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Credit: Earth Aware Editions / The Lost Amazon / Wade Davis

Richard Evans Schultes

Ethnobotany is the study of past and present relationships between human cultures and the plants and similar organisms (e.g., mosses and fungi) in their environment. It is based on traditional uses by indigenous people, who drew their plant foods and healing herbs from their immediate surroundings. It has led to a modern global form called bioprospecting. Meanwhile, traditional uses continue and evolve. The border between the traditional and the modern was where Richard Evans Schultes cut the first trails in the Amazon.


From native lore handed down between generations to the travels of predominantly European and American plant explorers in the last two centuries, a lot has been learned and passed along to the outside world, but much remains to be discovered.


On entering Harvard in 1933, Schultes planned to pursue medicine. However, that changed after he took Biology 104, "Plants and Human Affairs," taught by the Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, Oaks Ames.  Ames, a Boston blue-blood, became a mentor, and Schultes, the son of a plumber, became an assistant in the Botanical Museum. His undergraduate senior thesis studied the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa of Oklahoma; he completed his Master of Arts in Biology in 1938 and his Ph.D. in Botany in 1941. Schultes' doctoral thesis investigated the lost identity of the Mexican hallucinogenic mushrooms belonging to the genus Psilocybe and soliloquy, a morning glory species in Oaxaca, Mexico. His initiation into the world of New World psychoactive plants and their indigenous uses had begun.


Credit: Earth Aware Editions / The Lost Amazon / Wade Davis

While traditional knowledge of medicinal and other valuable plants passes through intergenerational lineages, the study of ethnobotany is also woven together in lineages. In this case, though, they are academic ones that are comparative and cumulative, as is the way of most academia, with occasional outbursts of original thinking. Another of Schultes’ inspirational predecessors was the Amazon plant-exploring botanist Richard Spruce, a colleague of the famed Royal Botanic Kew Gardens, the destination and repository of the work of the numerable tribe of British plant explorers. The intersection of traditional and scientific knowledge was the syncretic trail blazed by Spruce, Schultes, and others. Many have followed and expanded those trails in the decades to follow. At the Richard Evans Schultes Center for Amazonian Ethnobotanical We aim to bring new technologies and scientific insights to this seminal work and continue the bioethical tradition of our organization’s namesake.  


Schultes then received a fellowship from the National Research Institute to study the plants used to make curare, which found remarkable applications in modern biomedicine. The entry of the United States into World War II saw Schultes diverted to the search for wild disease-resistant Hevea rubber species in an effort to free the United States from dependence on Southeast Asian rubber plantations, which had become unavailable owing to Japanese occupation. While on this duty saw the last and the lasting effects of the brutal rubber harvesting trade of the previous half century.


In his travels, he lived with the indigenous peoples, viewed them with respect, and felt tribal chiefs as gentlemen. Through it all, Schultes never lost respect for the indigenous people who were his hosts and informants. 


Credit: Earth Aware Editions / The Lost Amazon / Wade Davis

"The ethnobotanical researcher...must realize that far from being a superior individual, he - the civilized man - is in many respects far inferior...." 

- Richard Evans Schultes

Schultes' botanical fieldwork among aboriginal Amerindian communities led him to be one of the first to alert the world about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the disappearance of its native tribal groups. He collected over thirty thousand herbarium specimens (including three hundred species new to science) and published numerous ethnobotanical discoveries. He saw his prodigious scientific work amidst the most challenging of physical circumstances as all part of a field botanist’s work.


He was the first to academically examine ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made out of Banisteriopsis caapi vine in combination with various plants, of which he identified Psychotria viridis  (Chacruna) and Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga), both of which contained a potent short-acting hallucinogen, N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). He did a lot more than academic field research, taking the various potent psychoactive concoctions with his tribal hosts and participating in their ceremonies with aplomb. Never apologetic, always enthused in a low-key sort of way, he lived a life full of natural wonder and deep respectful knowledge and shared this with his students at Harvard, where he became a legendary figure. He died in 2001, at the beginning of a new century. His legacy continues with our work.

"I do not believe in hostile Indians. All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness is reciprocal gentlemanliness." 

- Richard Evans Schultes

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