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Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America

Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America, Vol 1 and 2, by Nancy J. Turner. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2014. Hardcover, 1161 pages. ISBN: 978-0773543805. $100.00.

The book review editor of HerbalGram asked me to address the question: What were the goals of Nancy Turner, PhD, in publishing these magnificent tomes? In my first hours delightedly scanning through Volume 1 — The History and Practice of Indigenous Plant Knowledge — I was not convinced that the author had adequately laid out the goals for the books, but she cites them very clearly in her blog1:

The two-volume book … represents, for me, a culmination of many years of research and thought about the complex, long-term, ever-changing relationships among humans, plants, and environments here in northwestern North America. How did people acquire the rich knowledge about their environments, including plants, algae, and fungi, that I learned about? How did they pass on their knowledge, practices, and beliefs from generation to generation, from family to family, and from community to community? And, how did they adapt these practices to new and changing situations they encountered? Finally, in the face of these rapidly changing times, with technological, societal, and environmental change happening at a seemingly ever-increasing pace, how can this precious knowledge be recognized, maintained, and perpetuated for the benefit of future generations? These are the big questions that have been building up for me with each new detail learned, each new insight, and each new recognition of significance and connection stemming from my participatory, collaborative research with First Nations plant experts. In this book I have attempted to address these questions.

As book reviewer, I say she has done a magnificent job!

I have long admired Dr. Turner’s great work. As I skim through her books, I can see interesting parallels between the late, great Richard E. Schultes, PhD, and his many students assembling anthropological and ethnobotanical data on the First Amazonian Americans into a solid framework. Nancy and her students have done the same for approximately 500 ethnobotanical species used by the First Americans in Northwest America. Nancy also tells me that there is much more unpublished data on a digital document storage repository at her university, since there is too much to fit into the books. Responding to my incessant curiosity, Nancy dug out some details for me.

I was pleased to be invited to review this exciting new ethnobotanical compendium. First, I commend the publishers for breaking this into two volumes. Too often, oversized volumes break down too soon. Refreshingly, the 554-page Volume 1 and 552-page Volume 2 — The Place and Meaning of Plants in Indigenous Cultures and Worldviews — are colored differently and paginated separately. There are disadvantages, however: Volume 2 has the index to both volumes. I do not have much room beside my big computer screen, so I find it a nuisance to have to look up the pages for ethnobotanical comments on the higher plants, ferns, mushrooms, and seaweed, most of which are covered in Volume 1 but indexed only in Volume 2. It entails a lot of flipping back and forth. And another minor complaint: My 85-year-old eyes need a magnifying glass, frequently, in reading these packed pages.

Having enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner spiced with store-bought juniper berries, I picked Juniperus communis (Cupressaceae) to assess the indexing, which is very important to compilers like me. (My Thanksgiving hostess had been advised by the store where she brought her juniper berries not to pick wild ones, as some might be poisonous.) In Volume 2, J. communis is indexed to page 62 (berries eaten in small quantities [I ate two dried ones Thanksgiving night.]), page 128 (common names), page 132 (more common names translating “Brown Bear’s Spruce Bough,” “Raven’s arrow,” and “Raven’s berry”), page 175 (more plant names), page 343 (berry-like cones used for brown dye), page 420 (cone eaten as panacea), page 421 (branch tea laxative), page 423 (tea for cold, fever, pneumonia, and tuberculosis), page 426 (tea or decoction for childbirth), page 427 (cone tea for backache, myalgia), and page 428 (tea and eyewash and for purification). There was only one entry indexed to Volume 2 on page 302, which contained some tribal medicine details (“Haida said it all had to be drunk to work”; “Nlaka‘pamux suggest as sweathouse purification”; “Okanagan suggest decoction against death and illness”; “Hunn and Selum et al suggest as wash for babies to protect against fever and witchcraft.”).

Based on this single exploration, I say the index is good but a bit incommodious (meaning: damned unhandy), especially when juggling two volumes, a keyboard, and a magnifying glass. This cumber makes it difficult to write a review. Still, I recommend the book to cranky old men like me and the young at heart and strong of eye as well.

With good reason, Nancy challenges the naïve notion that these and other First Americans were hunter-gatherers (in Volume 1, page 265). I’ve never encountered any First Americans who did not deem it wise to plant nearby those things they had to travel far to gather. But rather than quote her book, I prefer to quote her blog once more1:

[A]ccounts of re-planting growing parts of highly valued root vegetables — northern riceroot [Fritillaria camschatcensis, Liliaceae] in the coastal estuarine root harvesting sites, and yellow glacier lily [Erythronium grandiflorum, Liliaceae] in the interior montane meadows — brought me to a realization of something that had been staring me in the face all along: Indigenous Peoples of northwestern North America have been long-time plant cultivators.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates (ca. 460-377 BCE), the “Father of Medicine.” In these tomes, Dr. Turner explains that First Americans often say “Our food is our medicine.” Dr. Turner and I agree with Tim Johns, PhD, and his book With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It, that many of our foods are proven medicinals, and many of our medicines come from edible plants. I have no reason to believe that First American herbs are any more or less medicinal than the First Ayurvedic and First Chinese herbs with which mankind has evolved for many thousands of years. If you count only the PubMed studies on traditional Chinese medicines and Ayurvedic herbs, there is much more published evidence for these long-established traditions, but there is little credible evidence that one species is better than the other. The First Americans have coevolved with their local species for some 14,000 years, and I believe that all traditional cultures have evolved to learn which of their medicines work best for particular ailments.

All who know me well know that I am a strong believer in “Food Farmacy.” Each food plant species contains thousands of biologically active phytochemicals. The longer humans have coevolved with and ingested those species, the more probable their food farmacy applications. Homeostatically, our bodies have evolved to select from those many phytochemicals on the food farmacy menu those which might restore the body to balance (health) from imbalance (disease). Concomitantly, Homo sapiens tend to reject the unnecessary, unbalancing chemicals. Accepting these speculative suggestions, First Africans are more likely to be helped by First African food plants, as are First Americans by First American food plants, First Ayurvedics by First Ayurvedic food plants, etc. Further, each of us will select from the same food farmacy menu differently according to our evolutionary histories, homeostatic needs, and our individual temporary imbalances. So the food farmacy menu is a polypharmacy approach giving the body a choice of many genetically familiar phytochemicals to help bring the body back into balance. Conventional medicine, too, often offers a single synthetic chemical unknown to our genes, which can disturb, rather than restore, balance.

The two volumes are generously laced with black-and-white photos and fascinating ethnobotanical appendices and tables. For example, Table 1, starting on page 420 in Volume 1, details the following: general tonics (of which there are about 35 species); purgatives, laxatives, and emetics (about 20 species); dermatological poultices, salves, and washes (about 60 species); respiratory medicines (e.g., for cold, cough, and tuberculosis; about 70 species); internal ailments and injuries (about 50 species); gynecological medicines (about 30 species), and miscellaneous medicines (about 40 species).

Then on page 453, there’s a half-page table (Table 7-3) cataloging the miscellaneous uses to which the First Americans put their aromatic plants, with therapeutics leading the lot. The table contains more than 34 species used for internal medicine; 25 for external medicine; 25 for sweat baths and protectors against evil spirits, illness, and predators; 18 for masticatories and gums; 17 as antiseptics, insecticides, and insect repellents; 17 as anesthetics, or cosmetics for hair, scalp, and skin; 16 as aromatic beverage teas; 15 as fragrant or protective incenses or smudge; 10 as pediatric and baby therapies; 10 as cooking spices; nine as hunting and fishing gear cleansers, deodorizers, or good luck charms; six to induce dreams or sleep; and five species for ceremonial scrubbing.

I was pleased to see that Dr. Turner discusses pit cooking. I must confess to a penchant, if not a craving, for pit-cooked pork barbecue, and Dr. Turner includes historical and scientific details of earth ovens and pit cooking in the text. Interestingly, pit-cooking camas (Camassia quamash, Liliaceae) and onions were significant to First Americans nutritionally because the process breaks down the complex carbohydrate inulin into fructose, which is sweeter and more easily digested. Pits were used to cook many relatively indigestible root vegetables, and there is a recognition of their use for clams, eggs, fish, meat, seal, etc. (But no pork — early on, at least.) Sooner or later, other roots were imported from the outside, like the potato (Solanum tuberosum, Solanaceae) and the turnip (Brassica rapa, Brassicaceae). Dr. Turner catalogs dozens of First American names for these two introduced root crops.

These magnificent tomes belong on the shelves of all good anthropologists, botanists, ecologists, ethnobotanists, food scientists, herbalists, linguists, naturalists, naturopaths, nutritionists, and those rare conventional physicians who have come to realize that nutritionally balanced and genetically familiar foods should be our medicines, not unknown new synthetics. Viva food farmacy for the First Peoples, in Victoria and elsewhere!

Thanks much, Nancy Turner. Excellent job — wow! What a production!

—James A. Duke, PhD Botanical Consultant, Economic Botanist Herbal Vineyard Inc./Green Farmacy Garden Fulton, Maryland


  1. ASPP Spotlight: Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge, by Nancy J. Turner. Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences website. August 12, 2014. Available at: Accessed December 3, 2014.