What is curare? What purpose does it serve for the forest dwelling peoples of South America? How is it made and why do we know so little about it? What is an alkaloid, and why is it that many plants of the tropical forest contain powerful alkaloids?What is the “snuff” used by tropical forest-dwelling peoples of South American and for what is it used?
“Tales of A Shaman’s Apprentice” by Mark Plotkin tells Plotkin’s stories of going to the Amazon and living with different indigenous tribes for the purpose of collecting medicinal plants and learning of their uses from the tribes. Specifically, Plotkin refers to curare, alkaloids, and a strange substance referred to as snuff.
Curare is a term used to describe “all arrow poisons prepared by tribal peoples from tropical plants”, and is used to poison and capture their prey(Plotkin, 102). These poisons typically consist of an alkaloid called d-tubocurarine, which is a very potent muscle relaxant that causes respiratory muscles to contract and leads eventually to asphyxiation. An alkaloid is a group of natural chemical compounds that are made up of mostly nitrogen atoms, and they are important because plants containing alkaloids are commonly used in Western medicine.
Little is known about the actual preparation of curare. According to Plotkin, “its preparation is often shrouded in secrecy and ritual” because the tribal people do not trust the information to outsiders (Plotkin, 126). However, the book does say that the d-turbocurarine is taken from a plant from the moonseed family. Limited knowledge of the preparation can also be attributed to the fact that each Amazonian tribe has its own way of making it. Not only that, but as the tribal people come into more and more contact with people from the outside world, they sacrifice their knowledge in favor of weapons such as shotguns.
The “snuff” referred to in the book is a hallucinogenic powder that the indigenous people call epena (Plotkin, 256). It is described as being a reddish-gray colored powder, and is used by the shaman to call the “little men of the jungle…and ask them to come and live in his breast to help him cure and make magic” (Plotkin, 257). The passage in the book portrays the inhalation of snuff as being incredibly painful, and when the tribesmen are asked why they take it if it hurts, they compare it to white man’s ingestion of whiskey. The first variation of epena mentioned is made from the bark sap of a tree called nyakwana and the leaves of two different plants. The indigenous people of the Amazon have multiple varieties, and each is made slightly differently. What gives these mixtures hallucinogenic properties is something called a tryptamine alkaloid, which is commonly found in plants, fungi, and animals.
The curare and snuff described in the book were important to Plotkin because they showed him the indigenous tribes in the Amazon knew much more about the plants and resources around them than was previously thought. Plotkin stresses the importance of making sure that the knowledge of how to use the indigenous plants because quite a bit of modern medicine has been discovered by observing and using the same plants that the indigenous people of the Amazon use. While curare and snuff aren’t used for medicinal purposes, the plants and substances they’re composed of can be, and that information resides with the shamans.