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History of Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany as an academic discipline has its roots in the numerous observations of explorers, naturalists, anthropologists and botanists concerning the use of plants by the seemingly exotic cultures of the world (Davis 1991). 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. Perhaps as early as Neanderthal man, plants were believed to have healing powers. The earliest recorded uses are found in Babylon circa 1770 BC in the Code of Hammurabi and in ancient Egypt circa 1550 B.C.(ww.accessexcellence.org).

Recorded ethnobotany in the Indian subcontinent may be the earliest in the world and date back to 4000-1500 B.C. (Jain & Mudgal 1999). In AD 77, the Greek surgeon Dioscorides published "De Materia Medica", which was a catalog of about 600 plants in the Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus discovered tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) in Cuba in 1492 (Simpson & Conner-Ogorzaly 1986). 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. John Josselyn came from England in the 1660s to record Native American use of medicinal palnts (New England’s Rarities Discovered 1672, Wikipedia 2007).

As mentioned earlier the record of ethnobotanical use of plants are found in the Indian subcontinent, a variety of uses for plants in worship, medicine, food, fuel and as agricultural implements are mentioned in the ancient Indian literature and in the religious books of the Hindus (which stem from 4000 and 400 B.C.). These are Rigveda, Atharvaveda, Upanishads, Mahabharata and Puranas (Jain 1994). Organized studies in ethnobotany in this region are very recent.

During the British rule (1755-1947) many new medicinal plants were introduced to the subcontinent. Mitra and Jain (1991) summarized the information on medicinal plant uses from English literature published in the 19th century in the form of catalogues, dispensatories, pharmacopoeias and illustrations of plants with notes on medicinal uses, which culminated in Watt's (1889-1896) six-volume Dictionary of Economic Products (Cotton 1997).

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. By 1831, naturalists such as Charles Darwin started the collection of exotic plants for the museums and gardens of London (Cotton 1997). At this time major botanical gardens were started, for instance the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In 1873 Powers coins term “aboriginal botany” (medicine, food, textiles, etc.).

Edward Palmer an American Botanist collected artifacts and botanical specimens from peoples in the North American West (Great Basin) and Mexico from the 1860s to the 1890s. In 1870, the scattered information was brought together by, Edward Palmer, in his published a book entitled “Food Products of the North American Indians” (Castetter 1944).

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. (Wikipedia 2007)

Other scholars analysed 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); Frans Olbrechts does field work among Cherokee (1926). In 1970s Paleoethnobotany emerges with the introduction of improved archaeological techniques. In 198 the first issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology was published. By 1990s, ethnobotany included all studies pertaining to plants which describe local people’s interaction with the natural environment.

Keewaydinoquay Peschel, Anishinaabe fungi (1998), and the team approach of Wilfred Robbins, JP Harrington, and Barbara Freire-Marreco, Tewa pueblo plants (1916). During the middle of the 20th century, when it seemed that the world’s indigenous peoples were about to disappear, traditional societies and their knowledge attracted widespread scholarly attention, primarily as part of an anthropological rescue operation (Burch & Ellanna 1994). Many scientists have begun to realize the practical and academic value of ethnobotanical data and are beginning to acknowledge that traditional peoples have much to teach science.


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