Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs


Mark Plotkin

Mark Plotkin


Amazonian Drug Discovery

read the transcript

“an examination of the current state of affairs from an ethnobotanical perspective”


Dr. Mark Plotkin is a renowned ethnobotanist who has studied traditional indigenous plant use with elder shamans (traditional healers) of South America for much of the past 30 years. His mentor was the late Richard Evans Schultes who organized the original ESPD conference.
As an ethnobotanist—a scientist who studies how, and why, societies have come to use plants for different purposes—Dr. Plotkin carried out the majority of his research with the Trio Indians of southern Suriname, a small rainforest country in northeastern South America, but has also worked with shamans from Mexico to Brazil.
Dr. Plotkin has a long history of work with other organizations to promote conservation and awareness of our natural world, having served as Research Associate in Ethnobotanical Conservation at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University; Director of Plant Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund; Vice President of Conservation International; and Research Associate at the Department of Botany of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Plotkin is now President of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a non-profit organization he co-founded with his fellow conservationist and wife, Liliana Madrigal in 1996, now enjoying over 20 years of successes dedicated to protecting the biological and cultural diversity of the Amazon.
Dr. Plotkin has authored or co-authored many books and scientific publications, most notably his popular work Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, which is currently in its fortieth printing and has also been published in Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.
Dr. Plotkin’s critically acclaimed book, Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets, was published in early 2000. His book (coauthored with Michael Shnayerson), The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria, was published by Little, Brown in September of 2002. It was hailed as “One of the Top Ten Science Books of the Year” by Discover magazine. He is currently completing “The Amazon – What Everyone Needs To Know,” for Oxford University Press.
In 1998, he played a leading role in the Academy Award-nominated IMAX film Amazon. Time Magazine hailed him as an environmental “Hero for the Planet” in 1999.
In March 2008, Dr. Plotkin was awarded the Skoll Foundation’s prestigious Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
Dr. Plotkin’s TED Talk on the protection of the Amazon’s uncontacted tribes has attracted well over a million views. You can see the talk here
Dr. Plotkin was educated at Harvard, Yale and Tufts University.

Amazonian Drug Discovery

Transcript abstract

The rainforests of the world have long been touted as Mother Nature’s Medicine Chest. If this is indeed the case, where are the wonder drugs we have been promised?
This lecture presents an examination of the current state of affairs from an ethnobotanical perspective: are there “novel” therapeutic known to and employed by indigenous healers? How were these wonder drugs found in the past? How are they being searched for today and – if not – why not? How has the Intellectual Property Rights movement helped and hindered this search? How is acculturation and deforestation impacting this search? Are plants the most promising organisms, or are frogs, snakes and insects worthy of further investigation?
In conclusion, what is to be done? “Viva Schultes – A Personal Retrospective” Richard Evans Schultes was often hailed as “The Father of Ethnobotany.” He often replied that ethnobotany began with the Pharaoh Hatchepsut 3500 years ago, and he was not quite that old.
His career trajectory was extraordinary: from seminal studies of peyote in Oklahoma amongst the Kiowa to unraveling the mysteries of the magic mushrooms of Oaxaca to his dozen years in the northwest Amazon where he described ayahuasca and yoco and yopo, made contact with isolated tribes, found new varieties of Hevea rubber and lived an adventurous field life of which ethnobotanical adventurous dreams are made.
This lecture focuses not only on Schultes many ethnobotanical contributions, but little-known tales of his adventures and exploits as well as his enduring legacy as a plant explorer, conservationist, and friend of and spokesperson for of his beloved indigenous colleagues.