NUMEROUS DEFINITIONS OF ETHNOBOTANY exist. The widely employed and simplest definition explains it as the study of the knowledge and use of plants in primitive societies in the past and present.
In view of the many fast-developing specific subdivisions of this interdisciplinary field, it seems necessary to adopt a wider definition. A more inclusive definition might be: the study of the uses, technological manipulation, classification, agricultural systems, magico-religious concepts, conservation techniques and general economic and sociological importance of plants in primitive or pre-literate societies.
Ethnobotany is certainly not new. The earliest humans must have been incipient ethnobotanists. It began when man first of necessity classified plants: those of little or no utility; those which were useful in many practical ways; those alleviating pain or otherwise ameliorating illness; and those that made him ill or killed him. He must have wondered at the unworldly effects of the few psychoactive species, and he could explain their extraordinary properties only by assuming that they were endowed with spiritual power from supernatural sources. It has been proposed that man's early experiences with hallucinogens was a principal factor leading to the origin of religious concepts.
It was not long before the knowledge and manipulation of the properties of plants became associated with certain individuals, and these early medicine men or shamans ultimately acquired great powers. This endowment continues to-day in most, if not all, primitive societies where this specialist is the repository of vast knowledge of plants and their properties and is privy to the secret and superstitious rituals connected with their use. However, many members of the general population in primitive societies are conversant with the properties of their food, medicinal and other plants of daily use. Many indigenous groups around the world--the Indians of the Amazonian regions, for example--are literally masters of their ambient vegetation as a result of inherited knowledge.
This knowledge--of great potential value to humanity as a whole--is unfortunately doomed to extinction with the rapid acculturation and westernisation in many parts of the globe where indigenous peoples can still live peacefully without disruption, from road-building, airstrips, missionary pressure, warfare, tourism, industrial penetration, dam-building, local greed on the part of settlers or various efforts to "civilise" the natives. The loss of this knowledge, and of the natives themselves, will be a grave hindrance to progress in many aspects of environmental conservation. Realization of the seriousness of this impending loss has given rise in recent years to the need for ethnobotanical conservation.
One example of the value to conservation of ethnobotanical knowledge of the natives lies in the study of their acquaintance with the properties of bioactive plants and their numerous subspecific variants or ecotypes. Although techniques of ethnobotanical research will differ according to the kind and condition of culture of the aboriginal people and the type of ecology in which they live, there seems to exist an underlying similarity in the relationship of ethnobotany to environmental conservation. I shall use examples from my work in the past 47 years in the Colombian Amazonia, since this relationship is clearly manifest in my studies of the medicinal, toxic and rubber yielding plants of this northwestern corner of the great Amazon Valley.
The Amazon basin supports the world's largest rain forest, 2,700,000 square miles, with an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 species of higher plants or perhaps 15% of the world's flora. The number or species and their diversity increases towards the westernmost part of the hylaea. The Colombian sector, protected from easy penetration by rapids and waterfall in most of its rivers, has not suffered the extensive acculturation and wanton environmental devastation that many other parts of the basin have had and are experiencing. …