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African Ethnobotany-Poisons and Drugs: Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology.
by Hans Dietter Neuwinger. 1996. New York: Chapman & Hall. 941 pp. Hardcover. 202 drawings, 67 color photos. $229.95. ISBN 3-8261-0077-8. ABC Catalog #B325.

A common vision many people have of ethnobotany is of the botanist or anthropologist traveling in South America or Africa encountering a tribe of native peoples who use poison-tipped arrows and darts either to paralyze or kill their prey, either animal or human. The use of poisonous plants in traditional societies to aid in hunting is an ancient art. As a source of modem drug development, this is epitomized by the creation of d-tubocurarine, a presurgical muscle relaxant derived from South American arrow poisons, discovered in this century as a function of ethnobotany. This book constitutes what is clearly the most extensive and authoritative work in this field pertaining to the African continent. An interesting explanation of different types of arrow poisons and their development into drugs is provided in the introduction excerpted on pp. 64-67 of this issue of HerbalGram.

The book contains extensive monographs on 240 poisonous plants. All are arranged alphabetically by family name. Each monograph takes up from one-half page to several pages and contains the following elements: the botanical name and synonyms, local vernacular names in tribal languages, a line drawing of Africa showing the region of distribution, detailed botanical descriptions of the whole plants and parts, including line drawings in many of the monographs, geographical distribution, information on traditional medicinal use and, in some cases, thorough explanation of the chemistry of the plant including occasional diagrams of chemical structures. References also accompany each monograph. The section on vernacular names is usually broken down by country and an interesting and detailed section on "hunting poison" provides some of the most interesting aspects of the monographs, particular to the theme of this book. Detailed pharmacological data is also presented when available.

Under the section "hunting poison" the author has included historical data from the first European observers in the 19th century, botanical data as noted in various herbaria, chemical and chromatographic data when available, and ethnobotanical/anthropological observations by other authors, including other plants with which the particular plant poison is mixed.

The book also contains a short chapter on fish poisoning plants, consisting of an index of plants used as fish poisons organized alphabetically by family name, indicating which plant parts are used as fish poisons and from Which countries in Africa they have been observed. A bibliography of references on traditional African medicine is provided, organized by the traditional medicine literature of each of 31 countries. The book also contains indexes based on plant and subject. Although the obvious emphasis of this book is the development of poisons, there is considerable good data to be gleaned for the student or researcher looking for traditional medicine information. This book is a wealth of information and deserves a space in the libraries of anyone interested in poisons from medicinal plants of these regions. There is no doubt that Newinger's book will become the classic reference on this subject; it is of value not only to botanists and ethnobotanists, but also to chemists, toxicologists, physicians, and others interested in this field.

Although some of the monographs consist of only one to two pages, the monograph on Erythrophleum sauveolens (Saesalpiniaceae family) consists of at least 19 pages with over four pages devoted to the "hunting poison" section alone and over four pages devoted to pharmacology and toxicology.

In general, African hunting poisons are quick-acting cardiac poisons; this is in contrast to South American arrow poisons that are mostly muscle relaxants. The three plant genera that constitute the predominant poisons of Africa are Acokanthera in East Africa, Parquetina in Central Africa, and Strophanthus in West and Southeast Africa. These are termed by the author the "Big Three," which he says are chemically and toxicologically similar to/known as the APS poisons. "They are ideal hunting poisons: fast, easy to obtain and fast in action!" There are seven plants that produce hunting poisons, more toxic and more widely dispersed. In addition, there are hundreds of other plants that are combined with up to twelve ingredients. The author notes that contrary to other regions, Africans do not rely on poisons based solely on animal ingredients (e.g., beetles, scorpions, toad venoms, etc.). The book attempts to focus on chemistry of the plants when possible -- much of this data has no t been available before in a concise format.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Blumenthal