I’ve been amazed by the Anthropology hall at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The chance to explore ancient cultures from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania set a spark in my soul to explore and to gain knowledge on these societies and cultures. The impact of these civilizations has guided us to modern times from art and literature to technology and communication. One side of Anthropology that really strikes my interest is the way that these civilizations utilized plants. We call this Ethnobotany.
Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plant and human through culture and how plants are used in the past and present. Some common usages of plants are for medicine, food, religion, intoxicants and aesthetics. The father of botany, Richard Evans Schultes deceives the study as “Ethnobotany simply means investigating plants used by societies in various parts of the world”
Ethnobotany is fascinating to me because I love my relationship to plants. Being able to enjoy reading and researching about how these ancient societies used plants opens up a new world for me because it allows me to learn new techniques in the field. I get to learn about all these different usages for plants beyond the garden bed and vegetable garden. I get to connect to the Old World.
The Neolithic Era of the Stone Age, around 12,000 years ago, became an agricultural revolution by learning and investing in growing and producing from plants. The lifestyle went from hunting and gathering to agriculture and creating a way of life by staying in one area with a goal of making a population as big as possible. We have come so far globally with our agricultural practices because of the Neolithic Era.
One of the ancient, seven wonders of the world are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (about 600 BC to 1 AD). The hanging gardens were built in the ancient city of Babylon, now present day Hillah in Iraq. The purpose of the garden was to make King Nebuchadnezzar II’s wife, Queen Amytis of Media happy because she missed the greenery of her homeland. This could be the earliest form of plants making people happy. The on site gardeners hanged plants and used tiered garden beds. This is the earliest form of ornamental horticulture. Think about how ornamental horticulture has come – we have landscape architecture and design, plant breeders and plant growers – such as Monrovia and Proven Winners, and amazing garden centers to educate us to help us achieve what we want aesthetically.
Various ancient civilizations used plants as medicine to heal. Ancient Greece used Licorice root as an asthma treatment and Balkan Peony root for open wounds during the Trojan war. Ancient India used Turmeric for colds and sore muscles. They also used the Neem plant for anti-fungal properties. Ancient India medicine used Lady Ferns for minor cuts and burns. These civilizations set the pace for what our medicine is today. Without plants being used for medicine in the Old World, we may not be as advanced we are today. I’m really excited to further look into ancient medicine practices as well as the plants used for spiritual and religious practices.
We can see that plants have been used since the Stone Age to benefit people and we can see that plants have been used to help people through ancient medicine practices. I’m really excited to take you on this journey with me when it comes to entering the world of Ethnobotany. Thank you for reading my thoughts on Ethnobotany! What is your favorite fact on how people used plants in the Old World? What culture would be your favorite to learn from when it comes to plants? Leave comments below!