experts on the diagnosis and treatment of diarrhea. And because of the region's isolation, they also have honed their skills in treating a variety of other diseases and conditions, from reproductive problems to mental disorders, in ways that medical experts in other societies have not yet discovered.

But the Mayas' centuries-old medical knowledge is vanishing as the tropical rain forests - the Maya "pharmacy" - fall victim to development, and the increasingly urban Mexican population turns to modern medicine more than ever before, leaving the "old ways" stigmatized.

Anthropologists Brent and Elois Ann Berlin, along with a group of Maya colleagues, are leading an effort to preserve the Mayas' complex understanding of herbal healing. Since 1987, the husband-and-wife research team from the University of Georgia has headed a multidisciplinary research project in southern Mexico aimed at codifying Maya medical knowledge.

The idea is to transfer the Mayas' mental medical encyclopedia from mind to paper. However, this is not a simple matter of transcription. Not only must the researchers catalog Maya illnesses, they also must survey the region's plant life - estimated at 9,000 species - and determine what plants are used to treat which illnesses. The most popular and seemingly effective herbal treatments then undergo pharmacological study to verify the scientific basis of the traditional medicines. This is a collaborative effort with Mexican colleagues at the Mexican Institute of Social Security in Mexico City and Xochitepec, Morelia.

Cataloging Symptoms
In the United States, the word diarrhea usually suffices to describe the condition that needs to be treated. Not so in the Maya villages of Mexico. In the Tzeltal-speaking municipality of Tenejapa, "jà ch'ujt" - watery diarrhea - is vastly different from "ch'ich' tza'nel." The former is the most common, but least serious, diarrhea suffered in the Maya highlands; the latter, bloody diarrhea, often leads to death.

"The Mayas treat symptoms; it's a disappearing part of the art of medicine in this country," Elois Ann said. "They pay more attention to symptoms because they can't run off to the lab [for tests] as we can here."

The Berlins have spent years among the highland Mayas collecting plants and gathering information on symptoms of disease and illness. Their Maya collaborators - taught to write in their own language and given linguistic training to transcribe dialectical differences among municipalities - conduct a great part of the field surveys themselves.

First, participants are asked to name all the illnesses they can think of. Then they are provided open-ended questions that allow them to describe each illness in detail, such as: How does it begin? What part of the body does it affect? How do you treat it? What happens if you don't treat it?

"They recognize a progression that links illnesses together," Elois Ann said. "And that tells us a lot about their perceptions of how each illness works."

From more than 7,000 health surveys, 250 specific health conditions have been identified and grouped into 14 major classes that range from gastrointestinal to dermatological, mental to emotional. But the Mayas also classify some diseases as supernatural. They have categories for "human-given illness" (the result of sorcery), God-given illness, problems of the soul or spirit, and just simple fright.

In addition to cataloging illnesses, the Berlins and their collaborators have collected 10,000 specimens that represent about 1,650 plant species grouped into 750 genera and 150 botanical families. Accompanying each plant specimen is ethnobotanical information that details everything from the parts used for each remedy to preparation, dosage information and the duration of treatment.

Eventually, 204 of the most frequently collected medicinal plant species were mounted and organized in a traveling herbarium. Mayas working with the Berlins carried the herbarium from municipality to municipality, conducting surveys about the plants and their medicinal uses. They interviewed more than 250 knowledgeable villagers and produced nearly 30,000 computer records.

The process has proved fascinating, but the results have been tedious to organize. Because of differences in each Maya dialect, many similar illnesses and treatments also are described differently, and in many cases, medicinal plants have multiple uses.

Consider, for example, the differences between Tzotzil and Tzeltal - two languages that diverged from a common ancestor about 1,500 years ago. In the townships that speak one of the Tzotzil dialects, Borreria laevis, or button weed, is a medicinal plant of considerable importance in treating diarrhea. But among those who speak a related Tzeltal dialect, the plant more commonly is used to treat "cha'lam tzotz" (two layers of hair), a "poorly understood health condition that appears to be precipitated by serious illness," Elois Ann said.

Further complicating the picture is the terrain of highland Chiapas. The steep-sloped, pine- and oak-covered canyons and valleys possess distinct hot, temperate and cold climactic zones, so plant life varies widely among the municipalities, which leads to many different, but equally successful, herbal remedies for similar illnesses.

A few years ago, as the data grew to overwhelming proportions, the Berlins realized it would be almost impossible in their lifetime to provide a comprehensive written record for each of the major illness categories (e.g., gastrointestinal disease, skin infections, wounds, fevers, broken bones and sprains, etc.). Instead, they chose to focus on the region's most prevalent ailment, and in 1996, Princeton University Press published their 500-page book, Medical Ethnobiology of the Highland Maya, which details the Mayas' intricate knowledge of gastrointestinal diseases.

"Take this monograph and multiply it by 11 volumes just like it, and that says something about the elaborateness of their understanding of herbal remedies for the treatment of normal, chronic, day-to-day kinds of problems," Brent said. "We look at the traditional peoples of the world, and we look at how quickly they're being eliminated - sometimes by force and other times by factors that no one can control - and we realize the extent of this loss of traditional knowledge. What we see here is the loss of encyclopedic knowledge comparable to hundreds of libraries."

Research With Care
Sometimes knowledge is a double-edged sword. While wanting the world to recognize the contributions of the Mayas, the researchers do not want to end up responsible for their exploitation.

Is the cure for cancer, AIDS or diabetes lurking in the Maya rain forests? Pharmaceutical companies and others in the race for "cures" are interested in finding out. But the Berlins have been obsessively careful with whom they develop collaborative ties.

"If you're an anthropologist working in a traditional society, it's a very dangerous thing to become too closely involved with pharmaceutical companies. Many indigenous peoples suspect that the only reason you're interested in them is to figure out a way to get their knowledge and then to use this knowledge to discover something that will make you rich," Brent said. "Once the word goes out, whether it's true or not, one's work is seriously jeopardized."

Until now, the Berlins have collaborated only with trusted academic chemists and pharmacologists in carrying out their pharmacological studies. The preliminary results of these studies are unusually interesting. For example, Baccharis vaccinioides, or coyote bush, a common herbal remedy for watery diarrhea, is not recorded in modern medical literature as having properties to improve diarrhea. But pharmacological studies show it to be highly effective against a number of bacteria, as well as remarkably antispasmodic. In fact, a few years ago, a graduate student working with the Berlins woke up one morning with severe watery diarrhea and gave it a try.

"He rushed out, plucked some coyote bush leaves, made an extra strong tea and didn't go to the bathroom for two days," Elois Ann said. "It significantly slows down peristalsis, the process that normally pushes the food through your intestines."

Pharmacological results that confirm the Mayas' medicinal uses give them a sense of cultural validation, the Berlins said. "Western culture has rarely given them credit for knowing much of anything, especially when it comes to science and medicine. Our studies show that these biases have no basis in fact," Elois Ann said.

"The Maya feel very proud that people are looking at and confirming that their medicines work," she said. "These are intelligent human beings who have a great deal to offer about their own culture and about our culture. The barriers that keep them from doing it cause an incredible waste of human intellect.

"Many drugs were introduced into our own medicine chest from pharmacopoeia of indigenous medicines - aspirin, for example," Elois Ann said. "Unfortunately many individuals in the modern medical community have forgotten modern medicine's roots in folk medicine, and traditional healing practices of any kind are denigrated as 'old wives' tales.' It turns out that a lot of those old wives' tales, if you start testing them, have strong empirical bases."

While living in a remote Tzeltal community during their first visit to Chiapas in 1961, the Berlins learned this lesson first-hand when a pot of boiling water splashed over their 2-year-old daughter. After the accident, Maya friends, summoned by the American researchers' calls for help, insisted the couple apply the sticky balm of the innerleaf of the nopal, a common prickly-pear cactus, or Opuntia guatemalensis. Unfamiliar with the plant's curative qualities and concerned about bacteria from the dirty machetes used to reveal the balm, the Berlins refused its application on their daughter's severe burns.

But Elois Ann, who also burned her legs and feet as the water splashed to the floor, reluctantly agreed to test the gooey treatment. She healed quickly; her daughter, who had to wait 24 hours for modern medical help to reach her, healed too, but at a much slower pace, suffering from infection, other complications and scarring.

"I was probably not as badly burned and my skin wouldn't have been as tender as hers, but if I had let them put the cactus sap on her she might not have had nearly as many problems as she did," Elois Ann said. "You see, in those days we weren't looking at herbal medicines; we now know their value. We were pretty naive."

Still, this does not mean the Berlins have turned away from modern medicine, nor do they give blanket endorsement for herbal remedies. "I would like [the Mayas] to have economic alternatives that would make available to them whatever kind of medicine they chose. I also want them to conserve the knowledge of their own traditional medicines," Elois Ann said.

But economic conditions severely restrict the Mayas' access to the modern medical resources that many of us take for granted. In response, the Berlins are organizing a project to establish medicinal plant gardens in the indigenous communities to promote traditional medicine more widely.

"If they've got the medicine that works, why not promote those instead of telling them that they need to go buy drugs when they don't have the money?" Elois Ann said.

It's not as easy as it sounds. Much of the Maya medical knowledge is evaporating with the region's drastic changes. Younger people especially are turning away from learning traditional medical knowledge available to them from older community members, aspiring instead to become more like people of mainstream Mexican society.

To make the gardens work, though, they will have to be easy to understand and cultivate. And figuring out dosage will be particularly important. Both of these significant components of the project are being considered by UGA collaborators, including biochemist David Puett, toxicologist Raghubir Sharma, botanist David Giannasi and horticulturists James Affolter and Stanley Kays. UGA ecologists Ronald Carroll and Carol Hoffman and botanist Robert Price are beginning collaborative research on the environmental factors that affect variations of medicinal properties within a species.

"One reason people have been hesitant to get into the promotion of medicinal plants is that so many ecological factors affect the level of active components in any particular plant causing drug content to vary," Elois Ann said. "Temperature, rainfall and nutrient content of the soil can cause many changes in the plants. But others argue dosage is not that scientifically accurate anyway. For instance, we all get the same dosage for aspirin regardless of whether we weigh 200 pounds or 120 pounds."

The Mayas' herbal method of birth control, Dioscorea floribunda, is an example of why understanding the pharmacological properties of a plant remedy is so important. The Mayas say the plant causes permanent infertility, even though in modern medicine some of its properties were used to create the original "pill" that provides short-term infertility for birth control.

"Apparently in its natural state, there is something in the plant that causes long-term infertility. We don't know the answer yet," Elois Ann said. "How can we prepare the plant so that it's an effective birth control medication? Dave Puett [says he] thinks he might be able to figure this out. If he can it would be a major discovery."

As they proceed to amass data, the Berlins and their collaborators continue to seek support - both financial and labor - for their research. They are trying to set up course work as part of the UGA Exchange Program with El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Chiapas that would prepare future researchers for work in the central highlands of southern Mexico. "We encourage the students who work with us to find a piece of the research that's interesting to them, and then [we] let them run with it," Elois Ann said.

The Mayas themselves have proven to be the Berlins' most dedicated research partners. Not only are they essential to conducting field surveys and interviews and translating results, but they also have proven invaluable in helping with computer data entry.

The myriad talents of their collaborators have surprised even the Berlins. For instance, when the Berlins were discussing the need for an artist to draw renditions of local plant species, a Maya workman who was painting the room volunteered to help. As a result, many of the intricate line drawings in the Berlins' book are the work of Nicolas Hernández Ruiz.

Through their involvement with the Berlins, the Mayas also are learning more about themselves. In meetings comparable to an academic conference, they not only share herbal remedies and treatment plans, but also marvel at the differences in their knowledge.

"When we brought them together, even though they have lived side by side in adjacent municipalities, it was just absolutely fascinating to watch," Elois Ann said. "They just looked at each other and said, 'You guys do that? That's fascinating. Tell me again, how do you make that?'"

For more information, access http://guallart.dac.uga.edu/.

Jennifer T. Daly, a freelance writer who lives in Athens, has a bachelor's degree from the UGA College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She also has written for other UGA publications.

The Urge for Order
By Jennifer T. Daly

What's in a name? A rose by any other name might smell as sweet.

But naming and classifying plants and animals is the means by which different societies document, explore and begin to understand the biological world around them, UGA anthropologist Brent Berlin said.

Berlin has spent more than 35 years studying how traditional, nonliterate peoples of varied cultures, environments and languages classify plants and animals. He has found that humans everywhere see the world in remarkably similar ways.

"It's very common to find that some Chinese herb in the bean family used to treat a condition in China is closely related to an herb in the bean family used to treat a similar condition in the new world," Berlin said. "Now, how did that happen? More than likely, it happened by virtue of the fact that careful observers on both continents have discovered by experimentation with plants that this particular genus, species or family has these particular properties that act on the human body in a particular way."

For example, if, over time, people learn that a sunflower-like plant, which tastes bitter, helps control a certain type of stomach ache, then they might assume a similar-looking plant that also tastes bitter would have similar curative properties.

"And by such experimentation, the pharmacopoeia begins to expand," Berlin said.

This does not mean people should run out to the woods and start chewing on the foliage. But, when necessary, curiosity - as simple as exploring a beautiful flower - can be the basis for human survival.

"Human beings are drawn by some kind of innate curiosity to those groupings of plants and animals that represent the most distinctive chunks of biological reality," Berlin said.

But Berlin said he was astonished by the depth of knowledge acquired by the Aguaruna Jivaro of Amazonas, Peru, during his early field research there in 1970.

"Walking through the tropical forest with an Aguaruna guide is an awe-inspiring experience. One is quickly provided with a separate name for what appears to be each botanically distinctive tree," he said. "On numerous occasions, our guide would come to a tree, take a piece of its bark, smell it, taste it and then firmly provide us with the plant's name."

On many botanical collecting trips "indigenous collectors would state that species x and species y belonged together in that they were 'companions,' 'brothers' or 'members of the same family,'" Berlin said. Often the two plants were members of the same botanical species, genus or family. "Groupings of plants and animals in traditional systems of biological classification show remarkable similarity to those of Western science," he said.

In another field experiment, Berlin compiled an alphabetical list of 250 bird names he had collected during a study of the Aguaruna people. As he read each term aloud, he asked a knowledgeable Aguaruna male to recite all the names of that particular bird's relatives.

"I discovered that he had provided me with some 50 mutually exclusive groupings of generic bird names with the exception of two names which had been assigned to more than a single group," Berlin said. "This is, frankly, a remarkable finding."

"I have carried out the same procedure with other Aguaruna, as well as other indigenous peoples, and obtained similar results," he said. "Rather than suggesting that these individuals tend to have unusually good memories, the results are more readily interpreted as reflecting something about the complexity of each individual's ethnobiological system of classification."

For more information, access http://guallart.dac.uga.edu/.


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