‘The Spirit of the Plant’: Exotic Ethnopharmacopeia Among Healers in Accra, Ghana


  • Bryn Trevelyan James University of Manchester




herbalism, ethnomedicine, Ghana


Despite the vast literature on healing in African contexts, comparatively little is known about historical use of popular species in herbal medicines. Given the prominence of plants in healers’ assemblages past and present, the lack of attention to plant origins, how practitioners acquire them, and to beliefs surrounding these processes, is surprising. This study, at the interface between archaeology and anthropology, approaches these issues through qualitative interviews and an ethnopharmacological survey with thirty healing specialists in a migrant community in Accra, Ghana. Over two seasons of fieldwork in 2010 and 2011, 141 unique plant-based medicines were documented, with samples of all constituent ingredients collected and botanically identified. Analysis of the ethnopharmacological results revealed 15% of species in the sample were botanically ‘exotic’: introduced, non-local plants found outside their native distributional range. Given that healers typically define their medicines as ‘traditional and ancestral’, such ‘exotic’ provenance is significant. This paper uses ethnography to explore contemporary assimilation of exotic plants at herbal markets, and in the beliefs and practices of individual healers. Drawing on historic and archaeological sources, these findings are used interpretively to broaden possible perspectives on introduction of new plants within the materia medica of West Africa over time.

Author Biography

Bryn Trevelyan James, University of Manchester

Bryn Trevelyan James completed his PhD in archaeology at the University of Manchester where he subsequently lectured. His current role is as a Research Associate at King’s College London. He also holds the position of Researcher in Residence at Manchester Museum and is an Honorary Student Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. His research interests include work on the intersection between archaeology and anthropology, the materiality of African medico-religious practices, and engaging diverse publics on these themes.