Episode #21 Ethnobotany: The Science of Indigenous Medicine with Michael Balick, PhD

Body of Wonder

Jul 28 2021 • 37 mins

Plants have provided human beings with nourishment, medicine, fibers, and other resources for millennia. And, the passing of botanical knowledge through generations not only ensured survival, it shaped how cultures understood their world. Occasionally, this knowledge would be exchanged with neighboring people in the forms of stories, rituals, and daily practices.

In the 1800’s Western anthropologists studying indigenous cultures began to categorize this relationship between plants and people as a new science called, ethnobotany, “ethno” meaning people and “botany” meaning plants.

Over the last 200 years the field has evolved to include ethnomedicine and most recently it’s application in modern pharmaceuticals.

But, how is it that centuries ago societies without modern laboratory equipment learned how to use botanicals with such precise applications and outcomes?

To understand this, we welcome Dr. Michael Balick, ethnobotanist, and Vice President and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens. For more than four decades, Dr. Balick has studied the relationship between plants and people. Most of his research is in remote regions of the tropics, like Micronesia, on the islands of Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau and Melanesia, in the Republic of Vanuatu where he works with indigenous cultures to document plant diversity, knowledge of its traditional use and evaluation of the potential of botanical resources, particularly medicinal plants, for broader application and use.

Dr. Weil, Dr. Maizes, and Dr. Balick discuss why it's so important to understand ethnobotany in modern society, the benefits of “whole-plant” traditional medicines, and how ethnobotanists are working with indigenous elders to preserve cultural practices and ancient knowledge.