Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America (#469)

Dr. Mark Plotkin with a Waura shaman, Xingu, Brazil

“Hallucinogens are vegetal scalpels, and scalpels can heal you and scalpels can hurt you. They are the vegetal or fungal two-edged swords.”

— Dr. Mark Plotkin

Dr. Mark Plotkin (@DocMarkPlotkin) is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with 55 tribes to map and improve management and protection of 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests. Educated at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts, Plotkin has since spent much of the past four decades studying the shamans and healing plants of tropical America from Mexico to Argentina, although much of his work focuses on the rainforests of the northeast Amazon. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books about the rainforest. His new book from Oxford Press is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know.

His upcoming podcast series is titled Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens: Culture, Conservation, History and Healing, and it will be coming out in late October. More information will be available on Mark’s website.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Brought to you by Wondery PlusFour Sigmatic, and Theragun. More on all three below. 

#469: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Ethnobotany, Real vs. Fake Shamans, Hallucinogens, and the Dalai Lamas of South America


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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with someone seeking to understand humanity’s relationship with the natural world’s unknown variables? Listen to my conversation with Paul Stamets, an intellectual and industry leader in the habitat, medicinal use, and production of fungi.

#340: Paul Stamets — How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World



  • Connect with Dr. Mark Plotkin:

Website | Amazon Conservation Team | Twitter | Facebook


Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.

  • Who is Richard Evans Schultes, how does his story cross paths with Mark’s, and what is ethnobotany?
  • When and how did Mark’s interest in ethnobotany begin? When was the moment he knew he was hooked?
  • What was the next step for Mark in making a career out of this interest?
  • In what way was Schultes a “trickster” in the shamanic tradition, and was he the template for Indiana Jones?
  • There are between three- to five-hundred indigenous cultures in the Amazon, with an equally diverse array of healing traditions. Here’s how a shaman in the northeastern part of the Amazon cured Mark’s foot pain instantly when no one else could.
  • What does Mark see as the “holes” in Western medicine’s understanding?
  • On electric eels, pink dolphins, fires in the Amazon, and an urgency to protect the unknown before we destroy it forever — whether or not it has practical applications.
  • Ayahuasca may get all the hype, but it’s only used by a small percentage of shamans in the Amazon. Mark talks about hallucinogenic frogs used for hunting magic and a psychedelic snuff called yopo.
  • Mark considers yopo his favorite Amazonian hallucinogen, but how does it compare to ayahuasca?
  • To Mark, what qualifies someone as a “shaman?”
  • What has compelled Mark’s 87 experiences with ayahuasca? What’s to be learned beyond the first few times of trying it?
  • What are the risks of doing ayahuasca and other Amazon-derived hallucinogens? Aren’t they all natural and harmless?
  • That time Mark got bitten by a vampire bat and bled like a stuck pig thanks to an anticoagulant in its saliva called — no kidding — draculin.
  • How the Amazon Conservation Team’s Shaman’s Apprentice clinics aim to preserve knowledge of obscure compounds (and their sources) when traditions are eclipsed by the temptations of the outside world for younger people among indigenous populations.
  • How Mark and his team have used technology to help the indigenous people of the Amazon protect their land, resources, health, and culture rather than entice them away from them.
  • What Mark did to illustrate for the chief of a tribe the importance of keeping a written record of their collective knowledge for future generations, and why he insists on leaving it untranslated from their native language.
  • When Western expertise insisted that there was no such thing as a male aphrodisiac, but shamans in the Amazon knew otherwise.
  • Do indigenous tribes ever profit from introducing their knowledge of preciously guarded compounds to the outside world?
  • Mark details two common failures in sustainable development, and one success story.
  • Is there anything in Mark’s experience in the Amazon that might help prevent future pandemics? What do the people who live there and in other remote areas know that we in the West haven’t seemed to wrap our heads around?
  • What official policies would Mark like to see put in place to protect the world’s remaining wildlife, natural resources, and indigenous people?
  • Does Mark see the Amazon rainforest as a glass that’s half-empty, or half-full?
  • As a boundary walker who’s been good at finding common ground between disparate causes, what does Mark see as the way toward bipartisan support for the Amazon Conservation Team’s mission?
  • How common are matriarchal societies and female shaman among the Amazon’s indigenous people?
  • Among tribes with which Mark has spent time, how often are hallucinogens used specifically for hunting and/or warfare?
  • How can those of us in the West who benefit from compounds derived from the Amazon ensure they’re sourced responsibly and not being outright stolen from the people who live there without any type of reciprocation? How can we help people who don’t necessarily benefit from just having a bunch of money thrown at their problems?
  • Mark shares the story of how a shaman healed one of his old wounds 13 years ago with no recurrence — where Western physicians had only failed before.
  • Parting thoughts.