Cultural implications of plant - A brief introduction on Ethnobotany

I came across an article on Michael Balick, an ethnobotanist who has made a career out of exploring indigenous cultures, specifically the relationship between indigenous people and plants(Bannon, 2012). This led me to explore how plants and its relationship with humans can be seen as a cultural trait. A cultural trait here can be defined as an outwardly visible marker that helps an outsider or an observer identify a particular culture or a particular group of people. In addition, ethnobotany can be easily understood as the study of interactions between plants and humans. The relationship between plants and humans is not only interesting but vast as well. This relationship spans from plants as a food source to plants being used in faith rituals(Jain, 2000). Hence, plant diversity in a given area can be a point of departure from where one can explore the everyday life of the indigenous people.

As cultures consist of traditions and with it, traditional knowledge, plants are just one component of such traditional knowledge. In Richard B. Lee’s research on the Dobe/Ju’hoansi, the Ju people are hunter-gatherer people who possessed intricate ecological knowledge of plants that is essential in their foraging way of life(Lee , 2012). As plants are more abundant and easily available in the Ju/’hoan settlements, the Ju/’hoan rely more on plants to fulfill their dietary needs(Lee , 2012). From Lee’s research, we can see how plants as a food source influenced the Ju/’hoansi foraging lifestyle and tools used by them.

Apart from being a source of food, plants also play a role in religious rites or rituals in certain societies. Hallucinogenic plants are utilized to enhance spirituality and possibly communication with supernatural powers(Jain, 2000)(Anderson, 1986). In some cases, the plant itself is the medium through which answers from the supernatural forces are displayed. An example is the poison oracle and termite oracle in Azande society(Evans-Pritchard & Gilles, 2012). The poison is extracted from a plant in the case of the poison oracle whereas for the termite oracle, two branches from different trees are used to conceive an answer(Evans-Pritchard & Gilles, 2012). The ritual carried out by either oracle can be viewed in the film, Strange Beliefs, a documentary on the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, which features the Azande people. Religious practices that uses plants differ in different cultures and hence, plants can provide a good insight into such differences.

Another aspect of the plant-human relationship occurs in human ailments. There are various plant species that possess medicinal value. This is the hallmark of Dr. Balick’s research as he scrambles to identify and document undiscovered plants that may contribute to the progress of medicine. As some human societies inhabit remote areas that are far away from modern cities, their traditional environmental knowledge remains untapped. Furthermore, there are also societies that have been encroached upon by modernization that their traditional culture, along with their knowledge of native plants, is beginning to disappear. This is the case of the Akha people, a minority group living in the hills of Northern Thailand(Anderson, 1986). Traditionally, the Akha rely on herbal medicine to treat illnesses and physical ailments(Anderson, 1986). It is believed that such illnesses occur when the soul escapes(Anderson, 1986). Once the soul returns through rituals conducted by shamans, the plants are utilized to strengthen the physical body(Anderson, 1986). However, increasing contact with Thai and Western culture has resulted in a cultural change among the Akha(Anderson, 1986). The consequence is undoubtedly the disappearance of such herbal remedies as the Akha begin to rely more on Western medicine.

In brief, plants are often overlooked in anthropological studies or merely reduced to a token paragraph on diet. However, in ethnobotany, we can see how ubiquitous plants really are and the immense cultural implications of plants despite their seemingly small presence. This is indeed a field of study that I have come to be personally fascinated by and hope to participate in someday.
Works Cited
Anderson, E. F. (1986). Ethnobotany of Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. 1. Medicinal Plants of Akha. Economic Botany , 40 (1), 38-53.

Bannon, L. (2012, September 14). Learning the Lore of Far-Flung Flora. Retrieved October 31, 2012, from The Wall Street Journal:

Evans-Pritchard, E., & Gilles, E. (2012, November 1). The Azande: Witchcraft and Oracles in Africa. Retrieved November 1, 2012, from HigherEd McGraw0Hill:

Jain, S. (2000). Human Aspects of Plant Diversity. Economic Botany , 54 (4), 459-470.

Lee , R. B. (2012). Chapter 4 Subsistence: Foraging for a Living. In R. B. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi (4th ed., p. 320). Toronto: Wadsworth Publishing.

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