Bioprospecting in New Spain: Ethnobotany and the Nahua Pharmacopoeia

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Paula De Vos, San Diego State University
In their efforts to establish imperial rule in the Americas, Spaniards demonstrated an early but longstanding interest in the medicinal plants of their claimed dominions.  In Mexico, a series of formal ethnographic and “bioprospecting” investigations took place in the sixteenth century that revealed an unprecedented array of natural resources useful in medicine as well as a variety of other artisanal and industrial purposes.  The reports resulting from these investigations have been the subject of extensive research by anthropologists, chemists, pharmacologists, ethnobotanists, and historians in Mexico, Spain, and the United States.  Despite their efforts, however, we still do not have a comprehensive picture of Nahua materia medica or Nahua pharmacology.  Researchers have produced isolated studies and major encyclopedias detailing the botanical characteristics and uses of Mexico’s traditional herbolaria (herbal medicines), but to date there is no synthesis or a sense of what was most valuable to and used widely among the Nahua.  In this paper, I survey four main sources of Nahua medicine as recorded from native informants to compile, out of more than 1,000 medicines named, an overview of the 110 most prominent medicines in the Nahua pharmacopoeia.  This comprehensive view of the Nahua pharmacopoeia demonstrates the rich, wide-ranging and versatile nature of the materials cultivated in the indigenous agro-systems of MesoAmerica and the diversity of its material medica.  Among the 110 medicines were “cash crops” such as tobacco, vanilla, cacao, rubber, and cotton; substances such as guayacan bark and Mechoacan root that achieved widespread recognition and export; and staple foods as well as spices and flavorings in Nahua cuisine.  Such a study, then, lends both specificity and synthesis to current understandings of pre-colonial as well as contemporary herbal medicine in Mexic
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