• Deep Forest Foundation

The vitality of indigenous knowledge in the Amazon

by João Paulo Tukano and Thiago Cardoso


Indigenous peoples have been present in the lands of the Amazon for millennia, being responsible for the development of technologies in architecture, ceramics, forest management, land management, river management, and for the development of medicine and body care.


In the wake of modern science and state policy, the peoples were forced to deny their own world, their knowledge, and memory. As a consequence, indigenous languages ​​and knowledge, which could be important for the survival of the forest and the maintenance of its biodiversity, have been erased over time. In the Amazon, in these times of pandemic, the coronavirus is taking the elderly, and all the memories of a people die with them. This is a real catastrophe as it affects indigenous peoples and their existing bodies of knowledge.


However, at the same time, the pandemic has highlighted that indigenous knowledge is vital and important for all humanity. It is good to remember that each society has their own explanations for the cycles of health and diseases, and it is good to know that, for the indigenous peoples, the body is built in relation to the environment. That is to say, in general, indigenous peoples living in the Amazon build their health systems by looking at the body and its social and environmental relations according to their cosmologies.


The bad relationship that we establish with the terrestrial world and the beings that inhabit the cosmos is manifested in a set of “abnormal” facts in the form of unknown diseases, greater impacts of natural phenomena, scarcity of natural resources, imbalance of bioindicators of time, and other abnormal phenomena

The indigenous peoples of the upper Rio Negro[1], for example, inhabitants of the Brazilian Amazon, have their own understanding of this complex of disease and cure. For these peoples, it is important to look at the notion of the body as the synthesis of all the elements and an equalizer of substances, to maintain balance. For the Tukano indigenous people the body is made of boreyuse kahtiro (light / life), yuku kahtiro (forest / life), dita kahtiro (land / life), ahko kahtiro (water / life), waikurã kahtiro (animals / life), ome kahtiro (air / life) and mahsã kahtiro (mahsã / life). This is a notion very different from the perspective of doctors in the Western world.


According to the kumuã (shamans), the human body is a combination of six tailor-made substances. Its imbalance is understood as a consequence of the imbalance of these substances and its relationship with the environment. From the indigenous point of view, the human being is inserted in a web of relationships with other beings, with the waimahsã, with the animals, the specialists, the ancestors, and other people. The bad relationship that we establish with the terrestrial world and the beings that inhabit the cosmos is manifested in a set of “abnormal” facts in the form of unknown diseases, greater impacts of natural phenomena, scarcity of natural resources, imbalance of bioindicators of time, and other abnormal phenomena. All of this greatly affects our social, political, economic and environmental life.



The Munduruku indigenous people, who inhabit the Tapajós River valley in the state of Para, Brazil, also share knowledge that links the body and the relationships with the cosmos. Faced with the construction of hydroelectric plants in their territory and the proliferation of mining, the Munduruku diagnose the increase in diseases caused by the imbalance that involves the relationship of indigenous bodies with other beings that inhabit awaidip (beings / forest) and idixidi (water / river / greater). It is up to the Munduruku shamans to placate the diseases caused by the imbalance inflicted by the disturbances imposed on them.


The widespread indigenous peoples of the Upper Rio Negro continue to practice ancient therapeutic processes and ,like the Munduruku, the shaman is a specialist of the greatest importance. These practices involve bahsese and the use of medicinal plants. Bahsese (blessings) - are sets of “blessings”, formulas used by indigenous specialists, often referred to as shamans, to cure diseases. In other words, it is the power and ability of these specialists o invoke the healing substances of plants, minerals, and animals. They put the sensitive qualities (bitterness, sweetness, acidity, coldness, etc.) into action to produce the effect of slowing down and curing the disease. For this, medicinal plants from the forest and cultivated gardens are used for disease prevention and treatment.

Ninawa Pai da Mata of the Huni Kuin collects medicinal vine.

This whole set of a very specific knowledge of indigenous peoples is increasingly disappearing, mainly due to the lack of recognition as a differentiated knowledge regime by the State. The extinction of this knowledge is even more imminent when health policies promoting medicalization are being implemented in indigenous communities and villages. In the process of contact with the outside world, these peoples were led to deny their own knowledge for decades and, now, they are indoctrinated by science that imposes oblivion as a policy, and encourages chemical and scientific dependence.


There is a challenge in promoting symmetrical dialogue between scientific knowledge built in research centers and indigenous models. They are distinct theories and models of knowledge. The knowledge generated by science must take into account what has already been produced by indigenous peoples in their lands, which is the reverse of what has been done for decades, since the colonization of Brazil.


We need knowledge that is capable of dialogue with this model of understanding the world. Indigenous knowledge is not only focused on the objective issue, as is science. This knowledge extends far beyond modern convention.


Cooperation between indigenous knowledge and the sciences can begin with the decolonization of western medical mentality the has pervaded indigenous populations. For this, science must be open to acknowledge other models of knowledge and its application for healing and recovery of ecosystems. Understanding is essential for building new cooperation with ancient knowledge and bridging the gap between new world and indigenous wisdom. The possibilities for dialogue remain open.

João Paulo Tukano is Indigenous of the Yepamahsã (Tukano) people. Graduated in Philosophy, Master and PhD in Social Anthropology. Researcher at the Center for the Study of the Indigenous Amazon (NEAI). Founder of the Bahserikowi Indigenous Medicine Center. Member of the Science Panel for the Amazon.

Thiago Cardoso is biologist and professor of anthropology at Universidade Federal do Amazonas. Researcher at the Center for the Study of the Indigenous Amazon (NEAI).

[1] 23 indigenous ethnic group live in the Upper Rio Negro, in the northwest of the Amazon.

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