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Ethnobotany

From Academic Kids

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and people: "ethno" is the study of people and "botany" is the study of plants. The field involves a spectrum of inquiry from archaeological investigation of ancient civilizations to the bioengineering of new crops. Much of ethnobotany deals with intellectual goals similar to those of cultural anthropology: to understand how other people view the world and their relation to it.

Contents

History of Ethnobotany

Though the term "ethnobotany" was not coined until 1895, the history of the field begins long before that. In AD 77, the Greek surgeon Dioscorides published "De Materia Medica", which was a catalog of about 600 plants in the Mediterranean. It also included information on how the Greeks used the plants, especially for medicinal purposes. This illustrated herbal contained information on how and when each plant was gathered, whether or not it was poisonous, its actual use, and whether or not it was edible (it even provided recipes). Dioscorides stressed the economic potential of plants. For generations, scholars learned from this herbal, but did not actually venture into the field until after the Middle Ages.

In 1542 Leonhart Fuchs, a Renaissance artist, lead the way back into the field. His "De Historia Stirpium" cataloged 400 plants native to Germany and Austria.

John Ray (1686-1704) provided the first definition of "species" in his "Historia Plantarum": a species is a set of individuals who give rise through reproduction to new individuals similar to themselves.

In 1753 Carl Linnaeus wrote "Species Plantarum", which included information on about 5,900 plants. Linnaeus is famous for inventing the binomial method of nomenclature, in which all living things are named according to their genus and species.

The 19th century saw the peak of botanical exploration. Alexander von Humboldt collected data from the new world, and the infamous Captain Cook brought back information on plants from the South Pacific. At this time major botanical gardens were started, for instance the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Edward Palmer collected artifacts and botanical specimens from peoples in the North American West (Great Basin) and Mexico from the 1860s to the 1890s.

Once enough data existed, the field of "aboriginal botany" was founded. Aboriginal botany is the study of all forms of the vegetable world which aboriginal peoples use for food, medicine, textiles, ornaments, etc.

The first individuals to study the indigenous perspective of the plant world did so in the early 20th century: e.g. Matilda Cox Stevenson, Zuni plants (1915); Frank Cushing, Zuni foods (1920); and the team approach of Wilfred Robbins, JP Harrington, and Barbara Freire-Marreco, Tewa pueblo plants (1916)

Modern Ethnobotany

Beginning in the 20th century, the field of ethnobotany experienced a shift from the raw compilation of data to a greater methodological reorientation. This is also the beginning of academic ethnobotany.

Today the field of ethnobotany requires a variety of skills: botanical training for the identification and preservation of plant specimens; anthropological training to learn how to ask questions in different cultures and to gain interpersonal skills; linguistic training, at least enough to transcribe native terms and understand native morphology, syntax, and semantics. Full knowledge in all of these areas is not required for a single ethnobotanist; a team approach is often best.

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