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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

More Maya Medicine
by Catherine Gianaro

For untold centuries, the descendants of the Maya have used plants for medicinal purposes. Yet, to date, scientists have tested relatively few of their cures and remedies.

UGA anthropologists Brent and Elois Ann Berlin have studied the medicinal value of plants that grow in the highlands of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas for more than a decade (Research Reporter, Fall 1996/Winter 1997).

Now an international team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Georgia, will expand on the Berlins' research by examining the pharmacological value of nearly 900 commonly known species.

"We will be building on information we have collected for the past 11 years in Chiapas on the Tzeltal and Tzotzil ethnomedical system," said Elois Ann Berlin. "We will focus on exactly how the Maya understand the pharmacological properties of medicinal plants."

The project is composed of three programs: drug discovery and pharmaceutical development; medical ethnobiology and biodiversity inventory (which the husband-and-wife team co-lead); and conservation, sustained harvest and economic growth.

The study is funded with a $2.5 million, five-year grant awarded by a consortium that includes the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The complex ecosystem of the Highland Maya is the world's third richest in numbers of vascular plant species due to the diverse habitats found in the region. The chemical properties of these plants remain largely unknown.

"We need to determine what the key ingredients are and what parts of them are medically necessary," Berlin said. "We now have a good idea of the most important species plants that are used in traditional curing by the Highland Maya. We just don't yet know how they work."

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