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What is Ethnobotany?

Since the time of the Neanderthals, human life has been reliant on the gifts of Mother Earth, namely plants. The earliest records of their healing properties are from Babylon and Egypt, 1550 to 1770 BC. Plants preserved and removed from the Great Pyramids of Giza can be seen today in the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

Let us reflect on some plants that, by our discovery of them, have altered the history of life on earth by impacting our civilizations, through wars, colonization, economics, addictions, social actions, life and death.

The merchants who traded opium in exchange for tea aided the collapse of classical China. The discovery of sugar transformed the Caribbean’s population from indigenous people to white overseers and black slaves, as did the cotton trade in the southern United States. The poor wheat harvest and the resulting hunger in France led to the French Revolution. Ireland experienced an increase in population after the introduction of the potato and then the death of millions of people during the Famine, when the harvest was affected by blight. Black pepper could probably be classed as one of the earliest forms of currency, as during the 5th century Attila the Hun demanded it from Rome as a tithe, due to it being so highly prized. There are even records of pepper being used in medieval times as payment for rent, taxes and dowries. Consider also the impacts that rubber, rice, wheat, corn and tobacco have had on the world.

The study of the relationships between the roles of plants as food, shelter, medicine, hunting aids, clothing and ceremonial herbs and the people of a certain region is called ethnobotany.

Ethnobotany, as the name implies, has links with botany, which is in turn linked with plants that fight illness. Nearly 60% of the United States 150 most prescribed drugs are plant based. In the past pharmacologists researching drugs were trained to understand the plant world, and physicians were qualified in plant derived remedies. As drug research has developed we have seen more chemically created drugs being produced and the emphasis moved from nature to the laboratory.

Indigenous peoples traditionally have an holistic approach, in which both the physical and the spiritual have equal importance in life. Classic symbols, such as the Tree of Life, which occur within different cultures throughout the world echo this holistic approach. Some indigenous people do not have a word that describes their environment, as they are at one with it; it is part of them.

Modern medicine tends to prescribe drugs to cure the symptoms, while not always investigating the root of the illness. Perhaps we need to retrace our steps to regain and nurture our relationship with nature. Modern society lacks the emphasis on the significance of the role of the family and the extended community in the healing process that was once so prevalent. Think about the indigenous peoples’ activities surrounding the rituals associated with medicinal plant collecting. Often it is the entire family that ventures out to be part of the unwritten ritual of harvesting the medicine. They not only benefit from the community spirit involved, but also the physical activity necessary for the harvest.

The re-awakened scientific interest in plants and their harvesting is fraught with sensitive issues. Scientists are travelling to areas of the world, in particular South America, where hundreds of thousands of plants are yet to be scientifically studied. There is much concern that these communities will be impacted by over-harvesting and by commercial interests that disrespect the environment in which these plants are grown, and as a result the scientists are working with the shamans or keepers of the land.

Most indigenous peoples have a ritual, often passed on by storytelling, of how to set out into nature and harvest the plants. Often only the shaman or other  honoured elders are allowed to pick certain, more valued plants. This also applies to the preparation and administration of the medicine, as it is felt that if it is improperly treated the effect of the medicine will be annulled. A gift of simple trinkets or a prayer is usually offered up before harvesting, in respect of the plant sharing its life giving substances.

Given the rise in interest in both herbal and pharmaceutical companies in traditional medicine, indigenous people are very aware of the potential financial gain these companies have based on their traditional ways, and it is good to note that there are now international guidelines defining matters such as “intellectual property” and ethical conduct concerning ethnobotanical research.

Threats to Boreal Plants

Fortunately in our vast expanse of land, other than human induced activities, there are no real threats to the boreal plants as there is no active logging or mining in the region. Conservation issues in the area have included the creation of parks and protected domains like Kluane National Park and Park Preserve with indigenous groups being included in the Park management and as keepers of the land. This enables the indigenous people to carry out their traditional practices, thereby protecting the habitats of the plants and animals for the future.

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