A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies



Sensory anthropology has explored sensation as a fruitful but poorly examined domain of cross-cultural research. Curiously, sensory anthropologists have mostly ignored scientific research into sensation, even that which addresses cross-cultural variation. A comparative study in two Amazonian societies (Matsigenka, Yora [Nahua]) documented the role of the senses in medicinal plant therapy and benefited greatly from theoretical insights gleaned from sensory science. The study reveals a complex interweaving of cultural and ecological factors in medicinal plant selection, with sensation standing at the culture--nature nexus linking medical ideas with medical materials. By synthesizing (rather than antagonizing) scientific and anthropological insights, sensation can be understood as a biocultural phenomenon rooted in human physiology yet constructed through individual experience and culture. Overcoming the limitations of a narrowly defined sensory anthropology, sensory ecology is here proposed as a new theoretical perspective for addressing human--environment interactions mediated by the senses.