Ethnozoology is another facet of ethnobiology that is the interdisciplinary study of how human cultures interact with the animals around them, from mammals to birds and reptiles to bugs.
Photo of a person holding a Sceloporus grammicus, the main edible reptile consumed by the Cuicatec people. Taken from “Cuicatec ethnozoology: traditional knowledge, use, and management of fauna by people of San Lorenzo Pápalo, Oaxaca, Mexico”.
The importance of ethnozoology
Similar to ethnobotany, ethnozoology is an important area of study because it helps capture indigenous knowledge about animal species. Consider the case of the Gwich’in (Dene) people of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada adapted from Why Language Documentation Matters:
The Gwich’in people have relied heavily on the caribou as a source of food for thousands of years. Additionally, all parts of the caribou were used including hides for clothing and bones for weapons. During the course of an NSF-funded project coordinated by anthropologist Craig Mishler and led by speaker Kenneth Frank, community members of a number of Gwich’in villages were interviewed. The material collected during these interviews allowed the team to create detailed mappings of Gwich’in names of caribou anatomy, including bones, organs, and tissues. Here again we see methodology that organically contributed to language documentation. In addition to information about caribou anatomy, the team collected a number of stories, songs, games, ceremonial practices, traditional tools, methods of creating skin clothing, traditional names, and ways of cooking all relating to caribou.
The outcomes of this documentation are twofold. First, information about caribou and many aspects of the cultural interaction with caribou are remembered and reclaimed through the very act of creating the documentation. The importance of this cannot be understated: the relationship of the Gwich’in to the caribou is sacred. For the Gwich’in, connecting with the environment in a respectful way, and that includes connecting with the caribou, is the way to good health and wellbeing. The pathways to wellbeing become difficult when those connections are disrupted. This documentation helps sustain traditional practices in the Gwich’in language. Second, the documentation contributes to a body of knowledge that is useful for linguistics and zoological studies.
Chelliah, Shobhana. (2021). Why Language Documentation Matters. Springer: Dordrecht.
Solís, L., Casas, A. Cuicatec ethnozoology: traditional knowledge, use, and management of fauna by people of San Lorenzo Pápalo, Oaxaca, Mexico. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 15, 58 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-019-0340-1