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Ethnobotany (from "ethnology" - study of culture and "botany" - study of plants) is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants.
Ethnobotanists aim to document, describe and explain complex relationships between cultures and (uses of) plants, focusing primarily on how plants are used, managed and perceived across human societies. This includes use for food, clothing, currency, ritual, medicine, dye, construction, cosmetics and more.
History of ethnobotany
Though the term "ethnobotany" was not coined until 1895 by the US botanist John William Harshberger, the history of the field begins long before that. In A.D. 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, led 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 species get a two part name (genus, species).
The 19th century saw the peak of botanical exploration. Alexander von Humboldt collected data from the new world, and the James Cook's voyages brought back collections and 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 people 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 individual to study the emic perspective of the plant world was a German physician working in Sarajevo at the end of 19th Century: Leopold Glueck. His published work on traditional medical uses of plants done by rural people in Bosnia (1896) has to be considered the first modern ethnobotanical work.
The term "ethnobotany" was first used by a botanist named John W. Harshberger in 1895 while he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Although the term was not used until 1895, practical interests in ethnobotany go back to the beginning of civilization when people relied on plants for survival.
Other scholars analyzed uses of plants under an indigenous/local perspective in the 20th century: e.g. Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Zuni plants (1915); Frank Cushing, Zuni foods (1920); Keewaydinoquay Peschel, Anishinaabe fungi (1998), and the team approach of Wilfred Robbins, JP Harrington, and Barbara Freire-Marreco, Tewa pueblo plants (1916).
In the beginning, ethonobotanical specimens and studies were not very reliable and sometimes not helpful. This is because the botanists and the anthropologists did not collaborate their work. The botanists focused on identifying species and how the plants were used instead of concentrating upon how plants fit into people's lives. On the other hand, anthropologists were interested in the cultural role of plants and not the scientific aspect. Therefore, early ethnobotanical data does not really include both sides. In the early twentieth century, botanists and anthropologists finally collaborated and the collection of reliable, detailed data began.
Beginning in the 20th century, the field of ethnobotany experienced a shift from the raw compilation of data to a greater methodological and conceptual reorientation. This is also the beginning of academic ethnobotany. The so called "father" of this discipline is Richard Evans Schultes even though he did not actually coin the term "Ethnobotany". Today the field of ethnobotany requires a variety of skills: botanical training for the identification and preservation of plant specimens; anthropological training to understand the cultural concepts around the perception of plants; linguistic training, at least enough to transcribe local terms and understand native morphology, syntax, and semantics.
A great deal of information about the traditional uses of plants is still intact with the tribals. But the native healers are often reluctant to accurately share their knowledge to outsiders. Schultes actually apprenticed himself to an Amazonian shaman, which involves a long term commitment and genuine relationship. In Wind in the Blood: Mayan Healing & Chinese Medicine by Garcia et al. the visiting acupuncturists were able to access levels of Mayan medicine that anthropologists could not because they had something to share in exchange. Cherokee medicine priest David Winston describes how his uncle would invent nonsense to satisfy visiting anthropologists.
Scientific journals covering ethnobotanical research
The Latin American and Caribbean Bulletin of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (Abbreviated BLACPMA) or Boletin latinoamericano y del caribe de plantas medicinales y aromaticas (ISSN-0717 7917) is a bimonthly scientific publication directed to diverse professionals and technicians linked to the field of medicinal and aromatic plants. It accepts papers related with the Bulletin's areas of interest, which are agronomy, anthropology and ethnobotany, industrial applications, botany, quality and normalization, ecology and biodiversity, economy and markets, pharmacology, phytochemistry, legislation, information and diffusion of events, courses, prizes, regulations, news, market questions, reports, bibliography, or any other material type that is important to publish.