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Ethnobotany - Introduction

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Ethnobotany - What is it about?

Ethnobotany is a science which studies the relationships that exist between people (cultures) and plants. The word Ethnobotany is derived from two words - ethnology meaning the study of human cultures and botany, the study of plants. In simple terms, ethnobotany largely consists of the study of the ways plants are used by different primitive societies in various parts of the world.

The term ethnobotany is a relatively modern one, believed to have first been coined in 1895 by John William Harshberger, an American botanist. However the roots of the science go much further back to ancient times. Pythagoreanism, a belief system which originated around 500BC had a doctrine which included not eating beans because of the human relationship to such matter. In the 1st century AD, the Greek surgeon Dioscorides published a book which catalogues over 600 plants found in the Mediterranean. It covered their uses, in particular those for medicinal purposes. The document describes where the plants could be found, how they should be gathered and whether they were poisonous or edible. The author placed emphasis on the economic potential of plant life and this text was a core source of learning in the field for many centuries.

Ethnobotany moved on in Medieval times, largely associated with monastic orders and physic gardens were found attached to hospitals or religious buildings. Plants were not however studied extensively at the time in the way they are under modern ethnobotany. More progress was made in the 17th and 18th centuries as more of the world was explored and studied by the advanced nations of the time. Botanical exploration was popular with, for example, the voyages of James Cook bringing back collections of plants from the South Pacific, together with detailed information on their use by the indigenous populations. Large and ambitious botanical gardens were started with growers with the collection of new species a serious competitive venture .

From these early roots, the modern science of ethnobotany emerged in the late 19th century. The first modern ethnobotanical text is believed to be that by Leopold Glueck, a German doctor. The publication covered the traditional medical use of plants by Bosnian people. Other works then followed as academics began to concentrate on plants and their uses in relation specifically to local and indigenous populations. In the early days there was some conflict and inconsistency in studies arising from the differing perspectives of anthropologists and botanists at the time.

Richard Evans Schultes is credited with being the founder of what is recognised today as ethnobotany although he did not give it the name. The study of modern ethnobotany requires knowledge of a number of disciplines. Botanical training is needed for the identification and collection of plant specimens. Anthropological study is required to understand culturals stances towards plants and a certain amount of linguistic attainment is needed to properly understand local syntax and meanings.

Seeking to learn from indigenous cultures is not without difficulty. Gender and outsider bias is often encountered and can distort results. It requires careful and patient study to extract meaningful data on the efficacy and precise medicinal and cultural use of plant life. Much knowledge is believed to remain still with the native populations. Centuries of mysticism surrounding the Amazonian shaman or the tribal witch doctor can keep the true understanding of medicinal plant properties shrouded in secrecy. In short, native healers can also simply be unwilling to share with outsiders. Differing perspectives on the causes and nature of illness and disease between modern science and more cultural 'imbalance' beliefs also create a barrier in comparing like with like. It is said that sometimes a medical practitioner from the modern world, albeit perhaps one of the alternative side of things such as acupuncture will have more success with native practitioners because they are seen to have something to offer in exchange.

Ethnobotany is a multi-disciplinary subject often studied under the umbrella of Anthropology in the first instance. It offers a holistic approach, combining scientific biological principles with profoundly cultural and social issues. Ecology and conservation also play a part. It is essentially a human science, looking at how different peoples perceive, use and adapt plants for different purposes and how that knowledge is accumulated and represented. There is a wider of hope always in ethnobotany of merging this knowledge with more modern conventional medical science.

Some of the sub-headings covered by ethnobotany are:

  • - the practices adopted by humans to make plants work for us - such as cultivation, weed killing and refinement of the species together with companion planting and economic endeavour
  • - the ways in which plants influence people - think here, of hallucinogenic properties or the inherent monetary value in some plants for their food or medicinal properties or, indeed, their harmful effects also.

Ethnobotany today is not just about how cultures outside of the Western World view plants and medicine. Instead it has far reaching value in integrating the knowledge of such cultures into a modern , multi-culturing, mobile world. There is as much relevance to the technical mass production of sustainable foodstuffs as there is to the very focussed treatment of a specific disease.

Ethnobotany remains a subject which defies a narrow definition. Its studies do not always lend themselves to easy categorisation. Indeed, ethnobotany contributes to and overlaps with many disciplines such as anthropology, medicine, botany, geography, linguistics, economics and even archaeology.


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