A Forest of Knowledge: Richard Evans Schultes and the Rise of Ethnobotany
April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.
Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.
The conservation movement today encompasses more than the physical management of habitat to preserve plants and animals. Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) epitomized the modern conservationist by coupling his taxonomic work on plants with research on the botanical knowledge and culture of local people. Known as the “father of ethnobotany”, Schultes spent almost fourteen years deep within the rainforests of the Amazon learning from multiple Indigenous tribes about their languages, medicines, and relationships to plants.
“Richard Evans Schultes was an extraordinary ethnobotanist who devoted a large part of his professional life to studying the flora of the Amazon as well as of Asia and Europe,” says Felipe Cárdenas-Arroyo, a Colombian archaeologist researching Schultes. “For him, forests are like great libraries where knowledge is stored and available for those willing to read it. He admired and respected the Amazonian Natives because they know how to read in this library and have been its keepers for centuries. Burning down the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle is like burning down a library to make room for a parking lot, and Schultes feared that with today’s rate of destruction ‘climax forests will turn into scrub vegetation,’ never to regain their original state” .
Schultes was inspired as a youth to pursue botanical research in remote areas by the book Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon & Andes by the botanist Richard Spruce.
Schultes’s early research focused on peyote in the American Southwest and intoxicating mushrooms in southern Mexico. He collected specimens, identified species, and recorded local knowledge of medicinal uses and experiences.
After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University in 1941, Schultes began research on curare in the Amazon with the help of a 10-month travel grant from the National Research Council. He took the opportunity to collect specimens of many plants and discuss local uses with Indigenous communities.
He was in the field when the United States entered World War II and immediately joined the war effort. He was told to remain in the Amazon to try to find sources of much-needed rubber for the Allied Forces. He continued to work for the United States Department of Agriculture for the next twelve years, collecting approximately 3,500 specimens of the Hevea rubber tree. During his career in the Amazon, Schultes would collect over 24,000 botanical specimens.
Schultes returned to New England in 1953 and became the curator of the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard University. He continued to travel extensively to the Amazon while holding a number of positions at the Harvard University Botanical Museum and was a Harvard faculty member until his retirement as Professor Emeritus in 1985.
Schultes himself defined ethnobotany as “the complete registration of the uses of and concepts about plant life in primitive societies… comprising aspects of botany, anthropology, archeology, plant chemistry, pharmacology, history, geography, and sundry other tangential fields of the sciences and arts” (Kahn, 1992). His notebooks demonstrate his commitment to documenting knowledge beyond biology. Indigenous languages are captured on the pages, including place names and common words.
Schultes’s maps, lists, and recipes are a trove of information about difficult to access areas.
Throughout his travels, Schultes documented the local medicinal uses of hundreds of plants.
Schultes was well known for being respectful of Indigenous communities. He immersed himself in the cultures, eating what was offered and participating in rituals.
“I have tried several of the Indian hallucinogens, in part because the Indians consider them sacred plants and it would have been an unpardonable rudeness to refuse them when the Indians were kind enough to offer them to me during a ceremony” (Schultes, 1994).
Schultes advocated for the conservation of habitat, species, and Indigenous knowledge but he also understood the practical and economic aspects. He encouraged research into the chemistry and uses of plants as pharmaceuticals, recognizing that the vast habitat destruction and cultural loss occurring in the Amazon could delay the development of important medicines. (An overview of the many medicinal uses of plants is central to Schultes’s 1986 paper “The Reason for Ethnobotanical Conservation”.)
In a 1994 article, he writes:
“…in many regions of the Amazon Basin, native plant and animal species are being destroyed faster than can be recorded, classified and studied…Why not regard the Indians in the Amazon Basin as a kind of phytochemical rapid-assessment team already on the ground, which could help locate the most promising plants for chemical and pharmacological evaluation?…The Indians’ botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves” (Schultes 1994).
Schultes is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the international conservation movement, having advocated for conservation in developing areas since the 1940s. He mentored many graduate students, infusing them with the same respect and concern for the preservation of natural environments and local knowledge.
Schultes contributed to over 350 publications and served on editorial boards for several scientific periodicals. He also wrote and spoke to lay audiences on many occasions, always emphasizing the need to study and preserve Indigenous botanical knowledge, concluding:
“It is therefore our responsibility – nay, our duty – to put ourselves in the forefront of ethnobotanical conservation. We cannot allow such precious funds of knowledge to become extinct” (Schultes 1988b).
“Unless strong conservation measures are strictly enforced, many species and even some genera may become extinct. It is vitally important to preserve as many sources of germplasm as possible for the benefit of future generations” (Schultes 1990).
Schultes was the recipient of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the World Wildlife Fund Gold Medal in 1984, and the Harvard Medal and the Linnean Medal in 1992. Three genera and over 120 species bear his name. In 1986, the government of Colombia designated a 2.2 million acre protected area as “Sector Schultes” in his honor.
“Richard Evans Schultes, the great 20th century ethnobotanist, was deeply concerned with the fate of the tropical forests of the Earth,” states Felipe Cárdenas-Arroyo. “His work in search of medicinal plants was an important contribution to humanity. But in order for this work to continue, he knew that forests and the Natives who inhabit them need to be protected. Well aware that conserving both would guarantee a healthy planet for all of us, he voiced his concern for the future of the tropical forests and its people” .
The Richard Evans Schultes papers, containing Schultes’s field notes, photographs and botanical records, are held by the Botany Libraries in the Harvard University Herbaria.
Contained within the digitized materials in BHL are published articles and papers, field notebooks, lists of collected and identified plants, maps, and photographic materials. The Harvard University Herbaria contains many of the specimens collected by Schultes from North and South America.
For an interactive geospatial exhibit of Schultes’s work in Mexico and the Amazon, see The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes.
Amazon Conservation Team. The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes. https://www.banrepcultural.org/schultes/
Kahn, E. J. “Jungle Botanist [Richard Evans Schultes]”. The New Yorker. v. 68: pp. 35-58. 1992.
Sequeira, Luis. “Richard Evans Schultes : January 12, 1915-April 10, 2001”. National Academy of Sciences (U.S.). Biographical Memoirs ; v. 88. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2006.
Schultes, Richard. “Burning the Library of Amazonia.” Sciences 34, no. 2, pp. 24. 1994.
Schultes, Richard Evans. “Ethnopharmacological Conservation: A Key to Progress in Medicine.” Acta Amazonica, vol. 18, no. suppl. 1-2, pp. 393–406. 1988a.
Schultes, Richard Evans. “Gifts of the Amazon Flora to the World”. Arnoldia, vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 21-33. 1990.
Schultes, Richard Evans. “Primitive Plant Lore & Modern Conservation”. Orion Nature Quarterly ; v. 7, No. 3, Summer 1988. New York, NY: Myrin Institute, 1988b.
Schultes, Richard Evans. The Reason for Ethnobotanical Conservation. Bulletin of the Botanical Survey of India, v. 28, no.1-4, 1986, pp. 203-224. Calcutta, India: Director, Botanical Survey of India, 1986.
Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. https://tylerprize.org/laureates/past-laureates/1987-tyler-laureates/
 Cárdenas-Arroyo, Felipe. January and February 2020. Email exchange with Diane Rielinger.