Ethnoscience is a somewhat broad term for the study of local systems of knowledge and classification. The incorporation of the term science in ethnoscience refers to indigenous knowledge of plants and animals and classification systems, including culturally specific techniques of cultivation and animal husbandry. Originating in linguistics, the concept and practice of ethnoscience has spread to ecology and ethnology, spawning many subfields. It is of growing importance in conservation biology and environmental policy making. Eth-nobotany in particular has powerful implications for pharmaceutical research and the genetic engineering of crops. Emphasizing the mental systems of a group of people, ethno-science is sometimes called cognitive anthropology. It delineates heuristic (knowledge-based), linguistic, and cultural categories of environmental information that differ cross-culturally.

Native classification systems operate according to principles that are often internal to the specific culture-history of the people in question. Overlapping categorizations can arise situationally. Thus the same set of entities or phenomena might be arranged in multiple ways by different sets of criteria, according to varying cultural contexts and social circumstances. For example, plants may be divided into categories of edible versus nonedible, seasonal versus year-round, or medicinal materials versus construction materials. These classifications can cut across the morphological or genetic conventions of Western scientific tax onomy and nomenclature, resulting in closely related biological species occupying very different ecological and cultural niches. Furthermore, such concrete distinctions are situ-ationally determined, so that different classification systems might be invoked by the same people according to differing circumstances or applications. Thus the same set of trees may be sorted at different times in mutually nonexclusive ways into hard versus soft woods, leafy trees versus conifers, light versus dark colors, tall versus short trunks, or other familiar groupings arranged according to specific biological criteria, depending on the applicable cultural context. These overlapping conceptual categories are not necessarily hierarchical, but may be based instead on relative degrees of, and pragmatic or intellectual conceptions of, similitude and difference.

Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven (1973) elaborated the concept of rank in folk biological classification. Using empirical evidence compiled from a widespread but limited number of samples, Berlin and subsequent researchers have contended that folk taxonomies tend toward general congruity with the Linnaean hierarchical system of classical biology. In Lin-naeus's scheme, progressively narrower categories are each subsumed within nested levels of classification. From the most general to the most specific, these categorical levels are kingdom, phylum, class, cohort, order, family, subfamily, tribe, genus, species, and subspecies. In folk taxonomies, the ostensively universal eth-nobiological ranks, from most to least generic, are unique beginner (for example, plant), lifeform (for example, tree), generic (for example, oak), specific (for example, white oak), and varietal (for example, northern white oak). Within any given system, categorizations at the life-form level are postulated to be invariably few in number. There is a sixth class called intermediate, residing between life-forms and generics (such as evergreen tree, encompassing the generic categories of pine, fir, and larch), but its instantiation at the linguistic level is held to be rare.

Nomenclature is a key indicator of taxo-nomic and conceptual groupings, but other factors such as biological features, adapted uses, and psychological associations can override naming as the salient organizing principle of a folk system. Named categories (or lexemes) typically characterize the more general levels of classification within a domain (for example, animal, fish, trout), while the secondary categories or binomial labels that modify them are found at more specific levels (for example, brook trout). There is some evidence to suggest that secondary named categories might be more common among agricultural peoples than among hunter-gatherers. Morphological characteristics are just one aspect of a word, and not always the most relevant criteria. Intellectualists adhere to the principle that naming and taxonomic conventions are conceptual, based on observation of plant or animal characteristics and distinctive features. Structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued for the intellectualist position as the basis of totemic systems of classification and mythic symbolism. Utilitarianists, on the other hand, argue that such classifications are primarily adaptive, for example in the categorization of species by use—for food, fuel, medicine, or construction materials. There is a wealth of variety and inherent flexibility in different ecologies, adaptive mechanisms, linguistic parameters, individual creativity, and human thought. This diversity suggests that an operative combination of intellectualism and utilitarianism might work best for determining salient distinctions among living things. Ethno-scientific approaches extend beyond the plant and animal worlds to include systemic environmental qualities and larger cycles of nature.

Neoevolutionary stereotypes of traditional peoples as "primitive" act as blinders to many in the developed world, with the result that these cultures are unfairly derided, their contributions devalued or ignored. Mainstream scientists began to seriously credit the value of traditional indigenous wisdom around the 1970s, when habitat destruction, pollution, heedless large-scale development, overgrazing, and the threat of cultural ethnocide had reached crisis proportions in many parts of the world. The !Kung San of the Kalahari desert, for example, are frequently acknowledged as a people bearing important ways of discerning environmental resources of moisture and nourishment in many hidden forms, including underground water and buried ostrich eggs, as a means of survival.

The term ethnobotany was coined and defined in the late nineteenth century by John Harshberger, a botanist at the University of Pennsylvania. This understanding basically restricted the concept of folk classification to so-called primitive or preliterate peoples. In postwar anthropology, the notion of ethno-science was broadened to apply to any local situation as "the system of knowledge and cognition typical of a culture" or "its particular ways of classifying its material and social universe" (Sturtevant, 1964, pp. 130-131). Nancy Turner's work on the ethnobotany of the Sal-ish Indians of the interior plateau of British Columbia is exemplary of the genre, using fieldwork to exhaustively inventory and describe their knowledge, categorization, conservation and resource management, and traditional uses for endemic plant species such as saskatoon, soapberry, and camas (Peacock and Turner, 2000). In India, the study of ethnob-otany has been taken broadly to signify the entirety of human-plant relationships, with many subdisciplines such as ethnopharma-cology, ethnoecology, and even ethnolinguis-

tics subsumed under this heading. Jain (1987) divides the human-plant relationship into the abstract (folklore, magic, sacred plants, taboos) and the concrete (material uses, domestication, conservation, improvement of species).

The now conventional Western view of indigenous peoples as universally living in harmony and balance with nature seems to be based partly on historical reality and partly on romantic fantasy. Although many traditional societies have achieved and perpetuated sustainability within their ecosystems, patterns of production and consumption are necessarily based on a certain amount of destruction of resources. Their manageability and renewability are keys to continuing exploitation of local environments by local communities. Despite the timeless depictions of early ethnographies, however, it is rare for a people to live in stasis with their ecosystems over many generations without adaptation and change. Flexibility and creativity in the face of shifting climatic conditions, cyclical natural phenomena such as floods or drought, population pressures, migrations, desertification, and a host of other ecological factors are keys to historical survival for many cultures over long periods of time. Nevertheless, the prolonged existence of human-plant-animal interaction in circumscribed environments indicates that there is much traditional conservationist wisdom among indigenous groups that could be usefully applied to large-scale and local development. Industrial and postindustrial societies, living off the entire biosphere rather than a single local ecosystem, pose a threat to these traditional ways. Cultural values are intrinsic to conservation and sustainable resource management. Ethnobotanists look for the ways in which people perceive, conceptualize, and utilize the plants in their environment, including naming and classi

Margaret Mead with a Manus mother and child in 1953 during a visit to the Admiralty Islands (Bettmann/Corbis)

fication, the cultural significance of plant species, their varieties, physical properties, economic value, and utilitarian applications.

The pharmacological uses of plants in traditional healing practices constitute a vast repository of locally conditioned knowledge regarding the curative properties of certain plants. Modern drugs derived from traditional herbal medicines include ephedrine (Ephedra sinica) from China; quinine (Cinchona), curare (Strychnos, Chondodendron), and cocaine (Ery-throxylum coca) from South America; morphine (Papaversomniferum), atropine (Atropa belladonna), and codeine from Europe; and colchicine (Colchicum autumnale) from Eurasia. Ethnobotanical inventories can reveal pharmacological, psychoactive, and medicinal properties of plants previously unknown to Western science.

The many ethnoscientific subdisciplines include ethnoecology, ethnozoology, ethno-history, ethnoarchaeology, and ethnoastron-omy. At the metalevel, ethnoscience—a science that categorizes types of systems—is a classification of classifications. The ethno-sciences themselves thus constitute a heuristic system of the type they categorize, in this case the realm of cross-cultural studies. Ethno-scientific methodology represents a disciplinary attempt to achieve an anthropological point of view, or a construction of the world as the "native" sees it, following the ethnographic tradition of Malinowski. Perhaps it is best conceptualized as the science of ways of knowing, in the ancient and modern senses of "science" as knowledge and method, empirical data, and systems of thought. As a cognitive anthropological category, ethnoscience reveals ecological differences in ethnographic relief. Mali-nowski was a pioneer of the technique of ethnographic fieldwork as a means to the collection, translation, and classification of particular ethnoscientific knowledge in his studies of western Pacific categories of plant, bird, and ocean life. Harold C. Conklin's work (1957) on the Hanunoo system of ethno-botanical classification in the Philippines was a widely imitated model of determining systematic nomenclature and folk categories within a cultural ecosystem. Studies of Navajo classification by Gladys Reichard and others also developed this approach.

Ethnoscientific data tend to reinforce the reality of species. Berlin's system of six universal ranks, described above, is widely used by biological and social scientists as a basis for formulating native biotaxonomies. Brown (1984) surveyed the nomenclature of folk classifications for animals (based on a sample of 144 languages) and plants (based on a sample of 188 languages) and proposed the existence of a set of universal encoding principles for defining and delimiting biotic taxa. Limitations and distortions are liable to be introduced by an overly rigid cross-cultural application of Berlin's schema of ranks roughly corresponding to Linnaean taxonomic hierarchies. For example, Morris (in Minnis, 2000, pp. 83) reports that among the Chewa of Malawi, "folk concepts do not constitute logical or inclusive categories, for their folk classifications are inherently flexible, with many ambiguous or overlapping categories." Frequently, such categories might be viewed more productively as functional rather than taxonomic.

Hierarchical schemes arranged according to inferred folk taxonomic principles some times fail to take into account the variability of conceptualizations that arise from the exigencies of culture history. Lévi-Strauss illustrates this trap of misinterpreting classificatory logic according to surface evidence with the hypothetical example of a society organized into a trichotomous division of totemic clans (bear, eagle, turtle), of which one lineage (bear) gradually dies out. A resultant population explosion among the surviving groups and subsequent ecological changes in their environment may then cause one of the remaining pair to split into two moieties (yellow turtle, grey turtle). Over time, these two turtle subdivisions would tend to take on the formal characteristics and essential attributes of clans, the historical fissure becoming in effect the organizing principle of a new trichotomy (eagle, yellow turtle, grey turtle). Without historical knowledge of its true origin, the actual basis of the societal division as expressed in the later classification system cannot be known with any degree of certainty. The lesson drawn by Lévi-Strauss is that since the irreducible contingencies of historicity can be rendered invisible to an outside observer, "the principle underlying a classification can never be postulated in advance. It can only be discovered a posteriori by ethnographic investigation, that is, by experience" (1966, p. 58, emphasis in original).

Totemism, religion, ritual cycles, and other psychological and symbolic structures and events provide keys to the management of seasonal resources and their cyclical cultivation and distribution. These systems act upon the environment and embody the integration of nature and culture in unique ways that are as important to ecosystem maintenance as to cultural survival and the continuation of ethnic traditions, the ties of generationally transmitted knowledge and behavioral practices that sustain a people as a group. In recent years there have been a growing number of studies of environ mental inventories and use of plant and animal resources. Adaptations and new models of sustainable forestry, agriculture, and maritime resource management seek to list and apply ethnoscientific databases to rational schemes of sustainable development, drawing on existing stocks of biocultural diversity and linguistic specialization. The Mayan territory of Mexico and Central America is considered a bio-cultural megadiversity site, containing a large number of anthropogenic plant systems. Anthropologists are applying the ethnoeco-logical technique of "ground-truthing" to the Peruvian Amazon and highlands, interviewing local indigenous people about their environment as an empirical check on scientific estimations of biodiversity in the region. The Mat-sigenka people's large repertoire of biological categories suggests underestimation by environmental scientists. Their classificatory system resembles those used by ecologists, but their deeper knowledge of the variety of forest species has yielded at least three times the amount of biodiversity known from satellite images.

The traditionally maintained ecological inter-dependency of traditional societies, in the Amazon for example, strikes a delicate balance between human activity and the environment. This balance is being disrupted and threatened by changes in climate, land use, economic development, and other factors. Ethnophar-macology is a subfield in which industrialized society is showing an increasing interest. Many modern medicines are derived from indigenous precursors; curare and quinine, for example, were introduced to Western science by the Shuar rain forest people of Ecuador and Peru. Increasingly rapid species loss could mean that untold numbers of unknown cures for human and animal diseases will disappear forever. As a familiar traditional saying usually attributed to one or another African people reminds us, "Every time an elder dies a library burns down."

The incommensurability of loss of traditional environmental knowledge (sometimes referred to in the literature as TEK), with the difficulty of reconstituting past ecological wisdom, makes preventing the further disappearance of tradition one of the most urgent tasks facing the world in the twenty-first century. The emerging concept of biocultural diversity is an anthropological and biological approach emphasizing the integration of linguistic and cultural systems with biota spheres. Issues of cultural survival have become critical in relation to issues of the environment. The codepen-dence and mutual influence of human societies with their environments are shaped everywhere by such forces as cultivation practices and pathogen vectors. International efforts are required to create stable environmental regimes in the fragile circumpolar Arctic, for example, working in cooperation with native peoples and drawing respectfully on their ecological knowledge, acquired over centuries. The urgent development of fair and equitable intellectual property rights is a crucial step to protecting indigenous communities—especially in the Third World—who have developed pragmatic knowledge of plant life over centuries of practice. Profits from medicinal and other uses of laboratory-based adaptations have yielded little return to the mostly impoverished peoples who cultivated the foundations that make new varieties of food and medicine technologically possible. International covenants and agreements granting corporate patents over valuable genetically modified life forms derived in laboratories from species bred by indigenous peoples have so far produced little benefit to these local communities.

See also: Anthropology; Botany; Classification, Biological; Cultural Survival, Revival, and Preservation;

Ecosystems; Ethnology; Extinction, Direct Causes of; Indigenous Conservation; Land Use; Endangered

Species; Linnaean Hierarchy; Organizations in Biodiversity, The Role of; Preservation of Habitats; Preservation of Species; Species; Subsistence; Sustainable Development; Systematics; Tropical Rain Forests; Valuing Biodiversity; Zoology


Barthlott, W., and M. Winiger, eds. 1998. Biodiversity: A Challenge for Development Research Policy. Berlin: Springer; Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven. 1973. "General Principles of Classification and Nomenclature in Folk Biology." American Anthropologist 75: 215-242; Brown, Cecil. 1984. Language and Living Things: Uniformities in Folk Classification and Naming. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; Conklin, Harold C. 1957. "Hanunoo Agriculture: A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines." FAO Forestry Development Paper No. 12. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Jain, S. K. 1987. A Manual of Ethnobotany. Jodhpur: Scientific Publishers; Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Maffi, Luisa, ed. 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; Minnis, Paul E., ed. 2000. Ethnobotany: A Reader. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Minnis, Paul E., and Wayne J. Elisens, eds. 2000. Biodiversity and Native America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Peacock, Sandra L., and Nancy J. Turner. 2000. "Just Like a Garden: Traditional Resource Management and Biodiversity Conservation on the Interior Plateau of British Columbia." In Biodiversity and Native America, eds. Paul E. Minnis and Wayne J. Elisens. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Sturtevant, William C. 1964. "Studies in Ethnoscience." American Anthropologist 66: 99-131; Warren, D. Michael, L. Jan Slikkerveer, and David Brokensha, eds. 1995. The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems. London: Intermediate Technology.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Worm Farming

Worm Farming

Do You Want To Learn More About Green Living That Can Save You Money? Discover How To Create A Worm Farm From Scratch! Recycling has caught on with a more people as the years go by. Well, now theres another way to recycle that may seem unconventional at first, but it can save you money down the road.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment