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Science News: What we can learn from indigenous cultures about medicine

– K.J., Editor

Scientists are constantly searching for new organisms that can be used to create medicines and remedies for various illnesses. Expeditions into wild and dangerous terrain are risky, but necessary, since a lot of common diseases are becoming increasingly resistant to current therapeutic drugs. For instance, new antibiotics may be needed to treat constantly-evolving infections such as multi-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

However, there is growing concern in the world today about how the loss of biodiversity will affect the future of medicine. Biodiversity, according to Biology Dictionary, describes every living organism within a single ecosystem or habitat, including numbers and diversity of species and all environmental aspects such as climate. Losing any part of an ecosystem or habitat, such as the flora, is not only detrimental to that specific ecosystem or habitat, but to the entire Earth.

Compounding this issue is the loss of indigenous cultures, particularly indigenous languages, with the knowledge of medicinal uses of plants and other organisms. The Matapi is a small indigenous group that lives in the Colombian Amazon rainforest. Like other indigenous cultures in the region, the Matapi has passed down accumulated knowledge such as how to treat a variety of illnesses with plants. This tribe used to be nomadic but in the 1980s was forced to live on a reservation with five other ethnic groups, where traditions and language, already threatened by colonization, withered further. As a result, their unique knowledge of medicinal plants has been reduced, along with other aspects of their culture. This is alarming, since this knowledge could have been used to benefit all of humankind.

The Linguistic Society of America explains that, from a scientific point of view, much is lost when a language disappears. Since a community’s history is passed down through its language, when the language disappears, it may take with it important information about the early history of the community. This unfortunately includes information about the medicinal uses of plants that have yet to be researched, tested, and implemented by scientists for the health of our global society.

Click here for the Japanese version.

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