Modern Ayurveda

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Among all the things that people do in the quest for health, ingestion of materials thought to improve an individual's state of mind and body appears to be universal. Human beings have discovered and learned to consume myriad preparations derived from plants and minerals, usually in the course of seeking food, but human foragers must have had some degree of receptivity to possible remedies or ways of achieving altered states of mind. This entry will point out that the discovery of altered consciousness and of remedies for ills have been, and still are inextricably interconnected. Anthropologists, using their holistic perspective in examining how herbal remedies and mind-altering drugs fit into the lives of the people who use them, have provided especially useful information and perspective on human variability related to drug use.

The archeological record of humankind's Paleolithic epoch holds little evidence of early consumption of plants or plant products as drugs.1 Nevertheless, in the thousands of years that our ancestors spent foraging in shifting and changing ecologies, the search for the edible likely led to the discovery of the pleasurable, or at least the interesting effects of certain plants (Naranjo, 1995). The first clear evidence of use of a drug plant in the Western Hemisphere involves the discovery of mescal beans in a cave site in Coahuila, Mexico (Adovasio & Fry, 1976) about 8,500 years ago. Use of alcohol is implied in materials found in Old World sites of about the same antiquity, and use of other drug plants somewhat later. As with most invention, accidental occurrences probably shaped the process of discovering the first medicines and other drugs. Biodiversity in the local ecology, the numbers of different species per square meter, probably also played a part in adding to the list of novel plant preparations found by early humans.

If we assume that accident and biodiversity combined to lead to the identification of drug plants, then we could anticipate the relative productivity of different parts of the world, taking into account density of population. Not surprisingly, zones known to be tropical, but not very populous, have contributed substantially to the human pharmacopia, both of medicines and hallucinogens, as demonstrated by generally accepted medicines such as digitalis and quinine, as well as the famous hallucinogens ayahuasca and iboga. We do not know, however, why the Western Hemisphere has dominated in the identification and production of hallucinogens (Schultes, 1977). Zones that are temperate but populous have contributed strongly to that pharmacopia, as Europe's linden, camomile, datura, and wormwood demonstrate. Tropical zones with dense populations have by far the most extensive list of plant-derived medicines and drugs, exemplified by the massive herbal pharmacopia of the Chinese and Indian traditions. Arctic tundras, with low population and low biodiversity, produce the fewest herbal remedies and drugs, although Amanita muscaria and its use among reindeer herdsmen show that even these parts of the world produce traditional uses of drug plants.

The principles of biodiversity and population interact to yield large numbers of medicinal and psychotropic plants. High biodiversity occurs in the tropics, especially where there is variability of altitude, and combined with high population, the two factors increase the likelihood that people will accidentally discover plant-derived drugs. A third factor, however, comes into play in the specific case of hallucinogens, as most of them are found in sparsely populated tropical zones in the New World. Receptivity to radical, potentially frightening effects of plants may help to explain the disproportionate contribution of hallucinogenic plants by the Western Hemisphere (Schultes, 1977).

The principles of accident, biodiversity, and receptivity have exercised influence on the anthropological study of drugs throughout the history of pre-anthropology, as well as the current discipline established in the latter half of the 19th century. From Herodotus' accounts of Scythians using Cannabis to Schultes' encyclopedic descriptions of drug plants in Central and South America, human interaction with local ecologies provided the basic material that anthropologists eventually represented as herbal drug use to the Western audience.

This entry will take the approach that interactions between ecology and human populations underlie all of the other phenomena to be discussed.

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