Medical knowledge disappears as indigenous languages ​​die | science

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND—Uldarico Matapí Yucuna, 63, is often called the last shaman of the Matapi, an indigenous group of fewer than 70 people who live along the Mirití-Paraná River in the Colombian Amazon rainforest. His father was a shaman and taught him ancestral knowledge, including the use of plants to treat all kinds of ailments. But Uldarico rejects the title because instead of living with his people, for the past 30 years he has been in Bogotá documenting in writing what remains of this knowledge.

Once a nomadic people, in the 1980s the Matapi were forced to live on a reserve with five other ethnic groups, where traditions and language, already threatened by colonization, withered further. “We are losing the essence of our spiritual knowledge of medicinal plants,” says Uldarico, whose surname is that of his tribe. “A knowledge that cannot be translated into other languages.”

A study presented in World Biodiversity Forum 2022 here last week reveals that many indigenous groups face Uldarico’s dilemma. Linking linguistic and biological information, the authors show that most indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants is associated with endangered languages, and that language loss is an even greater threat to the survival of such knowledge than biodiversity loss. “Whenever an indigenous language dies, it’s like a library burning, but we don’t see it because it’s silent,” says study co-author Rodrigo Cámara Leret, a biologist at the University of Zurich (UZH).

Of the 7,000 indigenous languages ​​still spoken, 40% are at risk of extinction, according to the United Nations. And 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in indigenous territories.

In the new study, the researchers searched the literature, including early records from colonizers, to map medicinal plant uses and indigenous languages ​​in three regions—North America, the northwestern Amazon, and New Guinea. They found about 12,000 medicinal uses for more than 3,000 plants, known to people who speak 230 indigenous languages ​​in these regions. But more than 75% of this knowledge resides in just one of these languages.

Such knowledge is diverse. The Tucano of the Rio Negro in Brazil, for example, use the bark of the tree Leptolobium nitens in arrows to paralyze hunting animals. The Siona people in Colombia and Ecuador apply a milky latex from the tree Euphorbia hirta to treat fungal infections of the feet.

“Most of this knowledge is unique,” says Jordi Bascompte, an ecologist at UZH and co-author of study, which was also published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If the language disappears, it is lost.”

The United Nations lists all the indigenous languages ​​in the western Amazon as endangered – making the accumulated botanical knowledge of these groups also endangered. In North America, endangered languages ​​account for 86% of unique knowledge of medicinal plants; the figure is 31% in New Guinea, according to the study.

The authors say that such knowledge begins to erode even before languages ​​disappear. In some studied groups, current speakers no longer know medicinal plants or do not know what mixtures to make and how to prepare them, says Cámara Leret. “There are no interns,” he says. “With oral traditions, if you don’t tell others how alive you are, it disappears.”

Uldarico adds that translation is not enough to convey his culture’s knowledge of how to use plants for healing. A shaman is like an apothecary and a doctor, with knowledge that goes beyond identifying herbs that can be translated or simply matching a plant to a symptom, he says.

Much knowledge may already have disappeared without being recorded, the researchers note. “We only covered the tip of the iceberg,” says Cámara Leret.

In contrast to the high percentage of threatened languages, less than 4% of the medicinal flora in the three regions covered by the study is at risk of extinction. “We are losing knowledge at a rate higher than biodiversity,” says Bascompte.

The results are consistent with previous research, says Victoria Reyes-García, an anthropologist at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies. Her team’s study with the Tsimane people of Bolivia showed that adults have lost about 3% of their knowledge of plant uses each year, much higher than the estimated rates of overall biodiversity loss in the world.

Without indigenous knowledge, valuable natural compounds that can generate drugs can be lost. Less than 5% of the medicinal plants used by the Ticuna people, whose ethnobotanical knowledge is one of the most studied in the Amazon, have been examined for their biological activities, says Cámara Leret.

Indigenous cultures hold ancient knowledge beyond that of medicine, adds linguist Ana Vilacy Galucio, at the Emílio Goeldi Paraense Museum in Brazil. “Indigenous languages ​​encompass entire systems of knowledge about biodiversity, social organization and environmental management,” says Galucio, who works on projects to document and revive indigenous languages.

“The loss of culture is also a loss of our ability to adapt and find solutions to growing environmental problems,” adds Tania Eulalia Martínez Cruz, an indigenous Ayuuk woman from Mexico and a social science researcher at the University of Brussels . She notes, for example, how indigenous people from Oaxaca in Mexico have developed ways to grow plants during drought.

For Uldarico, threats to culture and the environment are two sides of the same coin. “The complexity of medicinal plants is a territorial knowledge,” he says. “When you destroy a territory, you destroy nature, our knowledge, our practices and our lives.”

This story was produced as part of the Internews Earth Journalism Network’s Biodiversity Media Initiative travel grant to the 2022 World Biodiversity Forum.

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