AskDefine | Define ethnobiology

Extensive Definition

Ethnobiology is the scientific study of dynamic relationships between peoples, 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::
1. "How and in what ways do human societies use nature?"
2. "How and in what ways do human societies view nature?"


Beginnings (1400s-1800s)

Naturalists have been interested in local biological knowledge since the time Europeans started exploring the world, from the 15th century onwards
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

Phase II (1950s-1970s)

Arising out of practices in Phase I (above) came a 'second phase' in the development of 'ethnobiology', with researchers now striving to better document and better understand how other peoples' themselves "conceptualise and categorise" the natural world around them (Page 122)
This 'second' phase is marked
  • in Britain (mid 1960s) with the publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss' book The Savage Mind legitimating "folk biological classification" as a worthy cross-cultural research endeavour

Present (1980s-2000s)

By the turn of the 20th century ethnobiological practices, research, and findings have had a significant impact and influence across a number of fields of biological inquiry including ecology, conservation biology, development studies, and political ecology.
The Society of Ethnobiology advises on its web page:
"Ethnobiology is a rapidly growing field of research, gaining professional, student, and public interest .. internationally"
Ethnobiology has come out from its place as an ancillary practice in the shadows of other core pursuits, to arise as a whole field of inquiry and research in its own right: taught within many tertiary institutions and educational programmes around the world, its own readers, and its own textbooks

Subjects of Inquiry


All societies make use of the biological world in which they are situated, but there are wide differences in use, informed by perceived need, available technology, and the culture's sense of morality and sustainability. Ethnobiologists investigate what lifeforms are used for what purposes, the particular techniques of use, the reasons for these choices, and symbolic and spiritual implications of them.


Different societies divide the living world up in different ways. Ethnobiologists attempt to record the words used in particular cultures for living things, from the most specific terms (analogous to species names in Linnean biology) to more general terms (such as 'tree' and even more generally 'plant'). They also try to understand the overall structure or hierarchy of the classification system (if there is one; there is ongoing debate as to whether there must always be an implied hierarchy.

Cosmological, Moral and Spiritual Significance

Societies invest themselves and their world with meaning partly through their answers to questions like "how did the world happen?", "how and why did people come to be?", "what are proper practices, and why?", and "what realities exist beyond or behind our physical experience?" Understanding these elements of a societies' perspective is important to cultural research in general, and ethnobiologists investigate how a societies' view of the natural world informs and is informed by them.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In order to live effectively in a given place, a people needs to understand the particulars of their environment, and many traditional societies have complex and subtle understandings of the places in which they live. Ethnobiologists seek to share in these understandings, subject to ethical concerns regarding intellectual property and cultural appropriation.



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.

Other Disciplines

Studies and writings within ethnobiology involve and draw upon the research and researchers from across such disciplines and fields of knowledge as.
Furthermore, these questions must be considered not only in light of western industrialized nations' common understanding of ethics and law, but also in light of the ethical and legal standards of the societies from which the ethnobiologist draws information.

See also


  • 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. Ph.D. 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
  • ELLEN, Roy (1993) The Cultural Relations of Classification, an Analysis of Nuaulu Animal Categories from Central Seram. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 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 & S. 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.


External links

ethnobiology in Arabic: علم الأحياء العرقي
ethnobiology in Czech: Etnobiologie
ethnobiology in Danish: Etnobiologi
ethnobiology in French: Ethnobiologie
ethnobiology in Galician: Etnobioloxía
ethnobiology in Norwegian: Etnobiologi
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