Pharmacy in the jungle study reveals indigenous people's choice of medicinal plants

November 06, 2019

The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20 percent of the world's oxygen, 20 percent of the world's fresh water and is home to more than 150,000 species of plants rich in beneficial nutrients, phytochemicals and active elements. Many of these plants are the source of some the most widely used and lifesaving medicines, which have antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties used to treat type II diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, among others.

For centuries, indigenous people of the Rainforest have used many of these plants for medicinal purposes and their empirical plant knowledge is widely respected by the scientific community. Theory has it that how they select these medicinal plants is not random. The idea is that selection is influenced in part by the therapeutic efficacy of the plants and therefore certain groups of plants would be favored over others.

To put this non-random selection theory to test, researchers from Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and collaborators worked with residents of the Kichwa community, the largest indigenous ethnic group in the Ecuadorian Amazon with a population of 60,000. This region stretches from Brazil through Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

The study, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, is the first to analyze data collected at the village-level rather than the national level to guarantee that the estimates of medicinal plant families are consistent with the availability of these families locally. It also is one of the most diverse studies of the non-random medicinal plants selection because it includes analysis by gender, age and exposure to outside influences from working with ecotourism projects.

For the study, researchers worked with individuals from the Kichwa communities of Chichico Rumi and Kamak Maki. They discovered a novel method to uncover the intracultural heterogeneity of traditional knowledge while testing the non-random selection of medicinal plants and exploring overuse and underuse of medicinal plant families in these communities.

The different socio-cultural factors included in the study revealed interesting results. Researchers identified 101 medicinal species from 54 families of plants. Study participants affiliated with the Chichicu Amarun museum, in operation for only one year, named more medicinal plants than participants affiliated with the Kamak Maki museum, in operation for more than 36 years. In addition, researchers found that the men in the study named slightly more medicinal plants than the women, which was an unexpected finding. Participants ages 40 and older named more species than younger participants, a finding that concurs with previous literature showing that traditional knowledge increases with age.

"Exploring the gender dimension in our study yielded some very interesting results such as men being more knowledgeable about plants than women," said Daniela M. Robles Arias, senior author and a graduate student at FAU. "Women are said to be more knowledgeable about medicinal plants because they take care of the young and work more in the chakras or fields. We observed a different trend in our study. Men cited slightly more medicinal plant species than women, and the two genders over-use different families. These findings might suggest that both genders are equally knowledgeable, although in different areas."

In the Chichico Rumi community, researchers found that the different over- and under-utilized medicinal plant families identified depending on number of years involved with ecotourism, gender, and age made the intra-cultural variation of traditional knowledge evident.

"Because people working for Kamak Maki have been exposed for a longer time to foreign cultures and markets, they are more likely to have replaced some of their traditional remedies with more modern ones," said Maria Fadiman, Ph.D., co-author and an associate professor in FAU's Department of Geosciences. "Furthermore, ecotourism is a profit-making venture, and there is an inverse association between increasing wealth and ethnobotanical knowledge."

This study is the first to report Urticaceae and Solanaceaeas as overused for medicine in the Holotropical kingdom. Urticaceae contains polyphenols with anti-inflammatory activity as well as oxygenated fatty acids known to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Similarly, the phytochemistry of Solanaceae is promising because its species biosynthesize a wide variety of secondary metabolites. Another overused medicine in this study was Asteraceae - members of this family produce many biological compounds that have therapeutic benefits. The most underutilized medicinal plant family was Orchidaceae.

This study provides evidence that the predictions made by the non-random selection of medicinal plants theory hold true for small-scale studies, such as one single indigenous community. Most of the over- and under-utilized medicinal plant families the researchers identified concur with results from other studies, strengthening the non-random medicinal selection theory. This research elucidates that it is promising to explore more factors when testing if there are phylogenetic biases in traditional pharmacopeias.
Co-authors of the study are Daniela Cevallos, Herbario QCA, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, in Quito, Ecuador; Ourou G. Gaoue, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee Knoxville; and Tobin Hindle, Ph.D., associate scientist and graduate program director in the Department of Geosciences in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU's world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU's existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit

Florida Atlantic University

Related Plants Articles from Brightsurf:

When plants attack: parasitic plants use ethylene as a host invasion signal
Researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology have found that parasitic plants use the plant hormone ethylene as a signal to invade host plants.

210 scientists highlight state of plants and fungi in Plants, People, Planet special issue
The Special Issue, 'Protecting and sustainably using the world's plants and fungi', brings together the research - from 210 scientists across 42 countries - behind the 2020 State of the World's Plants and Fungi report, also released today by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

New light for plants
Scientists from ITMO in collaboration with their colleagues from Tomsk Polytechnic University came up with an idea to create light sources from ceramics with the addition of chrome: the light from such lamps offers not just red but also infrared (IR) light, which is expected to have a positive effect on plants' growth.

How do plants forget?
The study now published in Nature Cell Biology reveals more information on the capacity of plants, identified as 'epigenetic memory,' which allows recording important information to, for example, remember prolonged cold in the winter to ensure they flower at the right time during the spring.

The revolt of the plants: The arctic melts when plants stop breathing
A joint research team from POSTECH and the University of Zurich identifies a physiologic mechanism in vegetation as cause for Artic warming.

How plants forget
New work published in Nature Cell Biology from an international team led by Dr.

Ordering in? Plants are way ahead of you
Dissolved carbon in soil can quench plants' ability to communicate with soil microbes, allowing plants to fine-tune their relationships with symbionts.

When good plants go bad
Conventional wisdom suggests that only introduced species can be considered invasive and that indigenous plant life cannot be classified as such because they belong within their native range.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Can plants tell us something about longevity?
The oldest living organism on Earth is a plant, Methuselah a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) (pictured below) that is over 5,000 years old.

Read More: Plants News and Plants Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to