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  • Dragon's Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor
  • Daniel B. Hale (bio)
R. A. Donkin . Dragon's Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor. Brill's Indological Library, vol. 14. Leiden, Boston, and Köln: Brill, 1999. xiii, 307 pp. Hardcover $98.00, ISBN 90-04-10983-8.

For most of recorded history people have valued forests not for wood but for other products. Whereas timber products have become major international commodities in modern times, non-timber forest products, including gums, resins, latexes, and aromatic woods, rank among the oldest traded commodities. Ancient Egyptians imported gum arabic (Acacia spp.) from the Sudan for use in paint, perfumery, and the mummification process. International trade in frankincense (Boswellia spp.), myrrh (Commiphora spp.), oil of sandalwood (Santalum spp.), and aloeswood (Aquilaria spp.) dates back to at least the first century C.E., while local trade in their areas of production dates back even further. In Dragon's Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor, R. A. Donkin (Emeritus Reader in Historical Geography, Jesus College, Cambridge) traces the extended history of another such forest product, camphor, or "dragon's brain perfume" as it is referred to in some Chinese sources.

Written in an extraordinarily detailed, if slightly pedantic, style, Dragon's Brain Perfume is an illuminating and singularly original study of one of the longest traded, and often most highly prized, aromatic substances of the Old World. Published in Brill's prestigious "Indological Library" series, Dragon's Brain Perfume draws upon an extensive range of historical and cultural sources to produce an incredibly informative document that should appeal in general to historical geographers and cultural historians and specifically to those interested in the history of aromatics and the use of non-timber forest products in the material culture of the world. [End Page 437]

Organized methodically into seven detailed chapters ranging from broad to specific, Dragon's Brain Perfume begins with a general survey of "aromata"—origins, time, and place of demand—from the "Ancient Civilizations" to the "Age of Discoveries." A most valuable contribution to the literature in historical geography, this chapter will also be of considerable interest to the economic historian, aromatherapist, homeopathic physician, and/or incense connoisseur. Chapter 2 then explores the natural history of camphor resin, tracing the evolution of Western scientific nomenclature and the geographical distribution of camphor-producing tree species, and comparing the various forms of camphor extraction, purification, and folk nomenclature in different cultural traditions. This chapter also investigates the intricate trading networks that once aided the spread of camphor resin across the expanse of the Old World.

The remaining chapters are devoted to specific regional treatments (e.g., India, Western Asia, the medieval West, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan). Each chapter contains several subsections documenting, among other things, the internal versus external sources of supply, historical trade routes and trader typologies, folk nomenclature and technical classifications, medicinal properties and indigenous folklore associated with camphor resin, and a review of the various primary sources available for the study of each region. The information contained in each of these chapters fills many crucial gaps in the literature on forest products and materia medica of non-Western societies and will appeal to ethnobotanists and historical linguists as well as those interested in the ancient, classical, and medieval societies of the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East. A short postscript on Origins and Modes of Diffusion completes the text, summarizing the major points of the book and emphasizing the importance of exotica and aromata in world systems of exchange, past and present. Dragon's Brain Perfume also contains a wide variety of original maps, twenty-eight illustrations, an immense bibliography (over one thousand works cited!), and six separate indexes (Persons, Places and Regions, Biological Categories, Ethnics, Titles of Work, General).

The author of Dragon's Brain Perfume, R. A. Donkin, Ph.D. (Durham, 1953 ), Litt.D. (Cambridge, 1993), has published extensively in the field of historical geography, including studies of manna plants, cochineal, Opuntia cactus, aboriginal terrace farming, and peccaries in the New World. In 1998, Professor Donkin published another impressive work titled Beyond Price: Pearls and Pearl-fishing: Origins to the Age of Discoveries...


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