Photo courtesy of David G. Kingston

From left, Kim Wright; a tribal healer (name unknown); and Frits Van Troon, a Suriname ethnobotanist, examine a medicinal plant.
In his new book, Medicine Quest,1 ethnobotanist Mark J. Plotkin describes a plant that forest dwellers in Suriname, on the northern coast of South America, call nekoe. They crush its stems and sprinkle them on streams to stun fish. The local Maroons, who are descendants of 17th century slaves of the Dutch, claim that tapirs eat nekoe and defecate in streams, then feed on fish that rise to the surface. Plotkin, a Smithsonian Institution research associate and president of the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team in Arlington, Va., found no corroboration of this observation from Amerindians, who have inhabited the jungle far longer than Maroons. Although he leaves open the question of whether humans learned of the plant's effect on fish from...

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