In search of the perfect aphrodisiac: Parallel use of bitter tonics in West Africa and the Caribbean

T.R. van Andel, S. Mitchell, G. Volpato, I. Vandebroek, J. Swier, S. Ruysschaert, C.A. Rentería Jiménez, N. Raes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Ethnopharmacological relevance Enslaved Africans in the Americas had to reinvent their medicinal flora in an unknown environment by adhering to plants that came with them, learning from Amerindians and Europeans, using their Old World knowledge and trial and error to find substitutes for their homeland herbs. This process has left few written records, and little research has been done on transatlantic plant use. We used the composition of aphrodisiac mixtures across the black Atlantic to discuss the adaptation of herbal medicine by African diaspora in the New World. Since Africans are considered relatively recent migrants in America, their healing flora is often said to consist largely of pantropical and cultivated species, with few native trees. Therefore, we expected Caribbean recipes to be dominated by taxa that occur in both continents, poor in forest species and rich in weeds and domesticated exotics. Materials and methods To test this hypothesis, we compared botanical ingredients of 35 African and 117 Caribbean mixtures, using Dentrended Correspondence Analysis, Cluster Analysis, Indicator Species Analysis and Mann–Whitney U tests. Results Very few of the 324 ingredients were used on both continents. A slightly higher overlap on generic and family level showed that Africans did search for taxa that were botanically related to African ones, but largely selected new, unrelated plants with similar taste, appearance or pharmacological properties. Recipes from the forested Guianas contained more New World, wild and forest species than those from deforested Caribbean islands. We recorded few ‘transatlantic genera’ and weeds never dominated the recipes, so we rejected our hypothesis. Conclusions The popularity of bitter tonics in the Caribbean suggests an African heritage, but the inclusion of Neotropical species and vernacular names of plants and mixtures indicate Amerindian and European influence. We show that enslaved Africans have reinvented their herbal medicine wherever they were put to work, using the knowledge and flora that was available to them with great creativity and flexibility. Our analysis reveals how transplanted humans adapt their traditional medical practises in a new environment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)840-850
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • male-rats
  • ethnobotany
  • medicine
  • cameroon


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