Science - August 30, 2012

African sex tonics being westernized

Text:
Joris Tielens

Changing ingredients of the aphrodisiac reflected the shifts in where African slaves lived. Aphrodisiac drinks gaining in popularity.

Aphrodisiac containing yohimbe, a substance originally from Africa.
Aphrodisiac drinks being sold in the United States as African herbal remedies are, it appears, less exotic than their labels would suggest. While the recipes can be traced back to the knowledge of African slaves forcibly shipped to the New World, this new homeland simply did not provide the right ingredients. And so the slaves sought out plants that they supposed might have the same effects. This has been discovered by the Wageningen anthropologist Gabrielle Volpato, who studied the history of these tonics in his doctoral research.
The African sex tonic makes a great case study, one that proves how ethnobotanical uses are continually being applied and rediscovered, says Volpato. 'The tonic's ingredients changed over time, but it remained a product with an African identity.' According to Volpato, the slaves in America sought plants that resembled the African ingredients. For example, they selected plants with the same bitter taste and scent because they believed that bitterness purifies the blood and both arouses sexual desire and rejuvenates. And they chose phallic plants such as the coconut palm to symbolize an erection. Slaves combined their own and European knowledge, for example by mixing the tonics with absinthe, which the Europeans believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Sales of African sex tonics are on the increase in North America and the Caribbean, and their purchasers are not only people of African origin. This is an aspect of the revaluation of African culture and the rise of herbal medicine in the United States. These days the tonics that Americans so eagerly buy in the supermarket are made to a standard recipe of sorts, which has come about as the tonics have become increasingly widespread. That won't change again, says Volpato. By contrast, he believes that tonics are still being brewed for own use in rural parts of the Caribbean. 'Their ingredients will continue to change.'

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