With the dwindling numbers of its tribe, the last remaining elder shamans of the Matsés tribe in Amazon rainforest came together to encapsulate their ancestral knowledge from the precipice of extinction by releasing an encyclopedia.
After two years of work, the elders met in a remote village on the frontier divide of Perú and Brazil, in May and finalized the proof of the first Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia ever written by an Amazonian tribe. The 500-page repository details medicinal plants used by Matsés healers for a diversity of ailments.
For centuries, Amazonian tribes passed on wealth of knowledge in medicine through oral tradition but now that the cultural change is destabilizing even the most isolated societies, they have come out with a written form that will not be lost forever.
For the Matsés tribe, outside contact occurred only within the past half century and the healers had already mastered their knowledge before being told it was useless by missionaries. While the current remaining elders, now all over 60 years old, have no apprentices among the younger Matsés generations to join the tradition to learn, forcing them to chronicle it instead of loosing it forever.
With support from the conservation group Acaté Amazon Conservation, the Matsés developed an innovative methodology to save their medicinal knowledge while safeguarding against theft by outsiders. Each shaman was paired with a younger Matsés who over months transcribed the elder’s knowledge in writing and photographed each plant.
At the meeting, the compiled Encyclopedia was collectively edited and reviewed by the elder shamans. The Encyclopedia is written only in the Matsés language and will not be translated. The concern for biopiracy is real for the Matsés.
Previously, their knowledge of the properties of the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog skin secretions, long used by the Matsés in hunting rituals, was pirated by pharmaceutical companies and the isolated peptides patented without regard to their intellectual property rights.
Acaté Amazon Conservation, a non-profit organization based in the United States and Perú, has partnered with the Matsés people of the Peruvian Amazon to bring out the encyclopedia. The Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia marks the first time an Amazonian tribe has created a complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge in their own language and words.
Each entry is categorized by disease name and explains how to recognize the disease by symptoms, its cause, which plants to use, and how to prepare the medicine. The Encyclopedia is written by and from the worldview of the Matsés shaman, describing how rainforest animals are involved in the natural history of plants and connected with disease.