Human Relationships with Cycads

Mark Bonta
Email address: 
Proposal Type: 
Live 75 minute session - which includes 6 speakers/discussant timeslots.
Session Date and Time: 
Wednesday, 12 May, 2021 - 07:15 to 08:03

Cycads (order Cycadales), around 350 extant species of palm-like gymnosperms, are the most endangered group of biota on the planet. Despite containing high levels of toxins, they are used worldwide by local and Indigenous people for ceremonies and diets. In these roles, they often take on extraordinary significance as markers of power and prestige, and are frequently associated with the transitional realm between life and afterlife. Papers in this session examine the ethnobiology of cycads in a diverse array of contexts.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
, Mark

Cycads are ingested for narcotic purposes and are likely hallucinogens. The Nahuatl term “peyote” is applied in Mexico to species used as narcotics both in ritual and in recreational context. Elsewhere in the Americas, extreme secrecy surrounds shamanic uses of Zamia, suggesting narcotic consumption. In South Africa, Encephalartos is consumed ritually and recreationally for its narcotic properties. Elsewhere in the world, traditional cycad nomenclature suggests they are valued for their mind-altering properties. Given cycads’ pronounced neurotoxicity, the cost of BMAA consumption to users may be considerable, unless the narcotic is somehow rendered safe. In Mexico as well as South Africa, damage to wild populations is occurring because of a clandestine market in the drug. Nevertheless, the fact that shamans use them offers the potential for understanding more about the often-exalted roles of cycads in traditional society, for example their deification in Mexico as maize gods.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
, Yevhenii - National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy"

The leaves of cycads (“namele” in Bislama) appear as one of the most prominent objects in the symbolic vocabulary of Vanuatu archipelago since the time the first ethnographic accounts on the territory were written. They continue to occupy a privileged place in the country’s culture today: namele leaves are portrayed on Vanuatu’s flag, used in the practice of traditional courts, and chiefly authorities. Based on the material primarily gathered at three research sites (Espiritu Santo, Pentecost, Malekula) this review identifies key reference frameworks from the archipelago in which cycads are invoked and deployed. The first such locus is the use of cycads as a commemorative marker – to distinguish places of particular ritual or supernatural significance. Second, the presentation of cycad leaves as a symbol of reconciliation in the contexts of court hearings and, historically, peace restoration between the belligerent groups. Third, as an emblem of chiefly authority across the wide spectrum of situations.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
, Joshua - El Colegio de Michoacan
, Michael - Florida State University

This paper explores the place of cycads in Japanese culture, with a specific focus on Cycas revoluta in the Ryukyu archipelago’s Amami Islands. Although a wealth of ethnohistorical and genomic evidence points to the sustained alimentary and symbolic significance of cycads as a managed wild food in this region since the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, their role in Amamian foodways and agroecological systems remains relatively underappreciated, and the broader features of this intriguing aspect of regional culture remain virtually unknown outside Japan. Accordingly, we adopt a critical heritage framework to parse the social and environmental roles of cycads in ancient and modern Amamian cultural practices. Through examples from these and neighboring contexts, we seek to highlight this unique biocultural patrimony, both to contribute to wider scholarly discourse on wild foods in pre-grain subsistence strategies and to incentivize holistic preservation of the practices, histories, and values related to Japanese cycad heritage.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
Blaser Mapitsa
, Caitlin - University of the Witwatersrand

Cycads play a central role in balobedu cultural mythology, with widespread acknowledgement for their cultural and spiritual value, as well as their practical use in rainmaking and coronation ceremonies. However, due to the conservation concerns with South African cycad species, most of which are endangered and all of which are protected, the ownership, trade, and use of cycads is heavily regulated. This piece of research explores how processes of regulation are understood by balobedu communities, where traditional authority and state authority may collaborate around conservation efforts, but are also perceived very differently in communities.  Processes of cycad regulation both reenforce and challenge certain aspects of community identity.