Ethnobotany is actually a subset of ethnobiology, which is an interdisciplinary field that studies how human cultures interact with the biological world, including cultural practices and language use. Ethnobotany focuses on the ethnobiology of plants specifically. All facets of ethnobiology can be extremely important for language documentation, but we’re focusing on two -- ethnobotany and ethnozoology.
Ethnobotany is important because it gives us valuable understanding of regional ecosystems. When people are removed from their ancestral lands, special terminology that is tied to the land itself will slowly fade. As that language use dwindles, so does our understanding of the flora and fauna of the land.
The importance of ethnobotany
Indigenous communities have often inhabited lands for hundreds of years, resulting in an intimate relationship with the land and a deep understanding of the plants and animals that live there. With this understanding comes unique approaches to the natural world, knowledge of useful plants and how to use them, and models of resilience and adaptation. When this knowledge can be captured and shared, it deepens our own understanding of biodiversity.
Photograph Dr. Rosita Arvigo and Polo Romero showing Dioscorea fruits in the field, from The Belize Ethnobotany Project landing page at NYBG.org.
Other benefits of ethnobotany include insight into settling patterns of different communities. If the words are different for related languages, is it because communities no longer live in similar environments? For example, maybe one community has multiple terms for describing waves of the ocean vs. another related community that instead has multiple ways to describe running water and rivers. Possibly our two communities lived together at one time but later split to inhabit land near the sea or river bank. Comparison of linguistic terms for ecology can teach us more than just botany.
Ethnobotany is a focus of many research teams and field linguists. We won’t go into great detail here because it could be a whole module in itself! If you’d like to learn more about ethnobotany and how you can elicit terms that help enrich your data with ethnobotany-related language, here are some recommended resources:
The Belize Ethnobotany Project landing page. New York Botanical Garden. https://www.nybg.org/science-project/belize-ethnobotany-project/