Ethnobotany and Geography
Ethnobotany and Geography
• Ethnobotanical studies often focus on limited
geographic areas: regions, countries, provinces,
states, and even smaller areas.
• This may seem to be a limited arrangement
because it prevents making large scale
comparisons between areas or plant uses, but it
makes sense because the relationships of plants
and people in a particular area are often incredibly
Why study plants of Polynesia?
• In all traditional cultures the relationships of
plants and people are reciprocal and dynamic
• In traditional societies, most plant products are
collected, produced and consumed locally
• Michael Balick and Paul Cox feel that nowhere
has the effect of the use of plants on human
culture been more dramatic than in their use to
manufacture sea craft that transport people and
their crops across vast stretches of the ocean
Long Ocean Voyages by Humans
• Erik the Red journeyed 800 miles from Iceland to
discover Greenland; his son Leif Eriksson went
farther sailing nearly 2000 miles from Greenland
to an area he called Vinland, which we know as a
part of Newfoundland in Canada
• Polynesians would commonly travel the 422 miles
from Fiji to Tonga or 769 miles from Fiji to
Samoa; Samoa to Tahiti (1059 miles) was not
unheard of; the longest trips were from Tahiti to
Hawaii (2700 miles) such trips did not occur
often, but occurred often enough to populate
almost all habitable islands in the Pacific and to
allow trade and exchange of culture across the
Polynesian Islands
Tahiti with sailing canoes and other ships
– painted in 1773 by William Hodges
with Capt. Cook’s expedition
Boats on Island of Kabara
• The Camakau (thah-mah-cow) which is a singlehulled canoe of up to 15 meters in length and used
in inter-island transport and warfare
• The Drua (ndrro-ah) which has two hulls and
requires up to 50 men to sail it
• The Tabetebete (tahm-bay-tay-bay-tay) which is
the largest of all Fijian sea craft with an intricate
hull of fitted planks that could be up to 36 m long
and 7.3 m wide - these vessels could transport up
to 200 men, sail at 20 knots
A Drua built about 1900 on Fiji
Design of
a camakau,
Fijian oceangoing craft
Josafata Cama, traditional
shipwright of Kabara Island
Vesi tree – Intsia bijuga
Selecting Vesi trees for ship building
– Kabara Island
Hollowing out a Vesi tree trunk for a
canoe hull – Kabara Island
Vika Usu weaving a sail from
Pandanus leaves – Kabara Island
Pandanus odoratissimus
Young Pandanus
Canarium harveyi sap used for caulk
Kabara Islanders and Sandra
Bannock on first voyage of camakau
Where did Polynesians come from?
• Based on many characteristics such as
blood types, linguistics, indigenous
agriculture, and archaeological evidence it
is generally thought the Polynesians came
from the Lapita, an agricultural people who
left Indo-Malaysia and journeyed west
Polynesian Islands
Sweet potato tubers
Plans for a balsa
wood raft – used
along coast of
South America
-drawn by F.E.
Paris in 1841
Thor Heyerdahl’s balsa wood raft –
1947 in action and model
Possible Inca route to Pacific Islands
and Kon-Tiki route
Natural vegetation
of Africa
Features of Ethnobotany of Africa
• It is a large continent with many different ethnic
groups who have very different cultures and uses
of plants
• The continent is geographically very diverse,
ranging from bare deserts to lush tropical rain
forests. Ethnobotanical use of plants reflects the
diversity of habitat, and there is correspondingly
low use of plants in the desert regions and great
use of plants in the rain forests
• Humans originated in Africa. Therefore we
should see the oldest relationships between plants
and people in Africa
• Ethnosystematics (folk knowledge of botanical
classification – John Kokwaro) is highly
developed in Africa because many plants are used
in African ethnomedicine and because Africa is
rich in dialects and languages due to the large
number of ethnic groups.
• Each group has names for the plants it uses and for
describing the relationships of those plants.
African Concepts of Disease
1. Naturally caused diseases – these are due
to tangible material that affects the body’s
organs. Such natural diseases are regarded
as minor or normal because they can be
described by the patient and treated by the
healer in strictly physical terms.
African Concepts of Disease
2. Acute or severe diseases – the common belief
(fear) is that as soon as a disease becomes acute or
severe, it is due to unnatural causes or intangible
forces. This implies that a hostile person is using
supernatural powers against the patient or the
victim may have transgressed the moral code and
incurred the wrath of ancestors. These diseases
are characterized as being complicated and
serious. They usually have persistent illness.
Bewitched or cursed persons require special types
of treatment, medicine, and traditional doctors.
Traditional African Medical Practitioners
1. Herbalists usually use plants to treat
2. Diviners are also herbalists but use
divinatory procedures for treatment.
3. Spiritualists hardly use plants at all for
4. Great therapists utter prayers, incantations,
and invocations
Painting of an Herbalist
Traditional Herbalist Seybatou
Hamdy of Dakar, Senegal
Sangoma – South African
Diviner/Great Threapist
Traditional African Medical Practitioners
5. Traditional midwives may be obstetricians, herbalists,
gynecologists, or pediatricians. They provide health care
before, during, and after birth, and also care for newborn
infants and young children.
6. Traditional surgeons use special knives, sharpened and
tempered according to esoteric procedures, for
circumcisions and excisions. Cassava leaves, liquid from
snails, and various other ingredients are used as agents to
prevent excessive bleeding.
7. Traditional psychiatrists deal with a patients socioreligious
antecedents, using a series of rites, that include chants,
incantations, and ritual dances, and in which music is
played using particular musical instruments.

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