What is Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany is a hybrid of botanical science and anthropology. This is interesting because of the ways in which humans and plants are so closely dependent upon, affect and are affected by each other. Studying plants and human cultures together seems like an excellent and natural aspect of both sciences.

Ethnobotanists might be particularly interested in the ways in which plants provide nutrition, poisons and medicines. These substances have repurcussions through the entire society, as individuals who are knowledgeable about them often end up with great power and standing in the society.  In terms of poisons, the individual or society that can use them effectively on weapons and projectiles can prevail in disputes that change the course of leadership and history.

Ethnobotanists might delve as anthropologists into the field of indigenous knowledge, which is ancient knowledge that is passed down, often verbally, through hundreds, if not thousands of generations. Anthropologists are supposed to have good knowledge of linguistics so that they can understand the various expressions and terms that are used in indigenous, as opposed to Western knowledge. 

Where traditional Western science looked down upon or rejected indigenous knowledge as primitive and disposable, there are new movements afoot to pay respect to this knowledge in terms of trade, compensation for intellectual property and for the plants, themselves and in terms of micro economies that easily support subsistence farming and indigenous living that is enhanced but not replaced by Western medicine, enterprise and technology.

Ethnobotanists might delve as scientists into examinations of the plants. This includes everything from the soil composition to the environmental factors and interactions with humans, animals, predators and alien species, just as traditional botanist might do. This might involve field studies or laboratory work; controlled experiments or non intrusive observational work.

Again, the recent Gulf oil spill is a prime example of the way that ethnobotanists must work in modern and developed nations to examine the ways that whole societies and plant communities can be threatened by man made disaster, making ethnobotanists a critical resource in the short and long term response and recovery efforts.

Finally, ethnobotanists need to get to work, because indigenous knowledge is a fragile and rapidly declining form of knowledge, as it is not necessarily in written or permanently documented form! In addition, many societies are living in areas of political instability and are threatened with death, forced migration from their traditional lands and uncontrolled diaspora to other nations.

Mark A. Davis, Biology Encyclopedia, “Ethnobotany”