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Discovering Aboriginal Plant Use: The Journeys of an Australian Anthropologist


Discovering Aboriginal Plant Use: The Journeys of an Australian Anthropologist by Philip A Clarke. Rosenberg Publishing: Kenthurst, Australia; 2014. Hardcover, 192 pages. ISBN: 9781925078220. $49.95.

While Philip Clarke, PhD, writes of “discovering Aboriginal plant use” as an Australian anthropologist, it is noteworthy that he dedicates the book to “all ethnobotanists.” This is understandable. He writes that from early on in his career as a museum-based anthropologist, he chose “to use ethnobotany as the window through which to better understand Aboriginal Australia.” With glossy 8.5×11-inch pages, the book bears a superficial resemblance to coffee-table publications that are often stereotyped as including beautiful illustrations with limited text. This is not the case with this book.

Given Clarke’s anthropological training, ethnobotanical orientation, diverse professional experiences over a 30-year career, and many “journeys” through the Australian landscape, which he carefully recorded in his field journals, Discovering Aboriginal Plant Use is a well-written, informative, and beautifully illustrated book. It is indeed a wonderful introduction to discovering the natural regional environments of Native Australian cultures and plant-use traditions in southeastern Australia, the arid interior, and the monsoonal northern regions. With respect to the organization of the book, these broad geographical regions are divided into chapters, with each chapter having four or five subsections dealing with specific locations.

Clarke, whose background also includes biology and geography, began his career in 1982 working with Native Australian ethnographic collections of the South Australian Museum. At the time, his research interests focused on plant foods, medicines, and materials for making artifacts, but over the course of a career that included work as a museum assistant, collection manager, registrar, curator, and head of anthropology, his interests would broaden to include Native Australian perception and land use. It is this broad view to which the reader is treated in this work.

I found particularly interesting the extent to which the author wove a basic understanding of the representation of Aboriginal material culture in diverse collections across Australia into his account of natural regional environments with their different cultures and plant-use traditions. It is in this context that issues of native title claims and heritage projects are also dealt with in this work. The topic of Native Australian medicinal plant use is discussed throughout the book and will be of special interest to readers of this publication.

The successful combination of geography, anthropology, and ethnobotany makes this book an important contribution to the literature that is suitable for general readers and a wide variety of scholars. In addition to its many excellent photographs and a useful map, the book will be particularly valuable to students and researchers because the author has provided nine pages of endnotes, 11 pages of references, two extensive indexes of common names and scientific names, and 12 pages of a detailed general index.

—John Rashford, PhD
Professor of Anthropology
College of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina