Conceiving venomousness

Session Date and Time: 
Friday, 18 March, 2016 - 09:00 to 10:00
Harvill Hall, Rm. 4
Session Organizer(s): 
Dr. Tilman Musch, Research project director, Bayreuth University, Germany
Dr. Gabriel Segniagbeto, Researcher, Lomé University, Togo
Dr. Yacouba Banhoro, Researcher, Ougadougou University, Burkina Faso

Ethnobiologists generally agree that in local understandings of nature, different taxa may have different culturally determined significance according to their respective relevance in a given local context. Such relevance is, for example, called “value” or “salience”. Venomous animals, due to the threat they pose (snakes, scorpions, etc.) but also due to the probable usefulness of their venom (e.g. centipedes for the preparation of arrow-poison) can be recognized to have a very high cultural relevance. Knowledge about these animals and the effect of their venom may thus be comprehensive and detailed.

In fact, already early ethnographers were interested in treatments of snakebites or scorpion stings, with herbal remedies and possible antidotes, and the use of natural venoms by locals. Nevertheless, reports concerning men and venomous animals are often purely descriptive ones, mentioning, for example, the use of a plant species in order to treat envenomation. What seems to be lacking, is an extensive inquiry on how venomousness is perceived and handled in a given cultural context. In other words, it seems not only interesting to state what a snakebite can have as effects, but also to ask why the snake’s venom is believed to cause these effects, and why a remedy is expected to cure them.

Such an extensive inquiry could lead to a comprehensive understanding of venomousness including an animal’s venom, the health of the affected person (or poisoned game, etc.) and the potency of natural treatments. Adopting such a comprehensive approach to the topic may allow us to study how local scientific knowledge of nature is constructed. It may also allow us understand how and why different knowledge systems differ or coincide. Comparing, for example, how local sciences explain envenomation and healing and how “western” sciences do it may give important insights in what one considers “knowledge” and in how one perceives “science”.

In an attempt to draw from different disciplines and to enhance interdisciplinary discussions, the conveners of the panel come from different scientific fields (ethnobiology, zoology and medical anthropology). We encourage interdisciplinary approaches or those which, if not interdisciplinary, try to outline where their research could be located in an interdisciplinary context. We are interested in all kinds of contributions that make an attempt to enlighten how venomousness of animals is understood and handled in a given cultural context. We don’t demand that a contribution is obligatorily based on the above outlined comprehensive approach which we consider more as a future perspective of research on venomousness. Nevertheless, we expect that manifold contributions presented in this panel interact and thus give, in their entirety, something close to a comprehensive representation of the topic.