Today’s Science Wednesday is a guest post from French anthropologist, Dr. Benjamin Pothier, with a focus on enthobotany. While anthropology is the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, cultures and societies, in both the present and past, including past human species, ethnobotany is the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.
“Though I have participated as a fellow international of The Explorers Club to many extreme expeditions with Science in the Wild, from the world’s highest active volcano in the Atacama desert to the northernmost town on Earth in Svalbard, I also have dedicated the last 10 to 15 years of my lifetime to anthropological research and the study of the relationship between ancient and traditional indigenous artistic styles, shamanism and ethnobotany. While working on my PhD research, I made a potential discovery that was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal “Time and Mind”, the journal of archaeology, consciousness and culture. This potential discovery is based on my study of the ‘Chu Silk Manuscript’, estimated to date back to 300 BCE, and considered to be the earliest known Chinese manuscript containing illustrations. One can think of it as a Chinese version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscript was found by tomb raiders in the Zidanku suburb of the central Chinese city of Changsha during World War II. From there, it landed in the hands of an antiques dealer whose wife and daughter died fleeing Japanese troops, then American spies smuggled it out of China and finally it ended up in the US. You can read more details about this manuscript’s journey and story in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/08/world/asia/ancient-chinese-manuscript-sackler.html
The manuscript features the depiction of plants in its four corners. Although there was an academic consensus in considering these plants as ‘mythical trees’, my study suggests for the first time that some of the plants depicted present puzzling similarities with Caesalpinia decapetala, or Yun-Shih, a hallucinogenic plant known for its recorded ‘shamanic power’ in the first-known Chinese herbal 神農本草經 Pen-ts’ao Ching, which is estimated to have been compiled from oral sources around the beginning of our common era. The geographic distribution of the plant, its shape and the recorded relation of its use to shamanism tends to reinforce the possibility of its presence on the Chu Silk Manuscript, therefore potentially helping to identify substances used as trance–facilitating drugs during shamanic rituals dating back to the Chu state era and before. To read more, please see: https://doi.org/10.1080/1751696X.2021.1865646
Picture by Andrea Moro, Pisa, Orto Botanico di Pisa, Dipartimento di Biologia dell’Università di Pisa, PI, Toscana, Italia. Image licensed under a Creative Commons attribution non commercial share-alike 3.0 License.