A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies, GLENN H. SHEPARD JR., 2004

A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies


American Anthropologist, 2004, Vol. 106, Issue 2, pp. 252–266,

ISSN 0002-7294



Sensory anthropology has explored sensation as a fruitful but poorly examined domain of cross-cultural research. Curiously, sensory anthropologists have mostly ignored scientific research into sensation, even that which addresses cross-cultural variation. A comparative study in two Amazonian societies (Matsigenka, Yora [Nahua]) documented the role of the senses in medicinal plant therapy and benefited greatly from theoretical insights gleaned from sensory science. The study reveals a complex interweaving of cultural and ecological factors in medicinal plant selection, with sensation standing at the culture nature nexus linking medical ideas with medical materials. By synthesizing (rather than antagonizing) scientific and anthropological insights, sensation can be understood as a biocultural phenomenon rooted in human physiology yet constructed through individual experience and culture. Overcoming the limitations of a narrowly defined sensory anthropology, sensory ecology is here proposed as a new theoretical perspective for addressing human– environment interactions mediated by the senses.

Keywords : ethnomedicine, materia medica, shamanism, sensory perception, Peru


Miracles keep their distance from bodily senses: Would apeacock stay in a ditch?
—Rumi, Mathnawi

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousandsof miles and all the years we have lived.
—Hellen Keller

HAD DESCARTES PROCLAIMED “Sentio ergo sum” (I sense, therefore I am), the history ofWestern philosophy would never have been quite the same. As a rationalist, however, Descartes had a profound mistrust of the senses. Later Cartesian philosophers and scientists showed a special disdain for the lower, “animal senses” of odor, taste, and touch. This mistrust of the senses is not unwarranted, as modern research has demonstrated that sensory perception indeed varies among individuals, populations, and cultural groups. Yet before we lose ourselves in a muddle of relativism, it is worth noting that both you and I and the proverbial Eskimo share many basic features of sensory physiology with lobsters (Ache 1991), not to mention with one another. But to reiterate the rationalist’s reservations in the vocabulary of modern sensory science, sensation is not a passive, merely receptive enterprise: It involves complex interactions between multiple sensory and cognitive pathways, showing variation according to age, sex, genetic factors, individual experience, and cultural conditioning (Doty
1986; Rozin 1990; Wysocki et al. 1991).

My interest in sensory perception emerged during field research on medicinal plant selection among two neighboring but linguistically unrelated indigenous societies of the Peruvian Amazon, the Matsigenka and Yora (Shepard 1999). For both groups, plant medicines are identified and evaluated according to diverse sensory cues (e.g., taste, odor, color, texture) that reflect cultural models of illness and efficacy.
General similarities were noted in the two groups’ classifications of taste, odor, and other sense vocabulary but important differences were found in their sensory evaluations of medicinal plants. Illness theories and medicinal plant administration were also markedly different, reflecting contrasting notions of efficacy. Despite these important cultural differences, statistically significant similarities were found in the ecological and taxonomic characteristics of the two pharmacopoeia (Shepard 2002a). Seeking to understand these findings, I develop an approach that attends to the interwoven cultural and biological
dimensions of sensation. I further discuss these results and outline a new sensory ecology (after Biersack 1999), suggesting ways it might be applied to an array of anthropological questions.