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Ethnobotany

ETHNOBOTANY

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Ethnobotany

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

Bibliography

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

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Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany

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

Bibliography

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

ethnobotany The study of the use of plants by humans.

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Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany


The field of ethnobotany is concerned with the relationship between indigenous cultures and plants. Plants play a major and complex role in the lives of indigenous peoples , providing nourishment, shelter, and medicine. Some plants have had such a major effect on traditional cultures that religious ceremonies and cultural beliefs were developed around their use. Ethnobotanists study and document these relationships.

The discovery of many plant-derived foods and medicines first used by indigenous cultures has changed the modern world. On the economic side, the field of ethnobotany determines the traditional uses of plants in order to find other potential applications for food, medicine, and industry. As an academic discipline, ethnobotany studies the interaction between peoples and plant life to learn more about human culture, history, and development. Ethnobotany draws upon many academic areas including anthropology, archeology, biology, ecology , chemistry, geography, history, medicine, religious studies, and sociology to help understand the complex interaction between traditional human cultures and the plants around them.

Early explorers who observed how native peoples used plants then carried those useful plants back to their own cultures might be considered the first ethnobotanists, although that is not a word they would have used to describe themselves. The plant discoveries these explorers made caused the expansion of trade between many parts of the globe. For example, civilizations were changed by the discovery and subsequent trade of sugar, tea, coffee, and spices including cinnamon and black pepper.

During his 1492 voyage to the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus discovered tobacco in Cuba and took it back with him to Europe, along with later discoveries of corn, cotton, and allspice. Other Europeans traveling to the Americas discovered tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa, bananas, pineapples and other useful plants and medicines. Latex rubber was discovered in South America when European explorers observed native peoples dipping their feet in the rubber compound before walking across hot coals.

The study of plants and their place in culture has existed for centuries. In India the vedas, which are long religious poems that have preserved ancient beliefs for thousands of years, contain descriptions of the use and value of certain plants. Descriptions of how certain plants can be used have been found in the ancient Egyptian scrolls. More than 500 years ago the Chinese made records of medicinal plants. In ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote about the uses of plants in early Greek culture, and theorized that each plant had a unique spirit. The Greek surgeon Dioscorides in A.D. 77 recorded the medicinal and folk use of nearly 600 plants in the Mediterranean region. During the Middle Ages, there existed many accounts of the folk and medicinal use of plants in Europe in books called herbals.

As the study of plants became more scientific, ethnobotany evolved as a field. One of the most important contributors to the field was Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who developed the system of naming organisms that is still used today. This system of binomial classification gives each organism a Latin genus and species name. It was the first system that enabled scientists speaking different languages to organize and accurately record new plant discoveries. In addition to naming the 5,900 plants known to European botanists, Linnaeus sent students around the world looking for plants that could be useful to European civilization. This was an early form of economic botany, an offshoot of ethnobotany that is interested primarily in practical developments of new uses for plants. Pure ethnobotany is more sociology-based, and is primarily interested in the cultural relationship of plants to the indigenous peoples who use them.

In the nineteenth century, bioprospecting, (the active search for valuable plants in other cultures) multiplied as exploration expanded across the globe. The most famous ethnobotanist of the 1800s was Richard Spruce, an Englishman who spent 17 years in the Amazon living among the native people and observing and recording their use of plants. Observing a native treatment for fever, Spruce collected cinchona bark from which the drug quinine was developed. Quinine has saved the lives of millions of people infected with malaria . Spruce also documented the native use of hallucinogenic plants used in religious rituals and the accompanying belief systems associated with these hallucinogenic plants.

Many native cultures on all continents believed that certain psychoactive plants that caused visions or hallucinations gave them access to spiritual and healing powers. Spruce discovered that for some cultures, plants were central to the way human life and the world was perceived. Thus, the field of ethnobotany began expanding from the study of the uses of plants to how plants and cultures interacted on more sociological or philosophical/religious grounds.

An American botanist named John Harshberger first coined the term "ethnobotany" in 1895, and the field evolved into an academic discipline in the twentieth century. The University of New Mexico offered the first master's degree in ethnobotany. Their program concentrated on the ethnobotany of the Native Americans of the southwestern United States.

In the twentieth century one of the most famous ethnobotanists and plant explorers was Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes. Inspired by the story of Richard Spruce, Schultes lived for 12 years with several indigenous tribes in South America while he observed and documented their use of plants as medicine, poison, and for religious purposes. He discovered many plants that have been investigated for pharmaceutical use. His work also provided further insight into the use of hallucinogenic plants by native peoples and the cultural significance of that practice.

Interest in ethnobotany increased substantially in the 1990s. One study showed that the number of papers in the field doubled in the first half of the 1990s, when compared to the last half of the 1980s. By the early 2000s, several universities around the world offered graduate programs in ethnobotany, and undergraduate programs were becoming more common. By the start of twenty-first century, ethnobotany was an accepted academic field. In addition, the pharmaceutical industry continued to research plants used by indigenous cultures in a quest for new or more effective drugs.

Many countries conduct ethnobotanical studies of their native cultures. A research survey showed that nearly 40% of ethnobotanical studies are being conducted in North America, but other countries including Brazil, Columbia, Germany, France, England, India, China, and Kenya, are also active in the field. For instance, ethnobotanists in China and India are recording traditional medicine systems that use native plants. Researchers are also studying traditional sustainable agriculture methods in Africa in the hope of applying them to new drought-management techniques.

Interest in the field of ethnobotany has increased as scientists have learned more about indigenous cultures. "Primitive" people were once viewed as backward and lacking in knowledge compared to the "civilized" world, but ethnobotanists and other scientists have shown that native peoples often have developed sophisticated knowledge about preparing and using plants for food and medicine.

The ways in which people and plants interact are broad and complex, and the modern field of ethnobotany, in its many areas of inquiry, reflects this complexity. Areas of interest to ethnobotanists include traditional peoples' knowledge and interaction with plant life, traditional agricultural practices, indigenous peoples' conception of the world around them and the role of plants in their religious belief systems and rituals, how plants are used to make products and art objects, the knowledge and use of plants for medicine (a sub-field called ethnopharmacology), and the historical relationship between plants and past peoples (a sub-field called paleoethnobotany).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, ethnobotanists are fighting a war against time, because the world's native cultures and stores of plant life are disappearing at a rapid pace. Language researchers have estimated that the world lost over half of its spoken languages in the twentieth century, and of the languages that remain, only 20% were being taught to young children in the early 2000s. The loss of traditional languages indicates that indigenous cultures are disappearing quickly as well. Historically, up to 75% of all useful plant-derived compounds have been discovered through the observation of folk and traditional plant use. Ethnobotanists are concerned that modern people will lose a storehouse of valuable plant knowledge, as well as rare cultural and historical information, as these indigenous cultures disappear.

Ethnobotanists, like many scientists, are concerned about environmental devastation from development pressure and slash-and-burn agriculture in less developed regions that are rich and diverse in plant life, such as the Amazon rainforest. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has estimated that the world is losing as many as 74 species per day. To put ethno botanists' concerns about forest loss in perspective, a single square kilometer of rainforest may contain more plant species than an area in North America equaling size of Vermont. And, of all the plant species in the rainforest, fewer than 1% have been scientifically analyzed for potential uses. Considering that 25% of all prescription drugs in the United States contain active ingredients derived from plants, the continuing loss of the world's plant communities could be an incalculable loss.

In the face of disappearing indigenous peoples and the loss of botanically rich habitat , ethnobotanists must work quickly. Active areas in the field of ethnobotany in the early 2000s include the identification of new plant-derived foods, fibers and pharmaceuticals, investigation of traditional agricultural methods and vegetation management, using traditional technologies for sustainable development , and the deeper understanding of ecology and ways to preserve the biodiversity of ecosystems.

[Douglas Dupler ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS


Cotton, C. M. Ethnobotany: Principles and Applications. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2001.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998.

Plotkin, Mark J. Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rainforest. New York: Viking, 1993.

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Albert Hoffman. Plants of the Gods. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1992.

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

Wilson, E. O. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.


PERIODICALS

Cox, Paul Alan. "Carl Linnaeus: The Roots of Ethnobotany." Odyssey (February 2001): 6.

Magee, Bernice E. "Hunting for Poisons." Appleseeds, April 2001, 20.


OTHER

Society for Economic Botany Home Page. [cited July 2002]. <http://www.econbot.org>.

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Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany

Plants as food

Plants as medicines and drugs

Conservation of ethnobotanical resources

Ethics in ethnobotanical research

Resources

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationships between plants and people. Most often, however, the term is used in relation to the study of the use of plants by people prior to the introduction of industrialization.

Plants have always played a central role within cultures as food, sources of medicine, and as raw materials for the weaving of fabrics. In addition, wood, for millennia woodhas been a fuel for cooking, warmth, and as a material for the construction of homes and for manufacturing tools. Knowledge of particular species of plants useful for these purposes is a key cultural adaptation to having a successful life in local ecosystems. Thus,the study of plant use can reveal a great deal about past societies.

Ethnobotany also has great importance in the present-day world. Plants are crucial tohumans living in an advanced economy, such as that typical of North America and Europe. Almost all of the food consumed by these people is directly or indirectly (that is, through livestock such as cows and chickens) derived from plants. Similarly, most medicines are manufactured from plants, and wood is an important material in construction and manufacturing. Therefore, an intrinsic reliance on plant products is just as important for people living in modern cities, as for those living in tropical jungle.

Substitutes are now available in advanced economies for many of the previous uses of plant products. For example, plastics and metals can be used instead of wood for many purposes, and synthetic fabrics such as nylon instead of plant-derived textiles such as cotton. Similarly, some medicines are synthesized by biochemists, rather than by being extracted from plants (or from other organisms, such as certain microbes or animals). However, alternatives have not been discovered for many crucial uses of plants, so we continue to rely on domesticated and wild species as resources necessary for our survival.

Moreover, there is an immense diversity of potential uses of wild plants that scientists have not yet discovered. Continued bio-prospecting in tropical rain-forests and other natural ecosystems will discover new, previously unknown uses of plants, as foods, medicines, and materials. A key element of this prospecting is the examination of already existing knowledge of local people about the utility of wild plants. This is the essence of the practice of ethnobotany.

All species are unique in their form and biochemistry, and all are potentially usefulto people as sources of food, medicine, or materials. However, only a relatively few species are being widely used in these ways. This suggests that there are enormous opportunities of undiscovered uses of plants and other organisms.

There are over 255, 000 species of plants, including at least 16, 600 species of bryophytes (liverworts and mosses; phylum Bryophyta), 1, 000 of club mosses, quillworts, andhorsetails (Lycophyta and Sphenophyta), 12, 000 of ferns (Pterophyta), 550 of conifers (Coniferophyta), and 235, 000 of flowering plants (Anthophyta). Although fungi and algae are not plants, ethnobotanists also study their use. There are about 37, 000 species of fungi, and 1, 500 species of larger algae (such as seaweeds). These numbers refer only to those species that have been officially named by biologists there is also a huge number of species that have not yet been discovered. Most of these undescribed species inhabit poorly known ecosystems, such as tropical rainforests. In many cases, however, they are well known to indigenous people, and are sometimes used by them as valuable resources. A major goal of ethnobotany is to examine the utilization of local species of plants by indigenous people, to see whether these uses might be exploited more generally in the larger economy.

Plants as food

Plant products are the most important sources of food for people. We eat plants directly, in the form of raw or cooked vegetables and fruits, and as processed foods such as bread. We also eat plants indirectly, as when we consume the meat of pigs or eggs of chickens that have themselves fed on plant foods.

Relatively few species of plants comprise most of the food that people eat. The worlds most important crops are cereals, such as barley, maize, rice, sorghum, and wheat. Tuber crops are also important, such as cassava, potato, sweet potato, and turnip. However, remarkably few plants are commonly cultivated, amounting to only a few hundred species. Moreover, only 20 species account for 90% of global food production, and just three (wheat, maize, and rice) for more than half.

There is an enormously larger number of plants that are potentially edible (about 30,000 species), including about 7, 000 species that are being utilized locally by indigenous peoples as nutritious sources of food. Potentially, many of these minor crops could be cultivated more widely, and thereby provide a great benefit to a much greater number of people.

A few examples of highly nutritious foods used by local cultures, which could potentially be cultivated to feed much larger numbers of people, include arrachacha (Arracia xanthorhiza ), an Andean tuber; amaranths (Amaranthus spp.), tropical American and Andean grains; Buffalo gourd (Curcurbita foetidissima ), a Mexican tuber; maca (Lepidium meyenii ), an Andean root vegetable; spirulina (Spirulina platensis ), an African blue-green alga; wax gourd (Benincasa hispida ), an Asian melon. These and many other local, traditional foods have been discovered by ethnobotanists, and could well prove to be important foods for many people in the future.

Plants as medicines and drugs

Similarly, a large fraction of the drugs used today in modern medicine are derived from plants. In North America, for example, about 25% of prescription drugs are derived from plants, 13% from microorganisms, and 3% from animals. In addition, most recreational drugs are products of plants or fungi. Several familiar examples are: acetylsalicylic acid (or ASA), a pain-killer originally derived from the plant meadow-sweet (Filipendula ulmaria ); cocaine, a local anaesthetic and recreational drug derived from the cocaplant (Erythroxylon coca ); morphine, a pain-killer derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum ); vinblastine and vincristine, two anti-cancer drugs extracted from the rosy periwinkle (Catharantus roseus ); and taxol, an anti-cancer drug derived from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia ).

In almost all cases, the usefulness of medicinal plants was well known to local, indigenous people, who had long exploited the species in traditional, herbal medicinal practices. Once these uses became discovered by ethnobotanists, a much greater number of people were able to experiencetheir medicinal benefits.

Conservation of ethnobotanical resources

The conservation of plant biodiversity

Most species of wild plants can only be conserved in their natural ecosystems. Therefore the enormous storehouse of potentially useful foods, medicines, and materials available from plant biodiversity can only be preserved if large areas of tropical forests andother natural ecosystems are conserved. However, deforestation, pollution, and other changes caused by humans are rapidly destroying natural ecosystems, causing their potentially invaluable biodiversity to be irretrievably lost through extinction. The conservation of natural ecosystems is of great importance for many reasons, including the fact that it conserves ethnobotanical resources.

The conservation of indigenous knowledge

Ethnobotanical studies conducted in many parts of the world have found that local cultures are fully aware of the many useful species occurring in their ecosystem. This is particularly true of people living a subsistence lifestyle, that is, they gather, hunt, or grow all of the food, medicine, materials, and other necessities of their lives. This local knowledge has been gained by trial and error over long periods of time, and in most cases has been passed across generations through oral transmission. Indigenous knowledge is an extremely valuable cultural resource that ethnobotanists seek to understand, because so many useful plants and other organisms are known to the local people. Unfortunately, this local, traditional knowledge is often rapidly lost once indigenous people become integrated into modern, materialistic society. It is important that local indigenous peoples be given the opportunity to conserve their own culture.

Ethics in ethnobotanical research

Ethnobotanists working in remote regions have a number of special ethical responsibilities that they must fulfill. One of these is to ensure that their studies of indigenouscultures are not overly intrusive, and do not result in fundamental changes in local values and lifestyles. People living in remote areas should not be exposed to the full possibilities of modern lifestyles too quickly, or their local, often sustainable life styles could quickly disintegrate. This change is sometimes referred to as a kind of cultural genocide. Ethnobotanists have

KEY TERMS

Biodiversity The richness of biological variation, including that at the levels of genetics, species, and ecological communities.

Ethnobotany The study of the relationships between plants and people, particularly in relation to preindustrial aboriginal cultures.

Indigenous knowledge The understanding of local people of the usefulness of plants and other organisms occurring within their ecosystem.

a responsibility to ensure that their studies do cause thisto happen.

In addition, indigenous knowledge of useful plants (and other species) is an extremely valuable cultural resource of aboriginal people living in many parts of the world. Theethics of ethnobotanists must include actions to ensure that as this local knowledge is tapped to provide benefits for humans living throughout the world, the local people alsobenefit significantly from their generous sharing of valuable information about the usesof biodiversity. The benefits could take many forms, ranging from royalties on the salesof products, to the provision of hospitals and schools, and the legal designation of their land rights to places where they and their ancestors have lived for long periods of time.

Resources

BOOKS

Martin, Gary J. Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual. London:Earthscan, 2004.

Schultes, Richard E. and Sin V. Reis (eds). Ethnobotany: The Evolution of a Discipline. Portland: Timber Press, 2005.

Whistler, Arthur W. Plants in Samoan Culture: The Ethnobotany of Samoa. Honalulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

Bill Freedman

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Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationships between plants and people. Most often, however, the term is used in relation to the study of the use of plants by aboriginal people living relatively simple, pre industrial lifestyles.

Plants have always played a central role within indigenous cultures. Plant products are used as food, as sources of medicine, and as raw materials for the weaving of fabrics. In addition, wood is commonly used as a fuel for cooking and to keep warm, and as a material for the construction of homes and for manufacturing tools. The indigenous knowledge of particular species of plants useful for these purposes is a key cultural adaptation to having a successful life in local ecosystems.

Plants are also crucial to humans living in an advanced economy, such as that typical of North America and Europe . Almost all of the food consumed by these people is directly or indirectly (that is, through livestock such as cows and chickens) derived from plants. Similarly, most medicines are manufactured from plants, and wood is an important material in construction and manufacturing. Therefore, an intrinsic reliance on plant products is just as important for people living in modern cities, as for those living in tropical jungle.

It is true that substitutes are now available in advanced economies for many of the previous uses of plant products. For example, plastics and metals can be used instead of wood for many purposes, and synthetic fabrics such as nylon instead of plant-derived textiles such as cotton . Similarly, some medicines are synthesized by biochemists, rather than being extracted from plants (or from other organisms, such as certain microbes or animals). However, alternatives have not been discovered for many crucial uses of plants, so we continue to rely on domesticated and wild species as resources necessary for our survival.

Moreover, there is an immense diversity of potential uses of wild plants that scientists have not yet discovered. Continued bio-prospecting in tropical rainforests and other natural ecosystems will discover new, previously unknown uses of plants, as foods, medicines, and materials. A key element of this prospecting is the examination of already existing knowledge of local people about the utility of wild plants. This is the essence of the practice of ethnobotany.


The diversity of plants

All species are unique in their form and biochemistry , and all are potentially useful to people as sources of food, medicine, or materials. As we will see below, however, only a relatively few species are being widely used in these ways. This suggests that there are enormous opportunities of "undiscovered" uses of plants and other organisms.

There are about 255,000 species of plants, including 16,600 species of bryophytes (liverworts and mosses; phylum Bryophyta), 1,000 of club mosses , quillworts, and horsetails (Lycophyta and Sphenophyta), 12,000 of ferns (Pterophyta), 550 of conifers (Coniferophyta), and 235,000 of flowering plants (Anthophyta). Although fungi and algae are not plants, ethnobotanists also study their use. There are about 37,000 species of fungi, and 1,500 species of larger algae (such as seaweeds). These numbers refer only to those species that have been officially named by biologists there is also a huge number of species that have not yet been "discovered" by these scientists. Most of these undescribed species inhabit poorly known ecosystems, such as tropical rainforests. In many cases, however, they are well known to indigenous people, and are sometimes used by them as valuable resources. A major goal of ethnobotany is to examine the utilization of local species of plants by indigenous people, to see whether these uses might be exploited more generally in the larger economy.

Plants as food

Plant products are the most important sources of food for people. We eat plants directly, in the form of raw or cooked vegetables and fruits , and as processed foods such as bread. We also eat plants indirectly, as when we consume the meat of pigs or eggs of chickens that have themselves fed on plant foods.

Relatively few species of plants comprise most of the food that people eat. The world's most important crops are cereals, such as barley , maize, rice , sorghum , and wheat . Tuber crops are also important, such as cassava, potato , sweet potato , and turnip. However, remarkably few plants are commonly cultivated, amounting to only a few hundred species. Moreover, only 20 species account for 90% of global food production, and just three (wheat, maize, and rice) for more than half.

There is an enormously larger number of plants that are potentially edible (about 30,000 species), including about 7,000 species that are being utilized locally by indigenous peoples as nutritious sources of food. Potentially, many of these minor crops could be cultivated more widely, and thereby provide a great benefit to a much greater number of people.

A few examples of highly nutritious foods used by local cultures, which could potentially be cultivated to feed much larger numbers of people, include arrachacha (Arracia xanthorhiza), an Andean tuber; amaranths (three Amaranthus spp.), tropical American and Andean grains; Buffalo gourd (Curcurbita foetidissima ), a Mexican tuber; maca (Lepidium meyenii), an Andean root vegetable; spirulina (Spirulina platensis), an African blue-green alga; wax gourd (Benincasa hispida), an Asian melon. These and many other local, traditional foods have been "discovered" by ethnobotanists, and could well prove to be important foods for many people in the future.


Plants as medicines and drugs

Similarly, a large fraction of the drugs used today in modern medicine are derived from plants. In North America, for example, about 25% of prescription drugs are derived from plants, 13% from microorganisms , and 3% from animals. In addition, most recreational drugs are products of plants or fungi. Several familiar examples are: acetylsalicylic acid (or ASA), a pain-killer originally derived from the plant meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria); cocaine , a local anaesthetic and recreational drug derived from the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca); morphine , a pain-killer derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum); vinblastine and vincristine, two anti-cancer drugs extracted from the rosy periwinkle (Catharantus roseus); and taxol, an anti-cancer drug derived from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia).

In almost all cases, the usefulness of medicinal plants was well known to local, indigenous people, who had long exploited the species in traditional, herbal medicinal practices. Once these uses became discovered by ethnobotanists, a much greater number of people were able to experience their medicinal benefits.


Conservation of ethnobotanical resources

The conservation of plant biodiversity

Most species of wild plants can only be conserved in their natural ecosystems. Therefore the enormous storehouse of potentially useful foods, medicines, and materials available from plant biodiversity can only be preserved if large areas of tropical forests and other natural ecosystems are conserved. However, deforestation , pollution , and other changes caused by humans are rapidly destroying natural ecosystems, causing their potentially invaluable biodiversity to be irretrievably lost through extinction . The conservation of natural ecosystems is of great importance for many reasons, including the fact that it conserves ethnobotanical resources.


The conservation of indigenous knowledge

Ethnobotanical studies conducted in many parts of the world have found that local cultures are fully aware of the many useful species occurring in their ecosystem . This is particularly true of people living a subsistence lifestyle, that is, they gather, hunt, or grow all of the food, medicine, materials, and other necessities of their lives. This local knowledge has been gained by trial and error over long periods of time , and in most cases has been passed across generations through oral transmission. Indigenous knowledge is an extremely valuable cultural resource that ethnobotanists seek to understand, because so many useful plants and other organisms are known to local people. Unfortunately, this local, traditional knowledge is often rapidly lost once indigenous people become integrated into modern, materialistic society. It is important that local indigenous peoples be given the opportunity to conserve their own culture.

Ethics in ethnobotanical research

Ethnobotanists working in remote regions have a number of special ethical responsibilities that they must fulfill. One of these is to ensure that their studies of indigenous cultures are not overly intrusive, and do not result in fundamental changes in local values and lifestyles. People living in remote areas should not be exposed to the full possibilities of modern lifestyles too quickly, or their local, often sustainable lifestyles could quickly disintegrate. This change is sometimes referred to as a kind of cultural genocide. Ethnobotanists have a responsibility to ensure that their studies do cause this to happen.

In addition, indigenous knowledge of useful plants (and other species) is an extremely valuable cultural resource of aboriginal people living in many parts of the world. The ethics of ethnobotanists must include actions to ensure that as this local knowledge is tapped to provide benefits for humans living throughout the world, the local people also benefit significantly from their generous sharing of valuable information about the uses of biodiversity. The benefits could take many forms, ranging from royalties on the sales of products, to the provision of hospitals and schools, and the legal designation of their land rights to places where they and their ancestors have lived for long periods of time.


Resources

books

Balick, M.J., and P.A. Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: TheScience of Ethnobotany. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1997.

Balick, M.J., E. Elisabetcky, and S.A. Laird, eds. MedicinalResources of the Tropical Forest: Biodiversity and Its Importance to Human Health. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Chadwick, D. Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

Cotton, C.M. Ethnobotany: Principles and Applications. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996.

Johnson, T. CRC Ethnobotany Desk Reference. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishing Co., 1998.

Moerman, D.E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998.

Schultes, R.E., and S. Van Reis eds. Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portand, OR: Timber Press, 1995.

other

Society for Economic Botany (2003). The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY 10458-5126. (718) 817-8632. <http://www.econbot.org>.


Bill Freedman

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Biodiversity

—The richness of biological variation, including that at the levels of genetics, species, and ecological communities.

Ethnobotany

—The study of the relationships between plants and people, particularly in relation to preindustrial aboriginal cultures.

Indigenous knowledge

—The understanding of local people of the usefulness of plants and other organisms occurring within their ecosystem.

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