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Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest Paperback – August 1, 1994

4.4 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A century ago, malaria was killing Washingtonians, Londoners, Parisians. Today HIV, along with various cancers, has taken its place among worldwide epidemics. Quinine, extracted from the cinchona tree of the Amazonian rainforest, quelled malaria; alkaloids taken from trees in the West African rainforest may well yield a cure for AIDS. Yet those woods, Mark Plotkin tells us, are fast disappearing, along with the native peoples who know the powers of the plants that dwell there. His account of wandering through the Amazonian jungles focuses on local knowledge about plants, whose uses range from the mundane to the magical. The rainforests of the world, Plotkin notes, are our greatest natural resource, an intercultural pharmacy that can cure woes both known and yet unvisited.

From Publishers Weekly

Ethnobotanist Plotkin details the alternative medicines he discovered during an apprenticeship to the shamans of the Amazon rainforests.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (August 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014012991X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140129915
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Samuel R. Pryor on April 25, 1998
Format: Paperback
I agree wholeheartedly with the rave reviews for this book and it has become one of my favorites (I even sent it to an ethnobotanist in Yap as a must read). Not only is it wonderfully well-written, and not only does it address crucial ecological concerns, but it is an exciting account of Plotkin's effort to identify and explore the medical possibilities of Amazonian plants, while preserving the indigineous lore about their uses, both medicinal and spiritual; the discovery and adoption of plants by Europeans and North Americans, and Plotkin's own adventures. I found some it so fascinating on so many levels I'd read it to my family (okay, I know that may be obnoxious, but I couldn't restrain myself). It's thought-provoking, important and absolutely fascinating. Can't recommend it highly enough!!
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Format: Paperback
Reading this changed my perspective on Western civilization forever. One example is the author's revelation that the indiginous peoples weren't hunter-"gatherers" at all, but rather gardeners of the world's remaining Eden, inheritors of an agricultural tradition far more ancient and advanced than ours. I was stunned by the realization that Western agriculture's monocultures of neat little rows laid out in a landscape of squares is the simplistic imposition of a human order on a far more complex natural order- an order that the Amazonian tribes incorporate in the design of their jungle-garden. A mindblowing paradigm shift awaits you, especially if you bring some knowledge of complex adaptive systems and/or Periodic Equilibrium evolution to this lucid journal. And this amazing personal account is a ripping good yarn. The only thing this book needs is a follow-up epilog, a "where are they now" of the pharmaceuticals, the shamans, the tribes, and the author's efforts to save them from extinction. A warning: Rereading this book in the summer of '98 while watching the rainforests of Indonesia and Mexico burn deeply depressed me. It was like a thousand libraries of Alexandria going up in smoke. Future generations will never forgive us.
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Format: Paperback
I have recently written a review of Plotkin's book, which was taken off these pages - apparently simply because I disagreed with the author's assertions, conclusions and motives. I wouldn't go so far as to claim Amazon.com engages in censorship, but this action does lead me to believe some of the ratings may be skewed.

I ahve two basic criticisms of this book: (1) The title is misleading. There was no apprenticeship involved - Plotkin learnt no ceremonies and no cures. He is not a shaman by any stretch of imagination.

(2) He is one of the hundreds of ethnobotanists who case the Amazon in search of clinically active plants; these people are no bleeding hearts - they do it for pharmaceutical industry, which generally pays a pittance to the indigenous people from whom the knowledge was taken. Plotkin himself was engaged with a such a company, called aptly enough, Shaman Pharmaceuticals.

Now I think this is fair to lay out in a review, don't you? In my mind, Plotkin exemplifies a self-righteous attitude with which Westerners venture into contact with indigenous peoples, all too often under the guise of conservancy and environmental activism.... and then write books about it. I frankly cannot see what Plotkin had to do with apprenticeship to Amazonian shamans and if this is enough to censor my review - well so be it.
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Format: Audio Cassette
"Everything you wanted to know about entering the Brazilian Rainforest, and more" could be the subtitle of this unusual but riveting nonfiction work Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by an ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin.
Remember those naming games you played on summer nights? "If you were on a desert island, but could have one book with you, what would it be?" When I go up the Amazon, I'll be carrying this little tome under my arm.
Before then, I will enjoy the adventure story and recommend it to others; use the bibliography for further research on the history of the rainforest; make lists of the flora, especially medicinal remedies, mentioned; trace along a map the various routes Plotkin took on his travels through Brazil, Surinam, and along the borders of Colombia and Venezuela. I could teach a year-long course based on the information in this book. What an English course that would be with all the links to ecology, botany, language studies, sociology, anthropology, survival training, medicine--the list goes on.
Am I enthusiastic about Plotkin's work? It is the best book I have read in years even though, teaching literature, I read many fine books. It has affected me the way some people are converted by religion. If you have ever held a thoughtful concern for the rainforest or indigenous peoples or our earth or oxygen, it will affect you, too.
Using a scholarly approach to his highly readable story makes this accessible to professional botanists or historians as well as to us lay people. The photographs each speak their thousand words and are worth the price of the book in themselves. What Rachel Carson did for the dangers of environmental pollution, Mark Plotkin does for the destruction of the fragile rainforest.
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