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The Ethnobotany of Eden

Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative

In the mysterious and pristine forests of the tropics, a wealth of ethnobotanical panaceas and shamanic knowledge promises cures for everything from cancer and AIDS to the common cold. To access such miracles, we need only to discover and protect these medicinal treasures before they succumb to the corrosive forces of the modern world. A compelling biocultural story, certainly, and a popular perspective on the lands and peoples of equatorial latitudes—but true? Only in part. In The Ethnobotany of Eden, geographer Robert A. Voeks unravels the long lianas of history and occasional strands of truth that gave rise to this irresistible jungle medicine narrative.

By exploring the interconnected worlds of anthropology, botany, and geography, Voeks shows that well-intentioned scientists and environmentalists originally crafted the jungle narrative with the primary goal of saving the world’s tropical rainforests from destruction. It was a strategy deployed to address a pressing environmental problem, one that appeared at a propitious point in history just as the Western world was taking a more globalized view of environmental issues. And yet, although supported by science and its practitioners, the story was also underpinned by a persuasive mix of myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia for a long-lost tropical Eden. Resurrecting the fascinating history of plant prospecting in the tropics, from the colonial era to the present day, The Ethnobotany of Eden rewrites with modern science the degradation narrative we’ve built up around tropical forests, revealing the entangled origins of our fables of forest cures.

328 pages | 49 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Biological Sciences: Botany, Conservation, Tropical Biology and Conservation

Geography: Economic Geography, Environmental Geography


The Ethnobotany of Eden is full of verve and enthusiasm, and Voeks is eclectic, erudite, and humorous as he ranges from the influence of the African diaspora, as they popularize their traditional medicines in the countries they now live in, to the meaning of kids’ eco-protest songs. It is always right to celebrate indigenous medicinal knowledge and mourn its loss. But Voeks’s challenge to the West’s muddled and dangerously romantic views of rainforests as phytomedical cornucopias and sources of near-mystical ‘purity’ for drugs is what singles his book out.”

Adrian Barnett | New Scientist

“We often tell ourselves a powerful story, according to Voeks, that ‘the biblical Garden of Eden, God’s sacred oasis of perpetual spring, healing leaves, and life everlasting, was hidden deep in the primordial rainforest.’ But although it makes a compelling argument for preserving such rainforests, is it really true that there is or was a world of ‘noble natives’ and ‘mysterious shamans’ which is also full of ‘miraculous drug plants’? Or is this largely just a Western fantasy? Here the author, drawing extensively on his experiences of working in Borneo, Brazil, and Mozambique, carefully untangles what may actually be true from what we would just like to believe.”

Times Higher Education

"The conclusions of this study need to be taken note of by both conservationists and politicians. . ."

Biodiversity and Conservation

“It is about time that a scholar criticizes the ‘jungle narrative’ that the rainforest is full of undeveloped medicines that can save us (i.e., the Western world) from disease. Based on sound scientific data, personal field experiences, and relevant literature, Voeks’s clear and well-written argument against the general clichés of ethnobotany, medicinal plants, indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge, and rainforests is original and refreshing. Especially in this time of fake news, racial debates, and environmental destruction, I welcome this rational debunking of the prejudices and myths of ethnobotany, written by one of the leading and most respected scientists in this field.”

Tinde van Andel, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Wageningen University, and Leiden University

“From ancient Greek accounts of tropical peoples as cannibalistic savages to modern tales of wise shamans, Voeks covers two thousand years of ethnobotanical history. There exists no shortage of books focusing on medicinal plants or colonial exploitation of tropical peoples, but the authors often either are poor historians or fail to cover relevant areas of botany and ethnobotany. Voeks is a serious scholar, and his knowledge of subjects as diverse as history, chemistry, and botany is both broad and deep. As such, The Ethnobotany of Eden will be an important contribution. This book is an accurate and compelling account of the non-native discovery of tropical plants and peoples from the ancient world to the modern.”

Mark J. Plotkin, PhD, President of the Amazon Conservation Team and author of "Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest"

“Voeks provides a rich historical and contemporary account of the narratives constructed around the West’s conflicted love-and-fear relationship with tropical forests and their inhabitants. This eloquent book presents the reader with a mirror that reveals the solipsistic face of the intellectual North, a face more than ready to forget about, and trample on, the rights of those who inhabit tropical regions rich in plants but lacking access to mainstream economy. Voeks’s love for his scientific field of study shines through in the details with which he carefully examines and unravels the history of the jungle medicine story. It is a narrative that will draw the reader into a book that is scientifically compelling and successfully bridges the humanities and natural sciences. Bravo!”

Ina Vandebroek, Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden

"Remarkable...engaging and fascinating...a tour de force. The Ethnobotany of Eden explores the history of medicine, voyages of discover, and the evolution of natural products-derived medicine."


Table of Contents

1. God’s Medicine Chest
The Jungle Medicine Narrative
The Biochemical Factory
Pharmacy in the Forest
The Environmental Claim

2. Terra Mythica
The Sexualized Forest
Dark Eden
The Illusion of Virginity
Cultural Rainforests
Footprints in the Forest

3. People in the Forest
Tropical Monsters
New World Natives
Noble Savages
Are Africans Noble?
Environmental Determinism
Instinctive Ethnobotanists

4. Green Gold
First, Do No Harm
Ethnobotanical Axioms
“The Woods Are Their Apothecaries”
Benefit Sharing
The Age of Biopiracy
The Nutmeg Conspiracy
The Fever Tree

5. Weeds in the Garden
Disturbance Pharmacopoeias
The Palma Christi
Food as Medicine

6. Gender and Healing
Sex and Space
Women Healers

7. Immigrant Ethnobotany
Candomblé Medicine
Botanical Conversations in the Black Atlantic
Maroon Magic and Medicine

8. Forgetting the Forest
What Is Traditional Plant Knowledge?
Ethnobotanical Change

9. Environmental Narratives
A Forest of Fables
Jungle Medicine Revisited



Society for Economic Botany: Mary W. Klinger Award

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