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Orangutan Caught Using Plant Medicine in the Wild

Doctor Zaius’s pop culture references aside, this is one of the most interesting science news I’ve come across lately: A Sumatran orangutan with a nasty open wound near his right eye was observed to make a poultice out of a plant to treat the injury. And it worked.

After researchers saw Rakus applying the plant poultice to his face, the wound closed up and healed in a month.

Scientists say the behaviour could come from a common ancestor shared by humans and great apes.

[…]The scientists concluded that Rakus knew he was applying medicine because orangutans very rarely eat this particular plant and because of the length of the treatment.

These sort of news not only challenge our preconceptions about the intelligence of ‘lower’ species in the animal kingdom, but are also reminiscent of native folklore in which knowledge of the medicinal or psychoactive properties of certain plants are attributed to spiritual or ‘divine’ revelation.

We know, for example, that indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest attribute the discovery of the recipe to prepare Ayahuasca —the powerful DMT brew which uses very detailed ingredients which permit the slow digestion of the psychoactive compounds to permit a much longer ‘trip’— as imparted wisdom by ‘the ancestors.’ But we also know that in the wild jaguars have been observed to deliberately ingest DMT-rich plants which seem to trigger an altered state.

Were our ancestors able to deduce the beneficial or toxic properties of plants and minerals by observing the creatures sharing their habitat? It seems like a reasonable conclusion, which is not necessarily at odds with native folklore given their ‘animistic’ worldview which imbues everything with spirit.

But then, of course, the million dollar question becomes: how did these animals figure out the properties of the plants in the first place? Maybe we’ll need to fully legalize psychedelics to get that answer…

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