Ethnobotany | About Ethnobotany - Human societies use plants in many different ways for food, medicine, shelter, clothing, tools, ceremonial functions, and other purposes. Ethnobotany is the study of how people use plants, and ethnobotanists generally conduct their work by interviewing local peoples and studying their traditions and habits. Paleoethnobotanists focus on plant use in prehistoric times by examining seeds, pollen, wood, and other plant remains found at archaeological sites. Although ethnobotanists are interested in all types of plant use, the study of medicinal plants, with its potential for social and economic beneﬁt, has always been of particular interest. In fact, ethnobotanical investigations have led to the development of numerous important medicines. Quinine, the ﬁrst antimalarial drug, comes from the bark of cinchona trees, long used in native Peruvian medicine to treat fever, digestive ailments, and malaria. Aspirin originally came from willow bark, which has been used for thousands of years to relieve pain. More recently, Madagascar periwinkle, a plant used by several native peoples for diabetes and other conditions, provided two new cancer drugs.
|Ethnobotanists are interested in how different peoples use plants. Here, a Matses Indian shaman points out a medicinal plant in the rainforest surrounding his village in the Galvez River area, Amazon Basin, Peru.|
Scientists pursuing drug development have traditionally relied on the knowledge of local healers in their search for promising plants. However, the development of modern drugs from medicinal plant compounds leads to a difﬁcult ethical issue. What are the rights of indigenous peoples, and how can these be protected?
Critics are quick to point to the fact that cancer drugs developed from Madagascar periwinkle produced over a billion dollars in proﬁt for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, but nothing for traditional societies in Madagascar. Some drug developers now attempt to ensure that local peoples also beneﬁt. For example, when the AIDS Research Alliance found an anti-HIV compound in a Samoan medicinal tree, the group made direct contributions to the village where the tree was known and also promised 20 percent of the proﬁts from drugs that are eventually developed. Unfortunately, because of the ongoing loss of native cultures and the extinction of plant species through deforestation and habitat destruction, it is all too likely that many medically useful species will never be known.