Ethnobotany: Object Of Study, History, Methodology

The ethnobotany is the scientific discipline that is responsible for the systematic and multidisciplinary study of the multiple relationships (past and present) that set humans with plants.

These relationships are studied within the cultural context of social groups that use plants for the cure of various ailments and diseases.

The ethnobotanical studies of plants can be located in different historical times and in different cultures in different geographical areas of the planet. This is how it has been approached from the function of plants in ancient civilizations, to their uses in biotechnological applications.

Object of study

The ethnobotanical discipline studies various aspects of the relationships that human beings establish with plants. First, it addresses the specific ways in which humans perceive and value plants within their belief systems.


Second, ethnobotany studies the classifications that human groups make of different plants; this could be defined as the study of cultural plant taxonomies.

Practical uses of plants

On the other hand, the ethnobotanical approach must consider the practical uses that social groups give to the plants in their environments: as food, as medicine, as clothing, as materials for construction and transportation, tool making and others.

Economic uses and agriculture are also aspects that the ethnobotanical study includes; associated tillage techniques, such as the elimination of “weeds” and why they are considered as such, and the domestication and cultivation of species selected by the social group.

Religious uses of plants

The mythical-religious uses of some plants by different cultures are also the subject of ethnobotany study.


Since its appearance on planet Earth, man has been forced to depend on his environment to meet his vital needs such as food, shelter, protection from the elements and curing his diseases.

ancient Egypt

The earliest known written record of medical uses of plants is in the Code of Hammurabi , dated 1770 BC, found in Babylon, ancient Egypt.

Plants have been found within the burial chambers at the pyramids of Giza that evidence the use of medicinal plant species by the ancient Egyptians, not only for “earthly” diseases, but for “the spiritual life after death” of the pharaohs.

The Egyptian armies had an established routine to return after the battles and conquests of territories with many new plants collected.

Ancient china

The oldest written testimony of Chinese herbal medicine dates back to 1000 BC; It is a text called Huangdi Neijing Su Wen or Canon of Internal Medicine of the Yellow Emperor, whose author is Huangdi, the yellow emperor.

This canon is a set of 11 texts found in a tomb in Hunan, China, where the medicinal use of herbs, tree stem bark, legume grains, fruits and parts of animals is recorded.

India in ancient times

In the 5th century BC, various medical texts were written in India, the first of which appears to have been the Sushruta-samjita , attributed to Sushruta.

This text is a pharmacopoeia that contains 700 medicinal plants with their registered uses, as well as recipes for pharmaceutical preparations with plants, animals and minerals.

Ancient Greece

The oldest known Greek text on the medical and culinary uses of plants is called De materia medica, whose author is the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides.

This book is an extensive compendium of more than 600 Mediterranean plants and their uses, information that Dioscorides had collected during his travels through the Roman Empire including Greece, Crete, Egypt and Petra.

Roman empire

The Romans during the time of expansion of their great empire, consulted and learned from local herbalists to heal their troops of injuries and diseases.

Useful plants such as medicines or spices were used as currency in the commercial routes of the empire.

Middle Ages

During the European Middle Ages some records of ethnobotanical medical studies were made, carried out by monks who lived in monasteries.

The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen stands out, considered the founder of natural history in her country of origin, who wrote 9 botanical-medicinal volumes conforming the book Physica and the work Causae et Curae.

During this time, knowledge about the medical uses of plants was maintained in medicinal gardens cultivated in the vicinity of hospitals and monasteries.

Ibn Sina or Avicenna, of Persian origin, considered one of the leading physicians of all time, in his Canon of Medicine, a 14-volume encyclopedia of Persian and Arabic Islamic medicine, refers to the ancient Indian texts of Sushruta and Charaka .

Conquest of America     

The botanical knowledge that existed in 15th century Europe grew rapidly with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the American continent in 1492, with the discovery for Europeans of new food plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, avocados, and peanuts. , among other; and of many new plants with medicinal uses.

The Libelus de medicinalibus indorum herbis (Book on the medicinal herbs of indigenous peoples), known as the Codex of La Cruz-Badiano , dates from 1552 and is the first treatise on the use of medicinal plants by the Mexica (of Mexico).

It was written by the indigenous doctor Martín de La Cruz, originally in the Nahuatl language and later translated into Latin by the Xochimilca Juan Badiano.

Expeditions of Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and zoologist, made an expedition through Scandinavia in 1732 for research purposes.

During the 6-month journey, Linnaeus became very interested in the customs of the native Sami, nomadic reindeer herders, and questioned them about their medicinal use of plants. Subsequently, he described about a hundred plants not known to date and recorded the use of many of them.

Age of Enlightenment

In the 18th century there was a boom in botanical exploration for economic purposes.

The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), traveled extensively through the American continent between 1779 and 1804, describing America from a scientific point of view, making descriptions of indigenous plant species for medicinal use.

You were modern and contemporary

In these times the following stand out:

  • The British explorer James Cook who made trips to the South Pacific (Australia and New Zealand), from where he brought collected plants and information on their use to England.
  • Edward Palmer, English physician and botanist (1831-1911), who published  List of Plants Collected in Chihuahua , Mexico.
  • Leopold Gluck (work on medicinal plants of Bosnia).
  • Matilda Coxe Stevenson and Frank Cushing (Zuni plant studies).
  • Wilfred Robins, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Freire (1916 studies), among many others.

John William Harshberger

The term ethnobotany is attributed to the American botanist John William Harshberger (1869-1929), whose doctoral thesis was  “Corn: a botanical and economic study.”

In this thesis he presented his theory on the Mexican herb teozintle and its evolution until it became corn. It is widely accepted today.

Harshberger conducted research on the use of plants in Mexico, South America, North Africa, Scandinavia and the state of Pennsylvania, USA.

Richard Evans Schultes

Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), an American biologist, is considered the father of modern ethnobotany.

His works on the use of plants by the indigenous ethnic groups of the South American continent are widely known.

Schultes investigated hallucinogenic plants used in rituals by indigenous people from Mexico and the Amazon, and established working ties with the Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann (1906-2008).

Chemist Albert Hofmann is known for having synthesized and investigated the psychoactive effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Schultes and Hofmann are the authors of the book  The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers , published in 1979. This work is considered the most widely read Schultes outreach work.

Methodology for the study of ethnobotany

Multidisciplinary teams

The approach to ethnobotanical studies requires multidisciplinary teams where botanists, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, archaeologists, chemists, pharmacologists and doctors participate.

Additionally, these multidisciplinary teams are required to interact with human communities, which are the repositories of ancestral ethnobotanical knowledge.

Stages of the investigation

Ethnobotanical research must be developed in several stages, the first of which is field work to obtain the information.

This is a crucial and delicate stage, since it is necessary to achieve a relationship of empathy and trust between researchers and ethnic or social groups.

During this field work, the collection and pressing of botanical samples for their taxonomic classification and storage in herbaria should be included.

The study of local linguistics and the worldview of the ethnic group studied is essential for understanding the relationships of the social group with the plants in its environment.

Subsequently, and particularly for the study of medicinal plants, once the plant-medicinal use information had been processed, the laboratory work carried out by chemists, pharmacologists and doctors would come, which would scientifically validate the medicinal use of plants.

And finally there must be a return to the community of the information validated or not, by scientific means.


The study of food and its production by different social groups can have important impacts on the development of sustainable agriculture techniques.

In turn, the systematic collection of information on the medicinal use of plants has a direct impact on the discovery of new drugs useful to humanity.

Ancestral indigenous cultures possess a knowledge of local ecology increased through millennia of observation, use and preservation of their environmental environments, extremely valuable to the sustainable world that all humanity desires, despite being regularly underestimated by dominant cultures.


  1. Akerele, O., Heywood, V. and Synge, H. (1991). Conservation of Medicinal Plants Editors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Farnsworth, R. and Akerele, O. (1985). Medical Plants and Therapy. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 63 (6): 965-981.
  3. Ramers, E., Fernández, E., Lara, E., Zepeda, J., Polesny, Z. and Pawera, L. (2018). An Ethnobotanical study of medicinal plants used in Zacatecas State, Mexico. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae. 87 (2): 3581-3596. doi: 10.5586 / asbp.3581
  4. Schultes, RE (1995). Ethnobotany: Evolution of a discipline. Siri von Reis. Editor. Portland, USA: Dioscorides Press.
  5. Teklehaimanot, T. and Giday, M. (2006). Ethnobotanical study of medicinal plants used by people in Zegie Peninsula, Ethiopia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 3:12. doi: 10.1186 / 1746-4669-3-12.

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