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What is Ethnobotany?

© Kat Morgenstern, revised 2001, all rights reserved.

Ethnobotany is defined as the study of the relationship between people and plants and most commonly refers to the study of indigenous uses of plants. In other words, it is the marriage between cultural anthropology and botany, a study that investigates the roles of plants as medicine, nourishment, natural resources or gateways to the gods. Usually it is considered a relatively young field of study. Officially it has only been recognized as an academic discipline for about a hundred years. However, this view is deceptive.

In fact, the investigation of plants and their uses is one of the most primary human concerns, which has been practiced by all cultures for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years - its just that it wasn't called 'Ethnobotany' then. People have always depended on plants for their primary needs, (food, shelter, warmth, medicines, etc.etc.), and thus naturally have learned their uses. In the course of nomadic roaming this knowledge was exchanged with neighboring tribes, friends and foe and was gradually expanded upon. Thus, plant knowledge has been passed around the world since the beginning of time - and frequently the actual plants themselves have spread along with it.

Looking at more recent history, there are numerous records of ethnobotanical fieldtrips and acquisitions as well as detailed descriptions of plants and their uses dating to pre-classical times. The Arabs for example, had a vivid interest in plants. On their expeditions to the East they collected much information about local plant uses and brought just as many new plants back as they had taken with them. The same is true for every conquering nation that ventured into foreign and uncharted territory. The Romans, on their crusade through Europe actively sought out local herbalists and often employed their knowledge by enlisting them in service to their troops. Plants were big business in the Old World and many of the most ancient trade routes were in fact established for trade in plant-products, such as Frankincense, or exotic spices from the East.

The Spanish conquistadores also took detailed records of the plants used by the indigenous people they encountered in the New World. In fact, Columbus' 'discovery' of the Americas was an 'accidental', side effect of searching for a quicker way to India and the profitable allure of Southeast Asia. What he found was not the pepper or nutmeg he had hoped for, yet, the plants he and subsequent expeditions brought back with them have played just as important a role and have since become indispensable items of the western diet. Imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes or an Irish diet without potatoes!

Thus Ethnobotany is really one of the oldest fields of human inquiry. Perhaps it is because it was so basic to our existence, that it only recently acquired recognition as a science. Scientific study is characterized by a 'subject/object' relationship in which the observer is required to detach him or herself from the observed. This really signifies a move away from involved interaction with plants. Perhaps because they have become less significant, i.e. less present in our consciousness in this technological age, they have been pushed out of the sphere of direct experience (personal relationship) and into the realm of external phenomena, where they can be studied objectively and rationally, labeled and given scientific names, dissected and analyzed in search of 'active compounds' which might subsequently be exploited as new 'wonder-drugs'.

Empirical investigation on the other hand, presents the exact opposite approach. The investigator must be involved with the object of their study, fine tune themselves to subtle impressions and effects, which scientists consider completely 'subjective' and hence 'not credible'. Traditional healers of all cultures follow this approach to learning about plants. Scientists find it baffling how these traditional healers, without the use of elaborate equipment or any formal schooling can be so adept at identifying plants, discern their uses and find effective remedies among the thousands of plants that surround them. Not only that, but they manage to combine several species that may work together synergistically, but not individually, or remedies that cure when given in one dose, but kill when administered in another. 'Trial and error', the scientist postulates, but that is merely an excuse for their own ignorance and inability to comprehend. The shaman would hardly be able to find remedies by sitting in his hut and postulating a hypothesis about the plants around him, nor would he waste his energy by wandering about, randomly munching potentially lethal plants or insects.

Ethnobotanists and other scientists continue to be baffled. But while they can't explain the phenomena, they make an effort to record the results - and then go and test 'their discoveries' according to an entirely different set of rules within their labs. And although Ethnobotanists don't usually disrespect their native teachers who have been their guides and shown them their sacred plants, there is nevertheless an underlying cultural superiority complex at work, as researchers rarely overcome their ethnocentric perspectives and thus still consider the tools of modern science superior to those of the shaman and perceive their own cosmology and scientific framework as 'the real reality'.

Thus, the stories and teachings that belong to each plant are considering simply as 'folklore'. They may be noted for curiosity's sake as a side note in their note book, yet, it is precisely these anecdotes, stories, mythologies, rituals and communications with the gods and plant spirits that they should pay attention to, for they are the real keys to the character and meaning of a plant. The same source from which this knowledge is derived can also offer clues to the nature of a patients disease, considered from a psycho-spiritual perspective. However, modern medicine sees its task more akin to the process of fixing a car than to counseling a soul - and Ethnobotanists are rarely healers. They are just in the business of prospecting for potentially useful plants. They don't need to know anything about healing and don't have to share the shaman's concern for the balance or imbalance of a patients soul or their social environment.

This doesn't mean to say that the scientist's method are not valid or that they should throw away their instruments and quit their scientific method of inquiry altogether - no, rather, it is a question of using a balanced approach between analytical and synergistic modes of thinking in order to understand plants, as well as people, as total beings - and not just as collections of interesting compounds or physiological biomachines. However, understanding what the plant-lore conveys is quite another matter. It requires a study of the cosmologies and believes of the people who tell the stories and the ability to go beyond the boundaries of so called 'solid realities' - more a job for anthropologists than botanists or chemists. There are few, rare individuals who have learned to combine all three skills and who understand Ethnobotany for what it is - the study of the relationship between people and plants.

Some indigenous people don't even have a word for the forest or the environment, but regard the outer world as an extension of themselves. To say, as we do, 'I am going into the forest' would be as absurd to them as to say, 'I am going into my skin', - they are already in it and a part of it. We have lost this ability to relate directly with the nature that surrounds us, have become alienated and are suffering a mass-psychosis because of it. Perhaps Ethnobotany can help to heal the dichotomy between spirit and matter that is afflicting the 'civilized world' and provide a lifeline through which we can again begin to relate to nature and value the gifts of Mother Earth for what they truly are - the roots of our culture and the source of life.

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