Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The use of Amerindian charm plants in the Guianas

Tinde van Andel1*, Sofie Ruysschaert2, Karin Boven3 and Lewis Daly4
1 Department Biosystematics, Wageningen University, Leiden, 2300, RA, The Netherlands
2 WWF Guianas, Henck Arronstraat 63 Suite E, Paramaribo, Suriname
3 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the Netherlands, Bezuidenhoutseweg 67, The Hague, 2594, AC, The Netherlands
4 Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
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Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2015, 11:66  doi:10.1186/s13002-015-0048-9
The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:

Received:9 May 2015
Accepted:8 August 2015
Published:15 September 2015
© 2015 van Andel et al.

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Magical charm plants to ensure good luck in hunting, fishing, agriculture, love and warfare are known among many Amerindians groups in the Guianas. Documented by anthropologists as social and political markers and exchangeable commodities, these charms have received little attention by ethnobotanists, as they are surrounded by secrecy and are difficult to identify. We compared the use of charm species among indigenous groups in the Guianas to see whether similarity in charm species was related to geographical or cultural proximity. We hypothesized that cultivated plants were more widely shared than wild ones and that charms with underground bulbs were more widely used than those without such organs, as vegetatively propagated plants would facilitate transfer of charm knowledge.


We compiled a list of charm plants from recent fieldwork and supplemented these with information from herbarium collections, historic and recent literature among 11 ethnic groups in the Guianas. To assess similarity in plant use among these groups, we performed a Detrended Component Analysis (DCA) on species level. To see whether cultivated plants or vegetatively propagated species were more widely shared among ethnic groups than wild species or plants without rhizomes, tubers or stem-rooting capacity, we used an independent sample t-test.


We recorded 366 charms, representing 145 species. The majority were hunting charms, wild plants, propagated via underground bulbs and grown in villages. Our data suggest that similarity in charm species is associated with geographical proximity and not cultural relatedness. The most widely shared species, used by all Amerindian groups, is Caladium bicolor. The tubers of this plant facilitate easy transport and its natural variability allows for associations with a diversity of game animals. Human selection on shape, size and color of plants through clonal reproduction has ensured the continuity of morphological traits and their correlation with animal features.


Charm plants serve as vehicles for traditional knowledge on animal behavior, tribal warfare and other aspects of oral history and should therefore deserve more scientific and societal attention, especially because there are indications that traditional knowledge on charms is disappearing.


Magical charm plants used to ensure good luck in hunting, fishing, agriculture, love and warfare are known among many different groups of Amerindians in the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, see Fig. 1). These charms are grouped under the local terms bina (Arawak), turara or moran (Carib), hemït (Wayana), muran (Makushi), murang (Akawaio), aibihi (Warao), polã (Wayãpi), masas (Palikur) and taya by several people of indigenous and mixed origin [1]–[8]. Although they can consist of animal parts, items of material culture, symbolic tattoos, stones, and petroglyphs, the majority of these charms are plants [4].
thumbnailFig. 1. Map of the Guianas with schematic locations of the indigenous groups relevant to our study, based on the linguistic map of South America ( Carib-speaking groups are indicated in yellow, Arawak-speaking groups in blue, Tupi-speaking Wayãpi in pink and the Warao-speaking group in green
As early as 1665, the Reverend Raymond Breton [9] documented the terms tula:la and táya in his dictionary of the Carib language spoken on the French Caribbean islands. He recognized them as plants of the Araceae family, “some of them having reddish leaves” … “used by all Indians, for magic purposes, especially to protect them against the Whites”. Not only were these taya plants used to heal the wounds caused by poisoned arrows, their juice was also mixed with the red paint made from Bixa orellana fruits and rubbed on the body to pacify the enemy [9]. A few years afterwards, the French plantation manager Jean Goupy des Marets mentioned the use of toural among the Indians of French Guiana in his diary [10]. The use of charms among Indians in Guyana and Suriname was first described by 19th and early 20th century ethnographers and missionaries [6], [7], [11]–[14]. These vegetable charms were thought to have substantial magical power, and were usually described as “fleshy arum-like plants with sagittate leaves used as a good-luck charm” [15] or “plants....that effect their purpose by enticing or attracting the particular object of desire yearned for, whatever it may be- from the capture of an animal to the gratification of a wish” [7]. In his research among Pemon Indians in Venezuela, Thomas [16] described muran as plants that were rubbed into cuts in the arms or legs to ensure success in hunting, which had potentially beneficial effects, but using them without proper instruction was potentially fatal.
According to Penard and Penard [6], charm plants always have an underground bulb, which is used alone or mixed with various animal organs (e.g., blood, brains, hairs or feathers) and rubbed on the hunter’s skin, his bow, arrow, fishing rod or dog, or simply carried in his pocket to have a greater chance to catch this particular animal. Every game animal or edible fish is said to have its own charm, of which the root or leaves resemble the color or shape of the desired animals fur, head or other organs [3], [7]. Most studies report that Amerindians procure their charm plants from the forest and transplant them to their house or garden [4], [7]–[17]. The charms are usually grown in pots or between the vegetation in a secret place to hide them from others and prevent menstruating women from touching or urinating over them, acts which would spoil their magic power [8], [18]. In their description of Surinamese Caribs, Penard and Penard [6] mention that “their cultivated ornamentals are nothing else than charms or toelala”.