Ethnobiology is the study of humans and their relationship to things biological, from plants to animals to nature itself. Sessions ranged from “Archeological methods” to “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Ethnobiology in the 21st Century (and Beyond): Changes, Innovations, and Issues of Justice” to an entire session dedicated to Acai. The Archeological Methods session was fascinating — Linda Scott Cummings presented a chemical analysis of residues found on ceramic sherds (in this circle they are called sherds and not shards) as support for the use of a plant in the Euphorbia family (same family as your Christmas friend, the pointsettia) in Samoa over 2000 years ago. Another presenter, Caroline A. Dezendorf, used her master’s research to recreate various processes of preparing maize. Using heirloom varieties of maize, she found that those kernels which underwent a lyme treatment match those found by archaeologists. Steve Wolverton used skeletal remains of white-tailed deer to determine that increased hunting pressure resulted in larger deer (due to increased forage).
While there I presented my results from my 2011 field season in South Greenland (see previous post). I was happy to share with the audience that plant knowledge is not disappeared from Greenland, but instead is shared among a small community of enthusiasts. I am working with my collaborator, Lenore Grenoble at the University of Chicago, to pull our results into a manuscript for submission to a journal. Unlike ecology journals, ethnobotanical journals favor including all the data within a paper. So far our manuscript is 4 pages long and the table with the results of our interviews is 10 pages long. I’ve never seen more table than paper in an ecology journal!
Every talk about the Arctic requires acclimating the audience to a different perspective of the globe, one where the North Pole is the center of our perspective.
We found that knowledge varies from merely knowing who is knowledgeable about plants within the community to extensive knowledge about collection, preparation, storage and use of plants. We documented 171 uses of plants, divided into 7 categories: beverage, craft, food, medicine, fuel, spice or condiment, and ritual. The majority of uses were as medicine (~25%), food (~23%), beverages (~14%), and craft (~12%). Beverages include mostly teas and three instances of fermented drink. The craft category includes funeral wreaths and decorative bouquets of dried and fresh materials, including fabrication of Christmas trees from Juniperus communis. Medicines are topical and internal. Fuel includes material for fire and candlewicks. Spices are those plants used during cooking; condiments are those that are added to food once cooked. Ritual describes uses connected with spiritual practices, in this case to cleanse the home of bad energy or ghosts. Our work indicates that while few individuals hold knowledge, it does persist within the community and plants are used today both traditionally and with Danish influence.
A stormy day in the Rocky Mountains.
One of the highlights of the trip was a field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The four hour bus ride allowed plenty of time to get to know other conference participants, including Steve Weber, the founder of SoE, and a paleoethnobotanist. His research investigates how and why people adopt subsistence strategies. What I appreciated most about our conversation was to learn that he uses techniques with which I am familiar thanks to my IGERT connection with Earth Scientists, but to ask very different questions. My IGERT colleague, Laura Levy, uses lake core samples to measure the past extent of the Greenland ice sheet. Steve uses them to understand climate and agricultural practices in Pakistan. It was empowering to jump right into a conversation with the founder of an esteemed society with full understanding of his methods. Thanks, IGERT!