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Traditional healing practices

A study into traditional medicine practices in Madagascar has revealed the ritualistic and symbolic importance of plants thought to have healing properties.
Traditional healing practices
Humans have used plants and animals for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. While modern medicine now predominates in the west, traditional medicine is still practised among many indigenous populations.

The EU-funded 'Plant-words and the transformation of personhood in Masikoro healing practices in Madagascar' (PLAWOMAD) project combined anthropology and botany to better understand indigenous therapeutic practices. In particular, PLAWOMAD sought to update the traditional pharmacopoeia (an exhaustive publication of medicinal drugs and their uses) of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.

While scientists have extensively analysed and categorised medicinal plants for both western and traditional medicine, the anthropological (human) perspective is lacking. PLAWOMAD researchers therefore reasoned that criteria for compiling western pharmacopoeia cannot be applied to the traditional version, since plants have both symbolic and pharmacological importance.

During the course of an academic and ethnographic study on the use of traditional medicine, PLAWOMAD addressed two previously held misconceptions. The first is that contrary to popular belief, traditional medicinal knowledge is not under threat from western society introducing new plants and ideas. Researchers found that rather than traditional knowledge being handed down unchanged through generations, non-indigenous or newly introduced plants have long been incorporated into traditional practices.

PLAWOMAD also addressed the misconception that pharmacological properties of plants alone explain their healing properties, when in fact their symbolic value is just as important. Indeed, 'symbolic plants' are used in ritualistic therapies for serious diseases, while 'pharmacological plants' are used as teas, baths or decoctions for physiological complaints.

This study highlights the fact that both symbolic and pharmacological uses for plants in traditional medicine should be taken into account when compiling traditional pharmacopoeia. As such, researchers now have deeper insight into indigenous healing practices in Madagascar.

Related information

Keywords

Traditional healing, healing practices, traditional medicine, pharmacopoeia, medicinal plants
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