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ETHNOBOTANY. Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between people and plants. This interdisciplinary field includes studying plants as wild foods and as agricultural crops; as constructs for houses and modes of transportation; as baskets, pottery, and art; as clothing and types of weaving; as medicines and alternative methods for healing; and in the context of cultural myths and religious ceremonies. Research topics address more complex issues, including the cultural consequences of the extinction of a particular plant species on the diet of a culture, impacts of acculturation on a culture's uses of plants, and the transmission of ethnobotanical knowledge from one generation to the next.

Ethnobotanists study all types of cultures, from the past to the present, from indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin to complex plant usage by immigrants in New York City. This field incorporates techniques and research from many fields, especially anthropology, archaeology, biology, botany, chemistry, entomology, geography, history, linguistics, medicine, and zoology.

How Does Ethnobotany Study Culture?

Ethnobotanists study culture by examining how plants were used in the past as well as the present. By studying farming practices of the past or examining fossilized plant or human remains, researchers are able to determine what plants were used by ancient civilizations.

Anatomically speaking, modern human beings (Homo sapiens ) have existed for approximately 150,000 to 200,000 years, but have practiced widespread cultivation for only a fraction of that time. Evidence that agriculture was practiced includes abundant fossilized remains of plants known to have been cultivated or of tools used for preparing soil, cultivating, or harvesting food.

Human skeletons can provide information about the kinds of plants eaten and the ways in which food was prepared. Grasses have a ratio of two stable carbon isotopes (C12 and C13) different from that of most other plants eaten by people. Changes in the ratio of these isotopes in human skeletons over time from grass ratios to that found in grains can indicate a shift to grains as a primary source of food. Similarly, the consumption of large amounts of grains can be documented by examining patterns of wear on the teeth of archeological skeletons.

Do Plants Have Cultural Roles?

It is easy to think about plants as being used for food or medicine, or even as a source of technology, for example, in the making of spears or blowguns by Amazonian peoples or the furniture in your own house. But, how many people associate a particular plant with a particular culture? Plants had cultural roles in ancient civilizations, are tied to historical events, and can be important identifiers in modern-day cultures.

South and Central American cultures such as the Aztecs, Maya, and the Inca were often associated with particular types of food. For instance, the Aztecs were well known to have cultivated Amaranth sp. [Amaranthaceae], a high-protein grain that was considered sacred by its cultivators. The Maya people were linked to the production of corn, as were many other smaller tribes scattered across South and Central America, and Mexico. The Inca were known to cultivate potatoes and quinoa, a high-protein grain that is still grown by the Quechua and Aymara Indians, descendants of the Inca. North American natives used various dye plants to produce unique colors for weavings that symbolized their particular tribe, family, and sometimes their ethnolinguistic identity.

Plants That Made History

Historically, plants have been known to make or break a culture (see sidebar, Plants That Stand between Survival and Starvation). In addition to plants being food staples in societies, many plants are integrally linked to a culture because they improved or adversely affected its history. The tea tree (Camelia sinensis ) [Theaceae] has huge cultural significance in many Asian cultures. Elaborate methods to cultivate and prepare tea began in China and later spread to Japan, where the tea ceremony became linked with Zen Buddhist beliefs. Egyptians are credited with inventing paper by pressing together strips of papyrus (Cyperus papyrus ) [Cyperaceae], but real paper, made by separating plant fibers and matting them together in a thin sheet, was invented by the Chinese using paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera ) [Moraceae].

A darker side of history includes two plants integrally linked to slavery: cotton (Gossypium sp.) [Malvaceae] and sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum ) [Poaceae]. Both plants were big money crops in the Americas and required significant labor, resulting in the enslavement of many African cultures and their transport to the United States and Central America.

Some may argue that the apple tree (Malus domestica ) [Rosaceae] also had a hand in shaping world history from the moment Eve took that first bite. Few people realize that the intoxicating drug derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum ) [Papaveraceae] was one of the main reasons China shut down its borders to all outside trade after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Production of the opium poppy has increased in present-day Afghanistan in an effort by terrorist groups to raise money in combatting U.S. military presence. Finally, spice plants in general led Christopher

Important Spice Plants
Common Name Scientific Name
Anise Pimpinella anisum
Basil Ocimum basilicum
Bay leaves Laurus nobilis
Caraway Carum carvi
Cardamom Elettaria cardamomum
Celantro Coriandrum sativum
Celery Apium graveolens
Chervil Anthriscus cereifolium
Chives Allium schoenoprasum
Coriander Coriandrum sativum
Cumin Cuminum cyminum
Dill Anethum graveolens
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
Fenugreek Trigonella foenumgraecum
Garlic Allium sativum
Horseradish Amoricana rusticana
Leek Allium porrum
Marjoram Origanum majorana
Mustard Brassica alba, B. nigra
Onion Allium cepa
Oregano Origanum vulgare
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
Sage Salvia officinalis
Savory Satureja hortensis
Shallot Allium ascalonicum
Spearmint Mentha spicata
Star anise Illicium verum
Tarragon Artemesia dracunculus
Thyme Thymus vulgaris

Columbus to search for a new trade route to India, but resulted in his discovery of the Americas in 1492.

The Future of Ethnobotany

The future of ethnobotany lies squarely in conservation of both plant species and the cultures that know how to use them. As scientists who work directly with cultures and their natural resources, ethnobotanists are in a unique position to promote strategies for conservation. Ethnobotanists of the future need to develop methods that empower the people with whom they work.

For much of the last century, ethnobotanists have spent their time documenting uses of plants and in finding ways to apply the knowledge of one culture for the benefit of another. They must look beyond this and find ways to safeguard the rights and knowledge of the people with whom they study as well as analyze more complex issues relating to interdisciplinary applications of cultural knowledge and uses of plants.

Ethnobotanists must develop methods to convey important information to the communities with which they work, treating indigenous collaborators as coauthors and establishing contracts with communities or tribal groups to ensure that a percentage of any future profits are returned to those cultures which originally held such knowledge.

See also Agriculture, Origins of; Biodiversity; Botanicals; Herbs and Spices; Horticulture; Paleonutrition, Methods of; Prehistoric Societies.


Balick, M. J., and P. Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library, 1996.

Gibbons, E. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. New York: David McKay, 1962.

Reis, S. V. R., and F. J. Lipp, Jr. New Plant Sources for Drugs and Foods from the New York Botanical Garden Herbarium. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Siri von Reis, eds. Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portland, Ore.: Dioscorides Press, 1995.

Simpson, B. B., and M. C. Ogorzaly. Economic Botany Plants in Our World, 3d ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001.

Camille Tipton-Allaband

Plants That Stand between Survival and Starvation

There are at least twelve plant species that have had an enormous impact on cultures throughout history. Without them, humankind could not have developed past single a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle.

In the grass family [Poaceae], four plants have been instrumental in the survival of human culture. These plants include wheat (Triticum aestivum ), which was cultivated more than eleven thousand years ago in the Middle East as a staple grain and today has more than seventeen thousand varieties. Wheat is one of the staple crops of the United States since it is the primary ingredient in bread. Corn (Zea mays ) was domesticated five thousand years ago in Mexico and Central America and ultimately became dependent on people for its reproduction. Corn has thrived with the assistance of humankind for so long that it can no longer effectively reproduce itself in the wild. Rice (Oryza sativa ) was cultivated in Southeast Asia by many different cultures as long as five thousand years ago and is a staple in much of Asia and Latin America. Finally, sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum ) was the staple crop of the indigenous peoples of New Guinea undergoing domestication about five thousand years ago. Nowadays, sugar cane is highly prized as a sweetener.

Two types of potatoes were also considered staples throughout history: the common potato (Solanum tuberosum ) [Solanaceae] and the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas ) [Convolvulaceae]. These tubers actually come from different plant families and are unrelated to each other despite the fact that both are cultivated in South America and both are called potatoes. The common potato was cultivated before 5000 b.c.e. primarily by the multitude of cultures living in the Andean highlands. Hundreds of varieties now exist worldwide. The sweet potato also grows in the mountains, but was more commonly found in the tropical regions of South America and cultivated by Amazonian cultures.

The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris ) and the soybean (Glycine max )both members of the Fabaceae bean familyhave also been instrumental in the survival of cultures in Latin America and Asia, respectively. Beans were cultivated at least five thousand years ago in Mexico and Peru and often used in combination with corn, providing essential proteins. Soybeans originated in northeast China around the same time and eventually spread worldwide. Soybean production has now shifted from China to the United States, where more than 52 percent of world production occurs.

Coconuts (Cocos nucifera ) [Araceae] and bananas (Musa sapientum ) [Musaceae] are often touted as the world's most perfect foods. Although the origins of coconuts are unclear since their fibrous seeds can float in salt water for more than eighty days, researchers believe this important food plant originated in the Indo-Pacific region or possibly Southeast Asia. Bananas also originated in the tropical regions of the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia more than five thousand years ago and are rich in potassium. The fruits from both of these plants provide high levels of carbohydrates. Sap from banana plants is used as medicine, while their leaves are used in wrapping food for cooking. The husks from coconuts provide strong fibers for weaving, while the fronds of the trees are used as thatching for homes.

Cassava, also known as yucca or manioc (Manihot esculenta ) [Euphorbiaceae] is a tuber similar in consistency to the common potato and is very starchy. This plant originated in South America and its cultivation began around 5000 b.c.e. Hundreds of varieties now exist of two different types: bitter cassava that contains poisonous cyanogenetic glycosides and sweet cassava that is sold today in marketplaces around the world. Generally, cultures that were more sedentary raised bitter cassava because they were reliant on one garden and therefore would suffer more if herbivorous predators destroyed their gardens. Seminomadic hunter-gardeners would often plant two or three gardens that they could visit throughout the year so damage to one garden was not felt as sharply.

Perhaps the most recent example of a cultivated and important food plant is the sugar beet (Beta vulgaris ) [Chenopodiaceae]. Beets were cultivated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe. These tubers contain large amounts of sugar and have long been highly prized in Europe, the Mediterranean, and Russia.

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Ethnobotany is a field of study that combines botany (the study of plants), anthropology (the study of human cultures), and medicine. Plants have been the original sources of many medicines used in all past and current societies. Many species of plants are biochemically quite complex, in part because they have had to evolve chemical defenses to deter herbivores and protect against attack from fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases. Thus, many of these same chemicals have been exploited by humans as treatment or prevention of diseases.

Ethnobotanists visit and learn from traditional healers in order to try to identify plants with valuable uses, particularly medicinal uses. Sometimes referred to as shamans, healers of every traditional culture are still using specific plants to treat specific health conditions based on generations of traditional knowledge and experience. In many cases, subsequent research by scientists has shown that the plant extracts used by the shamans contain chemical compounds that have natural healing or disease-fighting effects. In some cases, once the active chemical compound has been identified, scientists are able to synthesize, or create, it in the laboratory, and the plant is no longer needed. In other cases, the chemical or chemicals are too complex for easy synthesis, and the plant remains the raw material for the drug.

One controversial issue associated with ethnobotany is who should share the money that is produced when a plant compound, identified with the help of a traditional healer, is used by a major drug company to produce a very profitable drug. In many cases, the traditional peoples believe that they should receive some compensation since their knowledge was used by the drug companies for financial gain. In addition, sometimes the government of the country in which the plant grows believes that it should receive compensation since the plant species grows within their national boundaries. Compensation arrangements may be worked out in some cases. Another problem is that the culturally transmitted knowledge base of many traditional cultures is disappearing at a very rapid rate, as the traditional cultures themselves disappear or begin to adopt a more technology-based form of health care using manufactured medicines. Ethnobotanists may be in a race against time to preserve the knowledge of traditional healing systems before the practitioners die.

see also Herbal Medicine; Pharmacologist

Mark A. Davis


Plotkin, Mark J. Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1993.

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Ethnobotany is generally defined as the scientific study of the relationships between plants and people. The fungi, while comprising a kingdom of life completely separate from plants, and, according to molecular evidence, are more closely related to animals than plants, have in practice been included within the scope of ethnobotanical research, although the term ethnomycology is sometimes employed to refer to the relationships between fungi and people. Additional terms are sometimes used to distinguish other subdisciplines of ethnobotany, such as ethnopteridology (the study of relationships between people and ferns and related plants), but for purposes of this encyclopedia, all such subdivisions are considered to be within the scope of ethnobotany. Sometimes a distinction is made between the term economic botany, referring to the study of the use of plants by industrialized society, and ethnobotany, referring to the study of plants used by nonindustrialized cultures, but this distinction is increasingly blurring. Sometimes economic botany is considered to be the broader discipline, encompassing all uses of plants by any people, from New York City to New Caledonia. For example, the journal Economic Botany routinely contains research articles ranging from the use of fungi for medicinal purposes by Amazonian indigenous peoples to the chemical composition of palm seed oils with respect to potential industrial application. In this article, economic botany is considered to be synonymous with ethnobotany, and the latter term will be used hereafter.

Changing Approaches

The term "ethnobotany" was first used in a lecture by University of Pennsylvania botanist John W. Harshberger in 1895, but scholarly interest in the utility of plants goes back to the beginnings of botany, and practical interest goes back to the beginnings of civilization itself. Initially to survive, and then for civilization to develop, people needed to learn what plants were useful for foods, fuels, medicines, and fibers and how such plant resources could be mined or managed for human benefit. Harshberger's 1896 publication, The Purposes of Ethnobotany, marks the beginning of this academic discipline. Practitioners before and since have approached the subject from widely varying perspectives, resulting in a fluid and rapidly evolving discipline, but one with theoretical underpinnings that are still in their infancy.

Early in the twentieth century, two principal approaches to the study of plants and people developed, and it is not an oversimplification to state that one approach emphasized the "ethno" while the other focused on the "botany." Ethnobotanical studies conducted by botanists tended to be lists of plants arranged by scientific and common names with short commentary on the purpose for which the plants were used, but often with little or no information on how plant resources were managed or fit into people's lives. Anthropologists, on the other hand, were much more concerned with the cultural role of plants in people's lives, but generally only scant attention was paid to the botanical documentation of plant species being studied. One deficiency of some early ethnobotanical studies that did not cross-reference the name of a plant reported with a specimen deposited in an herbarium was that such studies were not reliable, as there was no way for subsequent researchers to confirm the identification or name of a plant cited. Not surprisingly, it was only when scientists of different disciplines began to collaborate with each other on ethnobotanical studies that more compete pictures began to emerge on the relationships between plants and people. In the twenty-first century, ethnobotany is characterized by being an interdisciplinary, dynamic endeavor, one that combines great intellectual challenge with tremendous practical urgency in terms of the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.

Aside from the great intellectual components to ethnobotany, the discipline is of more than academic interest. The contribution of plants to human welfare is beyond calculation. Suffice it to say, without plants there would be no people. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the contributions that ethnobotanists have made in collecting information about plants and fungi from indigenous peoples around the world. Dozens of modern medicines, such as pilocarpine, which is used for treating glaucoma, have active ingredients that came to light through ethnobotanical investigations. Hundreds of foods, fuels, fibers, and fragrances have been discovered by ethnobotanists through their investigations into the relationship between plants and people. It makes sense that indigenous people, who have experimented with using organisms in their natural environment for centuries, or even millennia, would never have survived to the present day if they had not figured out what components of the biosphere were useful, or, conversely, harmful. Ethnobotanists are basically studying the success stories in people's use and attempts to sustain nature, a topic of great and timely importance.

Great efforts are now being put into the prospecting for new commercial products from nature, and this activity, variously termed biodiversity prospecting or chemical prospecting, is now a major activity, supported by governments and industry. The activity is usually associated with the search for new patent medicines, but it applies equally to the search for new, naturally derived products of any sort; for example, a perfume company might undertake a program of searching for new fragrances from the rain forest, using indigenous people's knowledge of floral aromas as a starting point.

Of equal importance are the activities of ethnobotanists that relate to understanding how local people manage their biotic resources; this research has great applicability to land use managers, conservation policymakers, and, of course, to local peoples themselves, as often the very act of documentation of resource use by scientists gives legitimacy to local people's tried- and-true management methods. This approach, when the conservation of bio-diversity is factored into the equation, has been termed the "New Environmentalism" by renowned Harvard University biologist Professor Edward O. Wilson: "The race is on to develop methods, to draw more income from the wildlands without killing them, and so to give the invisible hand of free-market economics a green thumb." Ethnobotanists have a major role in developing the New Environmentalism as a strategy for managing biodiversity and maximizing its conservation, with efforts to make such efforts truly sustainable being the most elusive component.

Methods of Ethnobotany

Until the 1990s, there existed no widely available references on how ethnobotanical studies are conducted; students largely had to work under the supervision of an established researcher and/or figure out methodology through trial and error. This situation has now greatly improved, and aspiring ethnobotanists can consult Miguel N. Alexiades's Selected Guidelines for Ethnobotanical Research: A Field Manual (1996) and Gary J. Martin's Ethno-botany: A Methods Manual (1995). Central to the conduct of ethnobotanical studies is the researcher's understanding of the professional ethics of the situation, and this involves openness and honesty in dealing with the people whose use of plants is being studied, collaborating scientists, government officials, project funding agencies, and all other stakeholders in the dynamic field research process. Ethnobotanists occupy a special position in the middle, serving as brokers of a sort, dealing on one hand with other scientists, policymakers, and funders, and on the other hand with people who may be among the least powerful in society, and for whom the ethnobotanist has a special responsibility in terms of respecting their confidentiality and trust.

Ethnobotanists tend to have their intellectual roots in one or more traditional academic discipline, such as botany or anthropology. Formal training equivalent to a double major in college is a good preparation. A graduate degree is practically required to secure employment as an ethnobotanist. As ethnobotany has become more interdisciplinary, the most interesting and vital studies are increasingly being done by researchers who have training in, for example, medicine and botany, or anthropology, economics, and botany, or informatics, botany, and geography. Obviously, no one individual can possibly encompass the range of disciplines represented in ethnobotany, but students should at least strive to be as broadly trained as possible, at least in the understanding of and appreciation for diverse approaches.

There are a number of practical considerations that an ethnobotanist should keep in mind in anticipation of conducting field research. It certainly helps to be in good physical condition, as fieldwork is often conducted in physically challenging locales and with local people who are fully adapted to those difficult conditions. Assuming the ethnobotanist can keep up with the people he or she wants to interview and learn from, the next consideration is linguistics. Ideally, the ethnobotanist will learn to speak as much of the relevant local language as possible. A less desirable but workable situation is to arrange for interpreters to assist with interviews, keeping in mind that the saying "things can get lost in the translation" has a basis in reality. Aside from the general trait of having a curious, analytic mind, which would describe most successful scientists, additional essential qualities that are required of ethnobotanists are those of patience, as information is usually gathered in a slow, methodical manner, and flexibility, as things rarely work out as planned. Ethnobotany has a large role in elucidating the information about the plant and fungal kingdoms that is needed by science and society. It is a dynamic, intellectually stimulating and rapidly evolving discipline, and one that holds much promise for shedding light on solutions to the crisis in biological diversity.

see also Agriculture, History of; Medicinal Plants; Native Food Crops; Plant Prospecting; Psychoactive Plants.

Brian M. Boom


Alexiades, M. N., ed. Selected Guidelines for Ethnobotanical Research: A Field Manual. New York: New York Botanical Garden Press, 1996.

Balick, M. J., and P. A. Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library, 1996.

Lewington, A. Plants for People. London: Natural History Museum, 1990.

Martin, Gary J. Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual. Staley Thornes, 1995.

Schultes, R. E., and S. von Reis, eds. Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press, 1995.

Simpson, B. B., and M. C. Ogorzaly. Economic Botany: Plants in Our World, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.

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ethnobotany The study of the use of plants by humans.

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