Caño Guacayá, Río Miritiparaná, April 1952. Schultes being administered a dose of Amazonian tobacco.
“If you want to know a plant, you have to live with it.”
– Richard Evans Schultes
Richard Evans Schultes, aka the Father of Modern Ethnobotany, “is known for his studies of the uses of plants by indigenous peoples, especially the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He worked on entheogenic or hallucinogenic plants, particularly in Mexico and the Amazon, involving lifelong collaborations with chemists.”
He went to Harvard in 1933 as a scholarship student and enrolled in a famous class called “Bio 104: Plants and Human Affairs.” It was taught by Oakes Ames who became Schultes´mentor. Years later, Schultes succeeded Oakes and taught that very same course to Harvard students including Mark J. Plotkin. He ended up being the most well regarded, famous and important explorer of the Amazon rainforest of the 20th Century.
Schultes did such an excellent term paper for the course that Oak Ames funded Schultes to go to Oklahoma and study peyote in Situ with the Kiowa tribe. After that, he went to Mexico and discovered magic mushrooms, which was followed by over a decade in the Amazon, where he discovered ayahuasca.
Harvard was fundamental in putting him on that path, and Schultes repaid it in full by bringing to the outside world the lessons of the importance of indigenous wisdom, the genius of indigenous healers, and the importance of the alkaloids in these plants for which we are still finding new therapeutic purposes.
Schultes was one of the greatest plant collectors of his time. He brought back from the tropics (the Amazon and Mexico, where he did his Ph.D. work) a total of over 24,000 specimens. Over 100 were named in his honor, which is the ultimate accolade for a botanist or a zoologist.
Schultes focused on peyote for his undergraduate work at Harvard and while he was studying this, he found a note in the herbarium that said that indigenous people of southern Mexico were not using peyote as a sacrament, but magic mushrooms.
“At the time, no scientist knew of any hallucinogenic fungi consumed by peoples of the Americas. In 1938, Schultes—then a Harvard graduate student—headed south to Oaxaca, where he collected “magic mushrooms,” leading to the scientific discovery of psilocybin.”
Magic mushrooms were mentioned in the chronicles 500 years ago at the time of the conquest of the Aztecs, but nobody knew there were hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Americas. Richard Evans Schultes went down there and found it. He’s often credited as the discoverer of Magic Mushrooms, but he always pointed out that ethnobotanists don’t discover anything; it’s shown to us or taught to us by our indigenous guides and teachers. But by age 26, Schultes had brought peyote (in essence, mescaline) and psilocybin to the attention of the outside world.
Schultes also became one of the world’s leading authorities on rubber which is native to the Amazon. When the war broke out after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, the need for rubber rose significantly higher. Rubber was grown commercially in plantations in Southeast Asia, which the Japanese had seized. So when Pearl Harbor took place, Schultes reported to the American Embassy to see if they wanted to send him off to fight. They declined his offer and sent him back to the Amazon to help them figure out how to get more rubber from its original home. “Schultes remained in Amazonia for more than a decade, conducting the first detailed studies of the hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine as well as collecting thousands of other medicinal plants.”
“Schultes also foresaw that hallucinogens could facilitate better understanding and more effective healing of the human psyche. His prediction has proven startlingly prescient with the advent of the current “Psychedelic Renaissance,” as mind-altering substances offer significant promise in the treatment of addiction, depression, PSTD, and other challenging afflictions.
In 1943, Schultes traveled to Chiribiquete, an exceedingly remote region of table-top mountains in the northwest Amazon that had been preliminarily mapped in 1917 by the eccentric Harvard geographer Alexander Hamilton. He returned to the capital city of Bogotá and began advocating with Colombian colleagues for the government to declare Chiribiquete a protected area (an idea which finally came to fruition in 1989). Schultes retired from Harvard in 1985 but continued to speak and publish widely on the importance of rainforests and indigenous wisdom before his death in 2001.
Today, Chiribiquete is twice the size of Massachusetts, making it the world’s largest rainforest national park, home to stunning levels of biodiversity, and protecting three uncontacted indigenous groups and the world’s largest known repository of Pre-Columbian paintings. In terms of rainforest conservation, greater respect for indigenous wisdom, and better appreciation of nature’s therapeutic bounty, Schultes’s legacy endures.”
A lot of the text was taken from this summarising video, narrated by fellow ethnobotanist and previous student Mark J. Plotkin. I also recommend the below documentary for anyone more deeply interested in the life and legacy of Richard Evans Schultes: