Ethnomedicine :- An Introduction

It is a sub-field of medical anthropology and deals with the study of traditional medicines: not only those that have relevant written sources (e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda), but especially those, whose knowledge and practices have been orally transmitted over the centuries.
In the scientific arena, ethnomedical studies are generally characterized by a strong anthropological approach, more than a bio-medical one. The focus of these studies is then the perception and context of use of traditional medicines, and not their bio-evaluation.
Ethnomedicine has evolved over the millenia of human existence, and has even been exhibited by dogs, cats, and wild animals that eat specific grasses, roots, and other plant parts to relieve pain, supplement diet, and help cure disease.

India is one of the twelve mega-biodiversity countries of the World having rich vegetation with a wide variety of plants with medicinal value. The use of plants and plant products as medicine can be traced as far back as the beginning of human civilization. The earliest record of medicinal plant use in the Himalayas is found in the Rigveda, is supposed to be the oldest repository of human knowledge and describes 67 plants . After the Rigveda, Ayurveda describes the medicinal importance of 1200 plants. The Charak or Caraka Samhita (900 BC) and Susruta Samhita (500 BC) enumerate the art of surgery, therapeutics and medicines in detail on the basis of Atharvaveda . In addition to the Ayurvedic system, a large number of plants are also used in different other traditional health systems, including Homeopathic, Amchi (practice of Tibetan traditional medicine), Chinese , and folklore . The use of locally available medicinal plants is often an economically inevitable alternative to expensive western medicines .

A hand written herbal encyclopedia Bir Nighantu or Bir pharmacopoecia was compiled by Pandit Ghana Nath Devkota under the instruction of Bir Samser, the former prime minister of Nepal (1885-1901 AD). This encyclopedia covers 750 plants in detail and is probably the first written effort towards a compilation of the traditional knowledge about medicinal plants of the country.

Medicinal and aromatic plants are local heritage of global importance . Total 60% of the population of world and 80% of the population in developing countries rely on traditional medicine, mostly plant drugs, for their primary health care needs . An account of 70% of the population of India , 80% of Pakistan and 80% of Nepal are dependent on traditional plant based medicines. Medicinal and aromatic plants help in alleviating human suffering and are widely used as additives, beverages, cosmetics, sweeteners, bitters, spices, dying agents and insecticides.

Nepal recognizes about 1624 plant species as having medicinal and aromatic values, Sri Lanka about 1400, India about 2500 and China about 5000 .

Due to changing life, perception and lifestyle changes of the forest dwellers, as well as commercialization and socio-economic transformation on a global scale, there is a general observation that the plants are exacerbated and that indigenous knowledge on resource use is being degraded severely .

Due to lack of organized, sustainable cultivation based on scientific data and lacking awareness of social factors influencing plant use and market, no proper management of traditional medicines is in place, and the numbers of these plants are decreasing at an alarming rate . Medicinal herbs are regarded as free commodity (zero private cost) to be collected from nature . Ethnomedicinal studies are a suitable source of information regarding useful medicinal plants that can be targeted for domestication and management

The spiritual aspects of health and sickness has been anintegral component of the ethnomedicinal practice for centuries,a dimension ignored by biomedicine practitioners, becauseof the difficulties involved in validating its successusing scientific principles and experiments. The ethnomedicalsystems (primitive medicinal systems or traditional medicine)has two universal categories of disease aetiology -natural and un-natural (supernatural) causes. Natural illnessexplains illness in impersonal systemic terms. Thus, disease is thought to stem from natural forces or conditions such ascold, heat and possibly by an imbalance in the basic body elements. Un-natural illnesses are caused by two majortypes of supernatural forces: occult causes which are the result of evil spirits or human agents using sorcery and spiritual causes which are the results of penalties incurred for sins,breaking taboos or caused by God.

The components of ethnomedicine have long beenignored by many biomedical practitioners for various reasons.For example, the chemical composition, dosages and toxicity of the plants used in ethnomedicine are not clearly defined . However, it is interesting to note that the ethnomedicinal uses of plants is one of the most successful criteria used by the pharmaceutical industry in finding new therapeutic agents for the various fields of biomedicine .Some outstanding medicinal drugs which have been developed from the ethnomedicinal uses of plants include: vinblastine and vincristine from Catharanthus roseus (the periwinkle) used for treating acute lymphoma, acute leukaemias etc, reserpine from Rauwolfia serpentina (Indian snake root) used for treating hypertension, aspirin from Salix purpurea (willow) used for treating inflammation, pain and thrombosis and quinine from Cinchona pubescens (cinchona) used for treating malaria.

According to data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), ethnomedicine has maintained its popularity in all regions of the developing world and its use is rapidly expanding in the industrialized countries , for example, in China traditional herbal preparation account for 30-50% of the total medicinal consumption. In Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Zambia, the first line treatment for 60% of children with malaria is the use of herbal medicine. In San Francisco, London and South Africa, 70% of people living with HIV/AIDS use traditional medicine. Today the annual global market for herbal medicine stands at over US $60 billion . In many countries, scientific investigations of medicinal plants have been initiated because of their contribution to healthcare.

Ethnomedicinal studies carried out in the Gwalior Forest Division, Madhya Pradesh, India, led to interesting therapeutic applications of 102 plant species. Information on medicinal claims was collected from the tribal people called Sahariya' and the traditional healers who had knowledge of the traditional uses of medicinal plants. This study describes details of botanical identity, local name, parts of the plants used, mode of preparation, administration of the drug, and diseases for which the given plants are used.

An ethnobotanical survey was carried out to collect information on the use of medicinal plants in Southern Western Ghats of India (Madurai district, Tamil Nadu). A total of 60 ethnomedicinal plant species distributed in 32 families are documented in this study. The medicinal plants used by paliyars are listed with Latin name, family, local name, parts used, mode of preparation and medicinal uses. Generally, fresh part of the plant was used for the preparation of medicine.
It was observed that the documented ethnomedicinal plants were mostly used to cure skin diseases, poison bites, stomachache and nervous disorders. The results of this study showed that these tribal people still depend on medicinal plants in Madurai district forest areas.

Rural communities, in particular paliyar tribes, depend on plant resources mainly for herbal medicines, food, forage, construction of dwellings, making household implements, sleeping mats, and for fire and shade. Rural people not only depend on wild plants as sources of food, medicine, fodder and fuel, but have also developed methods of resource management, which may be fundamental to the conservation of some of the world's important habitats.
Ethnomedicine plays an important role in much of South American culture. In broad terms it is traditional medicine that is practiced by jampiris (herbalists) and yachajs (diviners) that carry on the healing traditions that have been passed on by ancestors for over a thousand years.
The purpose of the EthnoMedicine Preservation Project (EMPP) is to preserve the medicinal plant knowledge of indigenous cultures through documentation, exchange of information and preservation of habitat for future generations.

Project Description:
Indigenous peoples represent living libraries of medicinal plant knowledge that are being lost as they merge with modern society. Each culture contains a unique system of medicine with different degrees of emphasis on the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of healing. The purpose of EMPP is to provide a way in which the living knowledge of these cultures is preserved. It consists of a three-fold plan for each culture:

1. The creation of a botanical preserve in an area that contains the greatest variety of medicinal plant species.

2. The video graphic and physical documentation of the medicinal plants used: their habitat, harvesting techniques, preservation and storage, preparation as medicines and therapeutic application. This will provide a way for the culture to re-seed this knowledge into itself when it loses its healers.

3. The creation of a traditional healing clinic which preserves the ancient healing techniques in living form.

Documenting the indigenous knowledge through ethnobotanical studies is important for the conservation of biological resources as well as their sustainable utilization.

1. www.econatural
6. Notable plants in ethnomedicine of India, S.K. Jain, B.K.Sinha, R.C. Gupta. National botanical research institute, Lucknow.

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