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Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline.
by R. E. Schultes, S. von Reis. 1995. Dioscorides Press; Timber Press, Inc., 133 S.W. Second Avenue, Suite 450, Portland, OR 97204-3527.416pp. $49.95. ISBN 0-931146-28-3.

This volume links together some of the most outstanding scientific works and thinkers involved in the discipline of ethnobotany. The book can be seen as a key to expanding our awareness about the intricate relationship between culture, plants, humans, and our environment. It is a wonderful volume that literally traces the scientific development of the discipline. At last, when anyone asks the question, "What is ethnobotany?", there is one book that can provide the answer.

This delightful book contains 36 articles from multiple perspectives all focusing on ethnobotany. The articles are divided into ten parts including sections on General Ethnobotany, Socioethnobotany, Historical Ethnobotany, Ethnobotanical Conservation, Ethnobotany in Education, Ethnobotanical Contributions to General Botany, Crop Improvement, and Ecology, Ethnobotany and Geography, Ethnopharmacology, Ethnomycology, and Archaeothnobotany. All of these chapters are interwoven with information from the disciplines of anthropology, archeology, botany, conservation, pharmacology, geography, history, medicine, psychology, religion, and sociology. It is the very nature of ethnobotany to be intensively multi-disciplinary. As we see increasing specialization in higher education in the U.S. and Europe, we find in this volume the importance of not losing site of the interconnections between knowledge and many disciplines. We also see the extraordinary sophistication of the indigenous people s of the world who have developed a tremendously complex and sophisticated knowledge about their environment.

The first section on general ethnobotany is an excellent overview of some of the leading thinkers and contributors in the field. This enables students, scientists and any general reader to get a good sense of the kind of work that has been done and it includes very detailed bibliographies enabling individuals to pursue this work further.

The second section, on socioethnobotany, is a wonderful exploration of a distinct perspective on the nature and importance of ethnobotany within a dynamically evolving society that consists of a tremendous proportion of indigenous and local people. It presents the viewpoint of a renowned Mexican ethnobotanist who has integrated ethnobotanical research with current sociological, ecological, and ethical issues.

Section three, historical ethnobotany, provides a creative and artistic display of the relationships between plants, culture, art and religion. The focus on art and artifact in the ancient and near East is a critical reminder about the antiquity of knowledge and use of plants for a wide diversity of purposes. The focus on plants described in the Badianus manuscript further reminds us of the profound knowledge of the indigenous people of the Americas prior to contact with the Old World.

Section four, ethnobotanical conservation, demonstrates in a rigorous fashion the importance of tropical forests to tropical forest peoples. It articulates how interdependent the local people are with their environment. The quantitative assessment of the importance of species to indigenous cultures provides much needed data which strengthens the case for including indigenous and local people in all types of management, conservation, or development programs.

Section five discusses ethnobotany in education, which is a vitally important subject for students of all ages. There has been a great growth in interest in this field from educators as well as students. This section provides approaches by which Ethnobotany can become part of general curriculums for all ages.

Section six describes the ethnobotanical contribution to botany, crop improvement, and ecology. The focus on germplasm and the domestication of food plants reminds us of the ethnobotanical origin of the world's food supply.

Section seven, ethnobotany and geography, provides an excellent overview from several different regions of the world, including North America, Colombia, the Western hemisphere, India, and Malaysia. This enables the reader to focus in on the significance of ethnobotanical studies and achievements of indigenous and local peoples in a variety of different habitats and geographic areas.

Section eight discusses ethnopharmacology with a series of absolutely fascinating articles that show the evolution of many different modern therapeutic agents. These series of articles demonstrate the intricate knowledge of indigenous people about the biodynamic constituents of plants that yield physiological effects. These chapters unequivocally demonstrate the fact that much of modern pharmaceutical discovery owes a debt to the knowledge of indigenous people. This author provides fascinating background on some of the most perplexing questions associated with the use of plants known to be used in rituals throughout the New World.

These articles present great challenges to the scientific community to remove their bias and prejudice about the type of knowledge that is and has been found among a wide diversity of local and indigenous people. It also further strengthens the need to conserve both the cultural knowledge as well as the habitats in which that knowledge and people have evolved.

Section nine, archaeoethnobotany, helps articulate the time course and role of plants in the evolution of various cultural groups. Clearly, discoveries about the evolution of food, medicine and other plants will be expanded by archae-ethnobotanical discoveries throughout the planet. The recent discovery of a viable germinating 1,200 year-old lotus seed further amplifies the tremendous inherent power of plants and nature to respond and be resilient to extraordinary circumstances. The fact that a seed could stay dormant for more than a millennium holds great physical and metaphorical promise for our planet.

Virtually all these chapters are written by experts in the field of ethnobotany. Many, if not all, of these individuals have devoted their entire scientific career to studying the multiple interrelated aspects of ethnobotany. This volume is truly a culmination of the last hundred years of scientific inquiry into understanding the complexities of humans, plants, and our environment.

This book will make an excellent primary reader for any and all courses dealing with ethnobotany, traditional cultures, native peoples, ethnomedicine, and the history of medicine, as well as courses associated with development, conservation, environmental management and people working to sustain, in a respectful way, the achievements of local and indigenous people.

The authors are world renowned. Richard Evans Schultes has been named the "Father of Ethnobotany" by many different people. If there should be any doubt about the devotion, fascination, and pleasure that the study of ethnobotany has provided to Dr. Schultes, one need only look at the picture on the back cover of this book. The co-editor, Siri von Reis, and all the contributors to this book have created a tribute to the significance of ethnobotany to past, present, and future generations.

Anyone reading this book will come away with a greatly enhanced appreciation of the interconnected nature of humans, plants, and our environment. I can think of no more significant message, at this point in time, for our species.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Steven R. King