Ethnobiology is the scientific study of the way living things are treated or used by different human cultures. It studies the dynamic relationships between people, biota, and environments, from the distant past to the immediate present.
"People-biota-environment" interactions around the world are documented and studied through time, across cultures, and across disciplines in a search for valid, reliable answers to two 'defining' questions: "How and in what ways do human societies use nature, and how and in what ways do human societies view nature?"
Naturalists have been interested in local biological knowledge since the time Europeans started colonising the world, from the 15th century onwards. Paul Sillitoe wrote that:
Europeans not only sought to understand the new regions they intruded into but also were on the look-out for resources that they might profitably exploit, engaging in practices that today we should consider tantamount to biopiracy. Many new crops .. entered into Europe during this period, such as the potato, tomato, pumpkin, maize, and tobacco. (Page 121)
Local biological knowledge, collected and sampled over these early centuries significantly informed the early development of modern biology:
Ethnobiology itself, as a distinctive practice, only emerged during the 20th century as part of the records then being made about other peoples, and other cultures. As a practice, it was nearly always ancillary to other pursuits when documenting others' languages, folklore, and natural resource use. Roy Ellen commented that:
At its earliest and most rudimentary, this comprised listing the names and uses of plants and animals in native non-Western or 'traditional' populations often in the context of salvage ethnography ..[ie] ethno-biology as the descriptive biological knowledge of 'primitive' peoples.
This 'first phase' in the development of ethnobiology as a practice has been described as still having an essentially utilitarian purpose, often focusing on identifying those 'native' plants, animals and technologies of some potential use and value within increasingly dominant western economic systems
- Ethnobotany investigates the relationship between human societies and plants: how humans use plants – as food, technology, medicine, and in ritual contexts; how they view and understand them; and their symbolic and spiritual role in a culture.
- The subfield ethnozoology focuses on the relationship between animals and humans throughout human history. It studies human practices such as hunting, fishing and animal husbandry in space and time, and human perspectives about animals such as their place in the moral and spiritual realms.
- Ethnoecology refers to an increasingly dominant 'ethnobiological' research paradigm focused, primarily, on documenting, describing, and understanding how other peoples perceive, manage, and use whole ecosystems.
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- Balancing Act Research and Education (B.A.R.E.) (1996) Ecosystem Management Director and Ethnobotanist Lyncho Ruiz