Ethnoscientific Implications of Classification as a Socio-Cultural Process

Authored by: David G. Casagrande

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138782877
eBook ISBN: 9781315768946
Adobe ISBN: 9781317667964


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My research into how the Tzeltal Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, use medicinal plants required me to walk mountain trails between houses and villages with my Tzeltal collaborators. We often encountered other Tzeltal who were surprised to see a stranger like me in the woods and would usually ask my collaborator, “What’s he doing here?” I would reply in my best Tzeltal, “I’m studying medicinal plants.” Quite often the response would be something like, “Medicinal plants? Well, do you know yakan k’ulub wamal?” I would reply that I knew this plant was used often to treat diarrhea. The stranger might then quiz me on a few other plants. If I passed the quiz, we might start talking about more esoteric plant treatments like those known only to him or his family. Conversations like this occurred frequently and were remarkable for a few reasons. They always started with yakan k’ulub wamal (Verbena litoralis). They then proceeded to a core group of three or four other well-known plants. Only after these commonly known plants were used to establish a discourse frame could we move on to more in-depth conversation. If I had not known the most typical medicinal plants, the conversation would have quickly moved on to other topics. Instead, we engaged in a dialogue drawing on Tzeltal and modern plant and illness classification systems. In this chapter, I make suggestions for studying how the way that people classify and name biological items integrates with discourse, cultural transmission, and cultural adaptation, with special attention to what ethnoscientists call “prototypicality.”

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