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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.
  • ALEXIADES, M.N. (1996) Selected guidelines for ethnobotanical research: a field manual. The New York Botanical Garden. New York.
  • BALLEE, W (1998) (ed.) Advances in historical ecology. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • BERLIN, Brent (1992) Ethnobiological Classification - Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • CASTETTER, E.F. (1944) "The domain of ethnobiology". The American Naturalist. Volume 78. Number 774. Pages 158-170.
  • CONKLIN, H.C. (1954) The relation of Hanunóo culture to the plant world. PhD dissertation, Yale University.
  • COTTON, C.M (1996) Ethnobotany: principles and applications. John Wiley. London.
  • CUNNINGHAM, A.B (2001) Applied ethnobotany: people, wild plant use and conservation. Earthscan. London
  • DODSON, Michael (2007). "Report of the Secretariat on Indigenous traditional knowledge" (PDF). Report to the United Nation's Economic and Social Council's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Sixth Session, New York, 14–25 May. United Nation's Economic and Social Council. New York. 
  • ELLEN, Roy (1993) The Cultural Relations of Classification, an Analysis of Nuaulu Animal Categories from Central Seram. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ELLEN, Roy (2006). "Introduction" (PDF). Special Edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. S1-S22. 
  • HARRINGTON, J.P (1947) "Ethnobiology". Acta Americana. Number 5. Pages 244-247
  • HAUDRICOURT, Andre-Georges (1973) "Botanical nomenclature and its translation." In M. Teich & R Young (Eds) Changing perspectives in the history of science: Essays in honour of Joseph Needham Heinemann. London. Pages 265-273.
  • JOHANNES, R.E (Ed)(1989) Traditional ecological knowledge. IUCN, The World Conservation Union. Cambridge
  • LAIRD, S.A. (Ed) (2002) Biodiversity and traditional knowledge: equitable partnerships in practice. Earthscan. London.
  • LEVI-STRAUSS, Claude (1966). The savage mind. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London.
  • MARTIN, G.J (1995) Ethnobotany: a methods manual. Chapman & Hall. London.
  • MINNIS, P (Ed) (2000) Ethnobotany: a reader. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.
  • PLOTKIN, M.J (1995) "The importance of ethnobotany for tropical forest conservation." in R.E. Schultes & Siri von Reis (Eds) Ethnobotany: evolution of a discipline (eds) Chapman & Hall. London. Pages 147-156.
  • PORTERES, R. (1977)."Ethnobotanique." Encyclopaedia Universalis Organum Number 17. Pages 326-330.
  • POSEY, D.A & W. L. Overal (Eds.), 1990) Ethnobiology: Implications and Applications. Proceedings of the First International Congress of Ethnobiology. Belém: Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi.
  • POSEY, D. A. (Ed.), (1999) Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. London: United Nations Environmental Programme & Intermediate Technology Publications.
  • SCHULTES, R.E. & VON REIS, S (1995) (Eds) Ethnobotany: evolution of a discipline (eds) Chapman & Hall. London. Part 6.
  • SILLITOE, Paul (2006) "Ethnobiology and applied anthropology: rapprochement of the academic with the practical". Special Edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute S119-S142
  • STEVENSON, M.C. (1914) "Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians." Bureau of American Ethnology Annual Report. Volume 30. Number 31102, Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.
  • TUXILL, J & NABHAN, G.P (2001) People, plants and protected area. Earthscan. London.
  • WARREN, D.M; SLIKKERVEER, L; & BROKENSHA, D. (Eds) (1995) The cultural dimension of development: indigenous knowledge systems. Intermediate Technology Publications. London.
  • ZERNER, C (Ed) (2000) People, plants and justice: the politics of nature conservation. Columbia University Press. New York.
  • Balancing Act Research and Education (B.A.R.E.) (1996) Ecosystem Management Director and Ethnobotanist Lyncho Ruiz


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