Ethnobotany is one of those fields that encompasses more than just itself. It is larger than the sum of its parts. Connected to the wider field of ethnobiology, it relates to all of its other sister fields, like ethnoentomology, ethnozoology, and ethnomycology. And discussing just those misses out on the various other culture specific fields that deal with music and the arts, linguistics, geography, and beyond.
So, ethnobotany is pretty expansive even further past its particular topic and often interrelates to the others. For the sake of this article and focused consistency, i’ll do my best to keep us as on topic as possible.
Some Ethnobotany Basics
An Article Explainer
We’ve gotten this far and still no direct description of what this field entails as of yet, for those of you not in the know. As you might be able to guess, the term ethno- in a scientific field means that it deals with how a particular culture interacts with the subject in question. For ethnobotany, that means the local plants that have been historically used in a culture, their medicinal or other purposes, along with just a general census of all the species available.
There’s a lot that cultures can tell us about the world endemic to them. Many new and exciting biological compounds announced in recent years are thanks to the efforts of ethnobotanists and their research on the use of plants previously foreign and obscure to science. In fact, there has been such an expansive boom in this part of the field that it may be something of a problem, but we’ll discuss that in a little bit.
Let’s first get something out of the way. Ethnobotany is a very active field of research. It could arguably be stated to be the current biggest out of all of the ethno-focused scientific disciplines. Because of that, hundreds of studies get published every year on every remote peoples group that you could imagine. So, to not have this turn into a sweeping thousand page epic, I have curated the list of sources below to be both broad and specific enough to be interesting, with a focus on recency if possible.
With that noted, we can get back to explaining the basics.
The People Themselves
In order to properly sum up the biology aspects of ethnic groups, the overarching field of ethnoecology has recently come into more popular vogue as a header above any biological field. It looks at the interactions of cultures with every aspect of the wilderness around them.
Thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of all of this, it isn’t unusual to find a group of scientists in all these subfields going on a trip together to a particular location or people group in order to investigate each section, leading to a number of papers all at once dramatically increasing the global understanding of the culture being considered. Not to mention bring back enough specimens of suitable variety to fill up several display cases.
The peoples being researched are also not always far flung and isolated civilizations in the middle of a dense jungle. Many studies look at just small villages in western countries as well, such as the rural badlands of Minnesota or the hillocks of Saxony. All cultures are important and they all have unique perspectives to report upon.
Though, preferably, ethnobotanists and other ethno-researchers do focus on groups at risk of disappearing or losing their cultural connection and knowledge. This is even more so the case for ethno-linguists and their rush to capture languages on record before the last speaker of them is gone forever.
This could lead into an explanation of what exactly the steps are to conduct an ethnobotany study, but that’s not really what we’re here to focus on. We’re here to learn about the field’s history and the scientific research being conducted. So let’s jump to some history.
Ethnobotany: A History
As you likely already assumed, research into other cultures and their usage of plants is not something knew. Depending on how you define the scientific investigation of such things, it can be claimed that the origins of the practice date back to the Greeks, Romans, and Islamic cultures. All three of these utilized the plants of nearby pseudocountries and how those cultures employed them in order to bring new crops, fabrics, medicines, and more to their own nations.
Heck, the rise of the New World and the slave trade economy was precisely built upon the discovery of highly sought after plants from foreign lands. The first true historical and scientific conglomerations of this information properly began though during the Renaissance era, where botanical gardens describing all varieties of plants known at the time were first built, along with accompanying papers on usage for academics to learn from.
And this was not just a Europe and Asia phenomenon. The Incan Empire was found to also have built botanical gardens and various Egyptian queens and kings were known for sending expeditions into Africa to bring back the plants of the civilizations there. But, beyond these more ancient methods that help to define the field, the modern version of ethnobotany, name and all, still remains decently ancient itself.
The term was first coined by a University of Pennsylvania botanist by the name of J.M. Harshberger in 1896. His focus has been on the plants found in cliff dwellings of southwestern America. Though he was not the only one pursuing these sorts of topics and other names at the time were used, such as “aboriginal botany”. It should also be pointed out that the antiquity of the period does not mean lackluster science was conducted. In counterpoint to that, many of the published studies were very high quality and extensive, easily matching the work done today.
What followed was a long period of rampant discovery and inquiry. But, even so, it doesn’t match up to the sheer quantity of research released in modern times. By 1977, it was estimated that about 904 ethnobotanical studies had been published over the prior decades on North American cultures and plants alone. A nice chunk of change, however much of it was focused on certain areas over others, like the southwest and plains regions. Other scientists began to pick up the slack after this, with even more expanding across the globe.
The field has grown over the past century to become one of the largest out there, intertwining with so many other domains of science that some researchers are multi-disciplined themselves. It influences economics on the grandest of scales, drives pharmacological endeavors, and brings back insights from cultures both living and dead. It is a living, breathing realm of science, as much of biology is, but one that forms a basis for so much more.
How about we get into that research then, shall we?
The Science of Ethnobotany
A Research and People Perspective
Although, before jumping right into that, there is a brief aside or introduction that is needed to explain some issues with the research being done in ethnobotany. And this isn’t just a recent problem, but one that was even noted nearly two decades ago.
In a 2000 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, the writers voiced an inherent problem in how ethnobotanical research was being conducted. This was in the beginning of the medicinal boom era that continues on today, perhaps even broader now than it was then. The cultural aspect and the people being pursued was becoming less and less important to researchers. Instead, the only scientific information desired was new and improved usage of local plants for medicinal compounds.
As they put it, the focus was more on “economic botany” than the ethno- part of the field. This led to what could only be considered a violation of the rights of indigenous groups and an exploitation of their cultures for foreign gain. While many scientists were not meaning for this to be the case, it is nonetheless what was happening and what continues to happen today.
The topic of intellectual property rights is a complicated topic today due to the inherent conflicts with internet prolification, but it have always and long been a conflict in science. Does it come as a surprise if I tell you that indigenous groups have more and more often been turning to IP protections in order to prevent the destruction of their local habitats?
The reason for this is that, once a new medicinal compound has been encountered and published by some scientist, suddenly those seeking to use the compound to help treat people (and those who just want to make money off of it) come swarming in. Since much of this land is public in many cases, this results in vast swaths of plants being uprooted for production purposes. It is only through the use of IP that the natives have been able to protect their long-held cultural plants from being completely wiped out.
In turn, these sorts of incidents are severely harming the relationship between scientists and these local communities, who have begun to not trust any kind of researcher no matter the field, when their involvement was betrayed previously.
In 2012, an article was published in the journal Ethnobiology and Conservation, which raised the question of whether ethnobotany has the right to consider itself an ecological science. While it dealt with the philosophical aspects of this question, it did also consider and point out that the field must become more complex and regard the cultural plants as a part of a wider ecosystem that must be protected. Only through interactions with the environment and the rest of science can any particular field do right by science itself.
This is something that, even today, researchers in ethnobotany need to consider and it is not something that has been fixed as of yet. It is an ongoing problem that must be answered.
The Role of Genetics and Chemistry
With all that explained, it should also be mentioned that the bioprospecting of plant compounds side of ethnobotany is an actual very important part of global health and medicine. It is thanks to ethnobotanical records that artemisinin, an antimalarial drug from China, was isolated and it led to the discoverer receiving the 2015 Nobel Prize.
So, even with the concerns attested to above, this continues to be an area of renown that should not be stopped in response. A 2017 study did nonetheless suggest an alternative method for identifying plants of interest. Rather than the only tendency to use direct cultural surveying, modern technology offers another route involving advanced computing.
Using the already known plants that produce advantageous chemicals, researchers should be able to create a database that can combine ethnobotanical, phytochemical, and molecular phylogeny data. A phylogenetic tree made from this could offer a way to suggest the existence and location of undiscovered plants, since the formation of medicines is usually a part of a biological lineage.
Recognition of particular medicines in writings across multiple cultures should provide a link to a shared plant, what the researchers decided to call “ethnobotanical convergence”. Similar plants for similar health disorders will be detected independently. As they explained, this brings the fields of “omics” and genetic understanding into a wider, cultural context that could help scientists out in the field.
Metabolomics, especially, due to many of the compounds desired being metabolites, will be needed for breaking down the function of these phytochemicals.
Culture, Food, and Drugs
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, we can finally, finally look at some direct botany studies. To give a bit of a historical perspective, a study from 1932 on the Ojibwe Indians is included in the references. Even as a particular old piece of yesteryear from days long past, it is a surprisingly complex and deep look at what good research in the field can do.
It begins by discussing some of the Ojibwe language, to better explain the names used for plants and other organisms, and then a long section of history about the tribe of peoples and their connection to the medicine man culture, among other aspects of their society (though definitely from the perspective of the more racist society of the time). For the segments listing the plants themselves, it includes the common English name, the scientific species designation, and the colloquial name the tribe uses. Then descriptions of how each is used in the culture and what effects it has.
This goes on for about a hundred pages, making it an incredibly exhaustive report on every single plant used by the Ojibwe. It serves as an illustration of one side of what studies in ethnobotany focus on, being a broad interpretation and report on the entirety of a culture. The flipside of this is when a single plant is focused on. This is much more rare, since it would entail making dozens of studies to cover all the plants found in a cultural region, which isn’t altogether feasible.
What one is more likely to see is something like the below 2015 study that looks at a single culinary dish made in the Balkans region, sarma. The main wrapping ingredient for it is a leaf of a plant, but what kind of leaf this is can be variable between cultures. What was found was that at least 87 different plants in total were used, with many of those being in a very local area kept as tradition from older periods. The authors use these results as an argument for ethnobotanists to focus more on recording folk cuisines as well and not just pharmaceuticals.
Another, more contemporary focus, has been on studying the adoption of psychedelic plants into cultures. Because many hallucinogenic flora relate to the same biological taxa and families, their spread and evolution across a landmass has coincided with their application to local cultures, with distinct species resulting in distinct cultural practices involving them in the path of adaptation. This has served as a direct and globally frequent example of cultural convergence when it comes to the handling of psychotropic plant species. It can even be broadly said, almost without exception, that every culture in the world has found some psychedelic species to indulge with.
The common example of a ethnobotany study would be the last reference below, an investigative report from January of this year that explored the plant culture of a quilombola community in Brazil’s lowland Amazon floodplains. For those unaware, quilombolas are a population of African descendent peoples of Brazil that were formerly a part of the slave trade.
Upon breaking free from that injustice, they set up settlements in the wilderness called quilombos, hence their group name, that accepted other peoples also fleeing from persecution. So, in that respect, they are not all descendents of former African slaves, but that does inform the majority of the culture’s makeup. The influx of others though does impact the cultural trappings of that populace.
The Saracura quilombo that the scientists visited resulted in a study that looked at the food and medicinal plants in their history and even the plants used for shading their homes and person. Virtually all ethnobotanical studies work like this, looking at a culture and all the plants it associates with, though the scale can move from a single village in the jungle to the population of a country or continent. But this panoptic view commonly will incorporate every plant tradition a culture has of note.
As a final study to tie us back into the more common topic here on Bioscription of biotechnology, we’ll have a brief acknowledgement of a paper published this very month in the journal Trends in Biotechnology. It discusses the goal of not just finding new compounds for synthesis, but also being able to derive them on our own. This would most commonly be done by inserting the appropriate genes into bacteria and having them produce the chemical (though plants and even animals have been used as well, for those more complicated molecules).
They coin the term “Ethnophytotechnology” and bring up the recent tremendous advances in bioreactor production and metabolic breakdown of the chemistry needed for such creations. It is rapidly becoming the case that we no longer need to harvest vast quantities of medicine-producing plants in order to meet the world’s needs, we can just have refineries make them for us. Such a scenario works out better for the economic and manufacturing side of things and it is also better for the local environments. This may be an option to truly fix the problem discussed earlier in the article.
This hasn’t been the most standard sort of long-form article, I can admit that. The scientific focus has wavered back and forth without the deep dives that prior formats have entailed. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is no real way to cover the field of ethnobotany as a whole. It is too enormous, even over just the past two years, to really understand the full extent of the science being done today. Therefore, a few choice examples were plucked, not all of them incredibly recent, in order to showcase things on a broader scale.
I hope I have managed to be at least partially successful in describing the history of ethnobotany, the advance of its scientific progress, its current shortcomings, and some up-to-date analysis by researchers, if in a general sense. With how rapidly all of science is growing, you can easily expect this field to mature as well beyond its current constraints.
We should look forward to seeing what new wisdom will come from it.
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13. de Oliveira, P. C. & Cavalcante S. Ethnobotany in the Amazon floodplain ecosystem: a case study, Quilombo Saracura, Pará, Brazil. International Journal of Botany Studies 2 (1), 89–99 (2017). Retrieved September 20, 2017, from http://www.botanyjournals.com/archives/2017/vol2/issue1/1-7-29
Photo CCs: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden from Wikimedia Commons