XV. Ethnohistory, Environmental History, and Ethnobiology
XV. Ethnohistory, Environmental History, and Ethnobiology
History as a discipline is facing questions about its relevance, in an era of declining student enrolments and calls to decolonize a traditionally Eurocentric and ivory-tower pursuit. Ethnobiology, as an interdisciplinary study of human inter-relationships with the biological world, has the potential to contribute theoretical principles and methods to the study of History more broadly, and in particular to the subfields of Environmental History and Ethnohistory. Ethnobiological approaches allow greater access to Indigenous worldviews and logics of the natural world by putting into conversation data from ethnography, historical ecology, oral history, and the documented past. In enquiring about emic systems of ordering nature and human society, ethnobiologists can put into context non-linear modes of time, systems of kinship (human and non-human), and ways of creating, keeping, and transmitting knowledge. Perhaps most significantly, ethnobiology offers a methodological intervention that places Indigenous knowledge holders as collaborators in – and not merely subjects of - research design, data collection and interpretation, and dissemination of knowledge. Such perspectives and methods offer a pathway to decolonizing historical studies, and bring into focus Indigenous experiences and observations of climate change, food sovereignty, health and healing, and land management, all pressing issues to reconciliation.
In Scandinavia, practical knowledge about plants and their medicinal effects was first put into written format in the middle ages. The Danish medieval doctor, Henrik Harpestreng (died in 1244), authored several plant books in his life time. He was influenced by the continental sources of Macur Floridus’ De viribus herbarum and Constantinus Africanus’s De gradibus simplicum, but he also created a local herbal on local plant species, their characteristics and their medicinal benefits. Additionally two medieval medicinal books are known from medieval Scandinavia, developing knowledge on medicinal cures. All these medicinal texts were written in vernacular language, which implicates that the books had broader scope than within monastic circles. In this paper, the transmission history of Scandinavian medieval herbals will be investigated as sources to the development of Scandinavian medicinal practice and its local variances.
Ethnobiology, as an interdisciplinary study of human inter-relationships with the biological world, can contribute theoretical principles and methods to the study of History more broadly, and in particular to the subfields of Environmental History and Ethnohistory. Ethnobiological approaches allow greater access to Indigenous worldviews and logics of the natural world. Here I consider Islamic and European travel accounts of Swahili foodways in eastern Africa. Food was reported according to the cultural and biological knowledge of the exogenous writer. I propose that we can use a historical ecological framework to use anthropological and archaeological data alongside oral histories (where these exist) and documentary evidence to infer local plant knowledge and practice. Specifically I will consider botanical misidentifications, reports of feast foods by Muslim visitors, and the introduction of maize by the Portuguese. He who reported the plant gets to tell the story; so what voices and stories are we missing?
Environmental justice scholars provide a framework for interdisciplinary research and advocacy in the realm of cultural heritage. Ethnobiologists are no strangers to the heritage arena as our scholarship commonly concerns “cultural keystone places,” which are rich with meaning for one or more groups of people. Several core concepts of environmental justice scholarship can serve as guideposts to research centering on these significant places. On the side of the scholarship, and perhaps more important to disciplines now attempting to escape a colonial history, is how these framing environmental justice concepts align and intersect with core principles of historical ecology. This presentation is an initial attempt to highlight how environmental justice and historical ecology can be conceptually integrated, which holds important meaning for “action ethnobiology.”
When enslaved people from Africa came to Bermuda in the 17th century, they brought their ethnobotanical traditions with them. Foremost among these was the practice of tapping palms for wine (‘bibby’), adapted to the endemic palmetto. Palm wine is a culturally important beverage in many African cultures, and likely held similar value to early Bermudians. The primary record of palm wine in Bermuda is found in the lawbooks of the times. These records lend insight into the adaptation and persecution of plant knowledge according to the shifting political times, highlighted by the direct correlation between the prohibition of palm tapping and the rise of Bermuda’s slave society.
This talk will explore the rise and fall of bibby in Bermuda. It will also posit the possibility that scars on some of the oldest palmettos mark them as Culturally Modified Trees, an idea not yet explored in any Bermudian nor Caribbean literature.
Ethnobotanical continuity (persistence of botanical elements in their cultural context) of plants is part of our program of biocultural resource rescue and conservation. Despite colonial oppression and bellicose interactions since the mid-1500s in contemporary Chihuahua, New Mexico and adjacent Texas, the official Spanish colonial surveys (Relaciones Topográficas) and later field observations of North American commercial and military travelers (e.g., Z. Pike, J. Gregg, A. Wislizenus, etc.) between mid-1700s and mid-1800s record almost 200 plants for their importance as food, medicine, forage, fuel, construction material, fiber, poisons and environmental services. Occidental scientific taxonomic identities for these plants were determined based upon historical herbarium collections, constituents of contemporary ethnobotanical complexes, and our field work. The biocultural importance of native plants of the region has diminished to 30% of the species while that of exotic plants endures.
Since the old ages, arthropods and products extracted from these animals have been used by medical systems in many cultures with therapeutical purposes. Results from various ethnohistorical sources such as the Chilim Balam, Cixil, Kaua, Na, the Pérez codex and especially from the Chan Cah, have permitted to identify over 20 insects and other arthropods used to cure diseases before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, and during the early Colonial years. The showing of the wide empirical knowledge and the importance of these organisms among Peninsular Mayan people is supported by data obtained by the parts of the animals used, its preparation and the therapeutical methods put into practice. Nowadays, many of such entomotherapy practices have been confirmed via ethnographical data