Ethnopharmacology – from Mexican hallucinogens to a global transdisciplinary science.
“Globalisation has resulted in a world-wide commodification of many traditional medicines and psychactives as exemplified by S. divinorum originally confined to a very small region of Mexico.”
Psychoactive natural substances have been reported from practically all regions of the world, but Mexican indigenous cultures have played a crucial role in the research on such plants and fungi and have influenced medical, toxicological, biological, chemical and pharmaceutical research. For México (Heinrich et al. 2014), Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’ Florentine Codex (published after his death in 1590) is regarded as the first ethnographic study in the new world and it includes important information on psychoactive drugs. Especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s peyotl, teonanacatl and other psychoactives came to the attention of researchers and revelers alike. In 1962 ‘ethnopharmacologists’, Albert Hofmann and R. Gordon Wasson, documented and collected a flowering specimen of Ska María Pastora allowing the species’ botanical description as Salvia divinorum Epling & Játiva. Five years later Efron et al. (1967) organised a symposium ‘Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs’ which over the next decades would give its name to a discipline which today is much more broadly defined, dealing with local and traditional medicines, their biological activities and chemistry. Globalisation has resulted in a world-wide commodification of many traditional medicines and psychactives as exemplified by S. divinorum originally confined to a very small region of Mexico. This fascinating Lamiaceae has become globally recognized for its best known active constituent, the diterpene salvinorin A, a kappa-opioid antagonist which has a unique effect on human physiology (Casselman et al. 2014).
While today ethnopharmacology is a thriving discipline (Heinrich and Jaeger 2015), the interest in psychoactive substances is no longer central to the discipline. It has become a very broad field of research with, for example, the Journal of Ethnopharmacology publishing over 600 articles every year. Initially, of particular relevance had been the search for anti-cancer agents (which also started in earnest in the 1960’s) and today includes among its many foci:
• The documentation and scientific study of local and traditional knowledge not only in remote regions, but for example, also in urban immigrant communities
• Research linking ethnopharmacology to biodiversity research both in terms of a sustainable use of natural resources (ecosystems)
• Pharmacological studies with the aim of understanding the effects of complex mixtures on specific diseases or disease targets
• The safety of herbal medicines
• Anthropological and historical approaches to the use of medicinal and food plants as well as the link between food and medical uses of plants and fungi.
50 years on it is very different from what D. Efron and colleagues had envisioned.
Casselman, I. et al. (2014). From Local to Global – Fifty Years of Research on Salvia divinorum. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 151: 768 – 783.
Efron D, Farber SM, Holmstedt B et al 1970 Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs. Public Health Service Publications no. 1645. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC (reprint, orig. 1967)
Heinrich, M. and A.K. Jaeger, eds. (2015) Ethnopharmacology. Wiley, Chichester. ISBN: 978-1-118-93074-8. Heinrich, M. , Leonti, M.,. Frei Haller, B. (2014) A perspective on natural products research and ethnopharmacology in México. The eagle and the serpent on the prickly pear cactus.. Journal of Natural Products 77: 678–689. dx.doi.org/10.1021/np4009927.