The medicine of the Maya in Belize
“For every ailment or difficulty on earth, the Spirits have provided a cure – you just have to find it.“ Don Elijio Panti.
Elijio Panti was the last Maya Shaman or Doctor-priest of Belize. He died at the age of 103, after a rich life devoted to healing others, physically and spiritually.
In our trip to this culturally rich country, Belize, my personal interest in alternative forms of medicine was stimulated by the fantastic heritage left to the modern Maya people related with traditional healing and medicinal plants.
Maya’s early medicine originated thousands of years ago, at the age of the first built temples. The knowledge was passed on orally from generation to generation, or as part of an intense training in the case of the traditional healers. With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, inevitabelly the Maya assimilated some cultural and religious aspects into their belief system, including into the healing traditions.
“Traditional healing is a system of healthcare which uses ancestral plants and healing vines of many roots. This form of healing must involve the act of religious prayer and spiritual well-being, and to the Maya, they honored their gods with prayers and thanked them for the remedies that cured and eradicated their illnesses.”, says Dr. Rosita Arvigo, founder of the Belize Ethnobotanist Project, one of the most prominent specialists in Maya medicine and taught by Don Elijio Panti.
Maya popular medicine is a holistic system that combines extensive medicinal plant knowledge, religion, spiritualism and mind-body connection. Maya people believed that everything was connected through a life force, ch’ulel, so healers could use plants, minerals, elements like water and prayers to heal. There’s a deep respect for the forest and the plants they collect, as they believe the plant spirit plays a fundamental role in the success of the healing process, combined with a strong faith in the treatment.
Maya’s herbal pharmacy is one of the most fascinating aspects of this traditional system with the obvious benefits to modern medicine, by using the extense botanical knowledge of the healers in the search for new and more powerful drugs. And for me, having studied Pharmacy, this was an opportunity to deepen my curiosity. A pertinent question was ringing on my mind: how did the ancient Maya knew about which plants to use for specific ailments? Here are some theories that might explain it:
– aromatic plants call attention by its aromas. Firstly used in food preparation, beneficial effects were observed that led to more experimentation.
– by a process of trial and error, the healer would acknowledge the plants that would be beneficial to treat certain diseases and, sometimes, the ones that had toxic effects.
– through observation of animal behavior (zoo-pharmacology).
– a potential medical use of a certain plant could be determined by observable physical characteristics of that plant (Doctrine of Signatures).
The healer uses medicinal plants in isolation or in combination, usually nine different types, that can be administered as teas, poultices, baths or even be smoked. People still use home remedies to treat illnesses in Belize and in many small, remote villages, “bush-doctors” are the first line of response in emergency situations, like a snake bite, or even the last resource when conventional medicine gave up the patient.
Some examples of plants traditionally used in Belize are the Allspice or Pimenta berries and leaves as a tea for digestive problems. The Tapaculo or Bay Cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia) bark is used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, as the name perfectly describes. The treatment can also be for spiritual ailments, such as the “evil eye”, when someone suffers from envy, bathing in water containing Basil’s fresh leaves and stems or carrying a sprig is thought to ward off the illness.
In Belize, there are several “must-see” places if you’re interested in this subject, such as medicinal trails, one of the best is in Chaa Creek Lodge, in Cayo district, where you can see an exposition about Panti and Rosita and learn about the use of several medicinal plants. The Botanical Garden at duPlooy’s Lodge has a collection of native and indigenous plants and for US$5 you get a booklet for a self-guided tour that has information on several medicinal plants along the trail. Or why not try and book an appointment with one of Panti’s nieces, Aurora Saqui, at the Maya village of Maya Center, in Toledo district.
Nowadays, it’s becoming harder and harder to find traditional healers in Belize, partly because the newer generations are more interested in the modern comforts of technology and the ever increasing availability of conventional medicine, and there’s almost no one to receive this invaluable knowledge, now in the hands of only a few elders. There’s some local organizations combining efforts to revive the traditions, including several Mayan associations like the Maya Traditional Healers and Dr. Arvigo’s Ixchel Tropical Research Center. But there’s still a lot of work to do, which includes the involvement of international research centres and pharmaceutical industries to test and document this legacy, otherwise, it will inevitably disappear one day.
- Botanical Gardens at duPlooy’s Lodge.
- Botanical Gardens
- Botanical Gardens
- Example of a medicinal plant – Jackass Bitters, traditionally used to treat infections, including malaria.
- Entrance to the Rainforest Medicinal Trail at Chaa Creek Lodge.
- Using a booklet to guide us in the trail.
– Rainforest Remedies, One hundred healing herbs of Belize. Rosita Arvigo, D. N. And Michael Balick, Ph. d. , 2nd Edition.
– Maya Atlas, by Toledo Maya Cultural Council and Toledo Alcaldes Association.
– Elijio Panti’s little museum at Chaa Creek’s Rainforest Medicinal Trail.