Vanishing Knowledge of Ethnobotany
While there are many advantages to the modern industrialized way of life, including many conveniences, access to more information than at any other time in human history, and the ability to connect with others on the other side of the world, we are currently at risk of losing traditional knowledge that has been accumulated over thousands of years of human history as people have moved away from their traditional ways.
With a loss of the traditional ways of life, there is a loss of many of the things that our ancestors had and practiced, including ceremonies, a sense of connection to one another, and a sense of connection to the natural world. Many of our ancestors were especially connected to the native plant life around them and they used those plants each and every day. In fact, in most traditional cultures, people were most likely very dependent upon native plants for their survival. They simply just “did life” with plants.
Humans have been using plants for a variety of uses for thousands of years. From using plants for food, fuel, fiber, shelter, clothing, medicine, ceremonial uses, and much more, we have developed a long and complex history with many of the plants on our planet. Certain plants have been considered to be sacred, and have been even worshiped by some traditional cultures. One example is the Holy Basil plant (Ocimum sanctum), also known as Tusli, which is traditionally worshiped in the Hindu religion.
The study of such relationships between human cultures and plants is referred to as ethnobotany. Because the knowledge of such traditional cultures and practices is disappearing as many people have embraced the modern ways of life, it is more important than ever to study these cultures and practices, and for indigenous people groups that still exist today to be allowed to retain their connection to their traditional ways with plants, even if they do decide to embrace some modern ways in their lives.
For those of us who are not indigenous people, these traditional cultures are a window into ourselves and into where we have come from as part of the human race: all of us have ancestors that would have likely engaged in similar customs. There is wisdom in ethnobotany that helps to tell a story of who we are as the human race, and how we are still part of nature, no matter how “modern” our species becomes.
Maintaining knowledge of ethnobotany in the modern world also retains important understandings about the natural world and how these plants can still be used today. It is uncertain if humanity will retain all of our technology far into the future that make life convenient for us today, but a knowledge of how to use native plants may be crucial for our very survival someday. For instance, how many of us in the developed world today know how to properly forage for wild plants in a survival situation for both food and medicine? These are things that our ancestors simply knew how to do because they were just a part of their way of life.
There are a number of organizations that are currently working to preserve existing ethnobotanical knowledge before it is lost and how to use the plants in our lives today, including The Belize Ethnobotany Reserve Project, The EthnoMedicine Preservation Project, and The Society of EthnoBiology. There are even films being produced today that focus on traditional herbal healing, such as the Sacred Science documentary film, that takes a look at the use of rainforest plants by shaman to heal modern diseases, and Orgins, which takes a look at the history of our relationship with our Earth. Also, there are many who are studying traditional healing systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine that are heavily reliant upon medicinal herbs for healing.
There is also a resurgence in interest from the general public seeking to learn traditional ways of doing things, from cooking and nutrition, to herbal medicine, to foraging and wild-crafting, to those who are interested in learning about how to use plants to survive, to the application of agro-ecology systems that seek to learn from the methods that our ancestors once cultivated food in ways that were in harmony with nature.
It is a very positive direction that many people are now seeking to learn about and participate in what our ancestors traditionally did. May it be a continuing trend that brings forth a more balanced, peaceful, and healthy planet. Let us be respectful of indigenous cultures and of the planet as we seek to learn from them.