A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A journey through the Maya rain forest
Whack-ack-ack-ack. Each strike of the machete echoes through the rain forest, setting off a cacophonous response from birds and monkeys. A clean cut in a tree trunk begins to ooze a blood-red sap, which Maya healers call K'ik'-te. "We use it to treat open sores and chronic skin conditions," said Leopoldo "Polo" Romero, a Yucatec Maya bush doctor and treater of snakebites. Polo is one of a handful of traditional Maya healers who recently met at the Terra Nova Medicinal Reserve in western Belize to share knowledge of the rainforest and the curative properties of its plants with scientists from the New York Botanical Garden and the National Cancer Institute.
Terra Nova, the brainchild of Rosia Arvigo, a Chicago native and Maya-trained healer, was established in 1993 to help preserve Maya medicine and medical practices. For nearly three millennia the Maya flourished in the rain forests of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, harvesting roots, fruits, and foliage for medicine. Traditional ways have survived, even with the advent of European medical practices, and, in some areas, continue to be the sole source of healthcare. The 6,000-acre ethno-biomedical forest reserve in Belize, which holds a collection of rare medicinal trees, vines, and herbs, as well as seedlings rescued from areas of development, guarantees that future generations of healers and research scientists will have traditional plants to harvest.
Angela M.H. Schuster is senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.