Geopolitics of bitterness: deciphering the history and cultural biogeography of Quassia amara L

Ethnopharmacological relevance

Quassia amara L. recently came into the spotlight in French Guiana, when it became the object of a biopiracy claim. Due to the numerous use records throughout the Guiana shield, at least since the 18th century, a thorough investigation of its origin seemed relevant and timely. In the light of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Nagoya protocol, questions about the origin of local knowledge are important to debate.

Aim of the study: Defining cultural biogeography as the dynamics through space and time of biocultural complexes, we used this theoretical framework to shed light on the complex biogeographical and cultural history of Q. amara. We explored in particular the possible transfer of medicinal knowledge on an Old World species to a botanically related New World one by enslaved Africans in Suriname.

Materials and methods

Historical and contemporary literature research was performed by means of digitized manuscripts, archives and databases from the 17th to the 21st century. We retrieved data from digitized herbarium vouchers in herbaria of the Botanic Garden Meise (Belgium); Naturalis Biodiversity Center (the Netherlands); Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum (USA); Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (UK); the IRD Herbarium, French Guiana and the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (France). Vernacular names were retrieved from literature and herbarium specimens and compared to verify the origin of Quassia amara and its uses.


Our exploration of digitized herbarium vouchers resulted in 1287 records, of which 661 were Q. amara and 636 were Q. africana. We observed that the destiny of this species, over at least 300 years, interweaves politics, economy, culture and medicine in a very complex way. Quassia amara’s uses are difficult to attribute to specific cultural groups: the species is widely distributed in Central and South America, where it is popular among many ethnic groups. The species spread from Central to South America during the early 18th century due to political and economic reasons. This migration possibly resulted from simultaneous migration by religious orders (Jesuits) from Central America to northern South America and by Carib-speaking Amerindians (from northern South America to Suriname). Subsequently, through colonial trade networks, Q. amara spread to the rest of the world. The absence of African-derived local names in the Guiana shield suggests that Q. africana was not sufficiently familiar to enslaved Africans in the region that they preserved its names and transferred the associated medicinal knowledge to Q. amara.


Cultural biogeography has proven an interesting concept to reconstruct the dynamics of biocultural interactions through space and time, while herbarium databases have shown to be useful to decipher evolution of local plant knowledge. Tracing the origin of a knowledge is nevertheless a complex adventure that deserves time and interdisciplinary studies.


Cultural biogeography, Herbarium specimens, Colonial history, Kwasi, Suriname, French Guiana, Quassia africana

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How to cite
Odonne Guillaume, Tareau Marc-Alexandre, Van Andel Tinde (2021). Geopolitics of bitterness: deciphering the history and cultural biogeography of Quassia amara L. Journal Of Ethnopharmacology. 267. 113546 (12p.).,

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