Contributed by Nemer E. Narchi

Figure 1 First plane sea stars of undeterminable species sold at mercado de las brujas as a cure for heart disease

Figure 1. First plane: sea stars of indeterminable species sold at mercado de las brujas as a cure for heart disease (La Paz, Bolivia, 2007)

During the year of 2007 I was walking down the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, as part of a group of anthropology students waiting for some others to arrive and go down to the Bolivian Amazon to learn field methods in anthropology as part of the Tsimane Amazonian Panel Study summer course. Walking on Cerro Cumbre, where the famous mercado de las brujas (the witchesʼ market) can be found, I saw something that sparked my curiosity (figure 1.).

La Paz, being the highest administrative capital of the world, is settled at some 12,000 feet above sea level. Bolivia has no marine borders since they lost their coastal territories to Chile back in 1879. These facts pushed me to ask myself: Why were sea stars being sold for medicinal purposes at a city of such an altitude? How old is this practice? Why has no one documented this? Why were my findings not as mesmerizing or important to my companions? In fact, the sea stars passed unnoticed and the anthropologists were more curious about handmade figurines and lama mummies. Years before seeing these “high-altitude sea stars” being sold in bulk in La Paz, I participated in a research project studying marine-based organisms sold in popular markets around Mexico City (Fernández-Apango et al. 2002), also a high-altitude, landlocked location (7200 ft).

Was that previous experience what made me aware of such a bizarre encounter? I think that I would not have paid much attention to the sea stars if I had not been aware that there is an active use of marine ethnomedicines that extends beyond coastal communities.

I will here expand on the geo-cultural extension of marine medicines throughout history. The first record of aquatic medicine is nearly 5000 years old. The tax records generated in China in the year 2953 BCE, during the rule of emperor Fu Hsi, are proof that the empire was levying fish-derived medicine (Jia et al. 2004). Circa 400 BCE Hippocrates noticed the antibiotic effects of certain sponges, which he recommended to dress soldiers’ wounds with (Riddle 1987). In 41 CE, Scribonius Largus, personal doctor of Emperor Claudius, recommended the discharges of electric fish (Torpedo nobiliana) to cure migraines and headaches (Kuhfeld 1995). Dioscorides noted in his Materia Medica, around 65 CE, the benefits of applying brown algae for treating inflammation. Some years later, Galen also described medicinal uses of algae, noting that the mucilage surrounding the thallus had remarkable properties to dress wounds (Khalilieh and Boulos 2006). Pliny “the elder” also plunged into marine medicine in 77 CE when he suggested stingray spines to alleviate toothaches (Secundus 1603). The contribution of Chinese scholars to this topic is outstanding. Two salient books on the topic are Shen Nung Pen Tsʼao Ching (神農本草經) or The Divine Farmerʼs Materia Medica circa 200 CE, and the Chinese Materia Medica published circa 618 CE (Halstead 1992). As far as mentioning the Middle East, Lev-Yadun (2004) offers a comprehensive listing of animal-derived medicines used in Levant from 600 CE into 1700 CE, in which mollusks, fish and corals are included.

The Islamic Classical Period was an era full of passionate scholars responsible for safeguarding and improving the early-Greek and late-Roman science. Among these, Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyaa al-Razi (865-925 CE) and al-Muzaffar al-Rasuli used seaweed therapeutically (Khalilieh and Boulos 2006). Yet, of all these scholars, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, better known as Avicenna (980-1037 CE), remained the authoritative figure in Mediterranean medicine for centuries. In his seminal book al-Qanun fi al- tibb (Canon of Medicine) he mentions 23 different marine resources used as medicine (Farooqui and Ahmad 1994). The list expands to include algae, mollusks (e.g., Cypraea moneta, Sepia officinalis, Aplysia sp.), crustaceans (e.g., Cancer marina, Crangon vulgaris), sponges (e.g., Spongia officinalis,), echinoderms (Echinus marinus), fish (e.g., Anguilla sp), reptiles (e.g., Chelonia mydas), and mammals (e.g., Monodon monoceros). Last, the Pen Tsao Kang Mu (本草!目), written around 1590 CE holds several seaweed-based remedies (Chapman 1952).

Presently, research on marine ethnomedicine, while vibrant, is relatively small in numbers when compared with observations on terrestrial ethnobotanicals. I can think of a number of examples, such as common glasswort, used as diuretic in the Netherlands (Price, 2007); shrimps used to cure asthma in Brazil (Costa-Neto 1999); red mangrove used against myriad ailments in rural Baja California Sur (Encarnación and Contreras 1992) and elsewhere; and more than 24 marine medicinal organisms used by the Seri, hunter-gatherers of Northwestern Mexico (Narchi et al. 2002). There is no question that Pacific islanders (e.g. Napoleon 2004) and peoples of coastal places in Africa (e.g. Sowunmi 2007) also incorporate marine organisms in their pharmacopoeias. It should not be surprising if every coastal society we know of has developed a marine pharmacopoeia. After all, some 80% of the chemical diversity of the world lies in the oceans.

We ethnobiologists should be engaged in exploring marine ethnomedicine because: 1) It is a great chance for building knowledge on human adaptations, cognition, resource management and ethnopharmacology, and 2) the oceans are rapidly changing and coastal species are subject to great environmental stress. Given that we do not know how many people around the world depend on marine medicines to sustain their health, the evolving state of the oceans may imply challenges that go beyond food and into other life-sustaining systems, namely the availability of local medicinal resources. Besides, taking ethnomedicinal research to the beach is one of the few ways (if not the only) in which the discipline can become even more attractive than it already is.


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