Plants, Prescriptions, and Placebos: 1535 – present

Emily Button, 2013-2014 J. M. Stuart Fellow

salveSalvia divinorum

The circulation of people, things, and ideas between the New and Old Worlds from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries is a unifying theme of the John Carter Brown Library’s collections, and some of these circuits of exchange live on in strikingly similar ways. Online exhibitions at the JCB highlighting how indigenous American plants changed early modern European medical practices resound in many ways with Brown anthropologist Paja Faudree’s research on the contemporary global trade in Salvia divinorum, known colloquially simply as salvia. History does not simply repeat itself, however—changing contexts of production, use, and exchange illuminate how indigenous and European ideas about nature and medicine have changed each other over the centuries.

Two recent exhibitions at the JCB, 2011’s “Drugs from the Colonies: The New American Medicine Chest,” and 2009’s “Atlantic Materia Medica,” explore the circulation of plants and medical knowledge in detail, while several others touch on the subject, including “Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, 1600-1860,” currently on display in the reading room, and “Voyage to the Islands: Hans Sloane, slavery, and scientific travel in the Caribbean” from 2012. These exhibitions document an explosion of European writing about medicine and natural history in the eighteenth century, as explorers, traders, and colonists began to learn about indigenous American and African treatments for disease and experiment with new uses of plants from the colonies. Their technologies of knowledge gathering and dissemination included not only ethnographic observations, but also detailed engravings, preserved plant specimens, and seed boxes that circulated between Europe and the Americas. They also engaged in lively discussions about the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine, debating how best to categorize plants that could alter people’s physical and psychological states, and promoting European contexts of use and production that were radically different from indigenous customs. These plants included popular colonial cash crops like tobacco, sugar, cocoa, and coffee, which still blur the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine.

Even today, “new” plants continue to join this circulation, one of which Paja Faudree, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown, explores in her research project “Magic Mint: A Linguistic Ethnography of the Global Salvia Trade.” Faudree recently received funding from the National Science Foundation for her investigation of how the increasing popularity of the Mexican plant, Salvia divinorum, is reshaping transnational discourses about plants and drugs. In the Mazatec region of Mexico, where she has conducted her linguistic anthropological research for many years, indigenous shamans use a tea of this hallucinogenic plant in ritual contexts. However, in other countries, recreational users smoke it for its psychotropic effects. The internet is a foundational technology for this international trade, since online middlemen link buyers and sellers, and You Tube videos celebrate salvia’s “natural” high, shaping expectations for future users. Through interviews, participant observation, media analysis, and historical research, Faudree connects the increasing impact of salvia’s status as a cash crop in the Mazatec-speaking region of Mexico with popular, media, and political discourses on salvia’s representation in and beyond the United States.

In both these historical and modern case studies, American plants with psychotropic effects have gained new meanings and uses in the Atlantic world, reshaping both trading networks and discourses. Plants that people can use to self-medicate, i.e. to change their own psychotropic states, have a widespread and successful history as cash crops, and salvia is increasingly filling this niche in Mexico today. Yet contrasts between the indigenous and non-indigenous uses of “drugs” show that despite cross-cultural interest in plants that influence physical and psychological states, cultural frameworks of medicine, recreation, nourishment, and spirituality help to determine when, how, and why people use them. These frameworks, which Faudree calls “placebo texts” or “cultural narratives,” play a vital role in shaping people’s experience of plants as drugs, foods, or medicine.

Of course, some things have changed since the 16th century. On a surface level, technologies of information exchange and transportation of indigenous plants have shifted from physical books to the Internet, and from ships to private shipping carriers. More significantly, the exchange that began with colonial exploration shaped the dichotomies that structure the debate over salvia today. The “Drugs from the Colonies” exhibition illustrates how eighteenth century experiments began to sanitize and professionalize medicine, as Europeans sought predictable and regular treatments for diseases. In the twenty first century, laboratory-produced pharmaceuticals dominate American biomedicine. Salvia’s popularity has this historical trend to thank, since its users and proponents in the United States contrast its “natural,” and supposedly safe, effects with those of highly processed illegal drugs in powdered, pill, or solution form. Yet Faudree points out that salvia, too, is processed by the time it reaches most end consumers. She directs our attention to production and processing as well as the labor both entail, noting that representations and discourses about plants that treat them as purely natural products, rather than products with social histories, can influence their reception in distant markets.

These dichotomies between natural and social—and between gentle plant and harmful processed drug—are as applicable to engravings from seventeenth-century sugar plantations as to arguments today that “cane sugar” is more natural and healthful than “high fructose corn syrup.” The connections between Faudree’s ethnographic research and the John Carter Brown Library’s exhibitions testify that while contemporary developments in botanical medicine may appear new, they often draw their sustenance from debates rooted in history.