Ethnobiology is the science of dynamic relationships of human culture and ethnic groups with living organisms and their environment. Ethnobiology investigates the complex interactions among these subjects. It is further divided into:

  • ethnobotany, alternatively its subfield economic botany, which investigates economically interesting plants;
  • ethnomycology (studies of fungi and their uses);
  • ethnozoology (studies of fauna – domestic and wild species);
  • ethnoecology (relationships between organisms and their environment);
  • ethnopharmacology (traditional healing practices with use of plants, animals and other natural resources)
  • and further ethnoveterinary medicine, ethnotaxonomy, paleoethnobotany etc.

Ethnobotany is the oldest and most known of these scientific disciplines. The father of modern ethnobotany (from the 1950s) is doubtlessly the well-known US scientist Richard Evans Schultes (*1915 – †2001, Figure 1)[zotpressInText item=”{5I75GQ8N}” format=”(%num%)”],[zotpressInText item=”{H9F8UVX5}” format=”(%num%)”], who devoted his research mainly to medicinal, hallucinogenic and poisonous plants of Amazonia (e.g. the arrow poison curare or ayahuasca). From his followers (and former students) it is worth to mention two important popularisers of this science: Mark Plotkin (*1955)[zotpressInText item=”{IIH5KDPN}” format=”(%num%)”],[zotpressInText item=”{S463R3RR}” format=”(%num%)”] and Wade Davis (*1951)[zotpressInText item=”{C6XSIR6P}” format=”(%num%)”],[zotpressInText item=”{RNVQWD5T}” format=”(%num%)”]]. Both of these authors were for many years researching several regions of the Amazon. Among other important persons of contemporary ethnobotanical research in Amazonia we should at least mention (and thus direct your interest to their publications)  Reiner W. Bussmann[zotpressInText item=”{INJDWGCR}, {XCGBV39A}” format=”(%num%)”] and James A. Duke[zotpressInText item=”{AM7UFUES},{QQJEM5TX} ” format=”(%num%)”].

schultes_amazon_1940sFigure 1. Dr. Richard Evans Schultes in Amazonia in the 1940s. Source: Botany Libraries, Economic Botany Archives, Harvard University Herbaria,

From originally mostly descriptive discipline, ethnobotany became a more exact science with the widening of use of quantitative methods. One of the hot issues of modern ethnobotany is biopiracy, which is a practice based chiefly on patenting individual components of plants, fungi or animals for economic gain. An example of an ethnobotanical study and its results is the investigation of plants used for preparation of arrow poisons (curare). Thanks to one of these plants (Chondrodendron tomentosum Ruiz & Pav., Menispermaceae) a compound known as tubocurarine was discovered and described. This chemical was in the past widely utilized as anesthetic. Although it is no longer used, a whole group of present-day pharmaceuticals probably would not exist without the discovery of tubocurarine.


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Recommended reading

Plotkin, M.J., 1994. Tales of a shaman’s apprentice: an ethnobotanist searches for new medicines in the Amazon rain forest. Penguin Books, USA.

Schultes, R.E., 1979. The Amazonia as a source of new economic plants. Economic Botany 33, 259–266.

Duke, J.A., 2008. Duke’s handbook of medicinal plants of Latin America. CRC Press, Boca Raton, USA.

Bussmann, R.W., Sharon, D., 2015. Medicinal plants of the Andes and the Amazon – The magic and medicinal flora of Northern Peru. Graficart SRL, Trujillo, Perú.

Schultes, R.E., Hofmann, A., Šilar, M., 1996. Rostliny bohů: Jejich posvátná, léčebná a halucinogenní moc. Volvox Globator, Praha.
Jahodář, L., 2009. Farmakobotanika: semenné rostliny. Univerzita Karlova v Praze – Nakladatelství Karolinum, Praha.
Šita, F., 1976. Léky z šera pralesů. Nakladatelství KRUH, Hradec Králové.
Škrabáková, L., 2013. Zdraví z pralesa – Léčivé rostliny Amazonie. Nakladatelství Eminent, Praha.
Horák, M., 2014. A Reader in Ethnobotany and Phytotherapy: Monographic Series. Mendelova Universita, Brno.

authors of the text: Ludvík Bortl, Jiří Lipenský a Marie Kalousová
authors of the pictures: Ludvík Bortl (LB), Jiří Lipenský (JL), Hana Vebrová (HV) a Pavel Borecký (PB)

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