Early Ethnobiology: Historical and Personal Notes

Early Ethnobiology: Historical and Personal Notes

E. N. Anderson

University of California, Riverside




To me, the critical moment in ethnobiology was the point at which anthropologists began to specify what words meant in traditional small-scale languages, instead of “translating” words by finding an English or Latin equivalent. Self-conscious use of “native categories” began with Lewis Henry Morgan and Frank Cushing in the 1870s, and won its way slowly against some opposition. The term “ethnobotany” was coined by John Harshbarger in 1895. By the time of John Peabody Harrington, indigenous categories were focal to research, and “ethnozoology” appeared as a term. Harrington had much to do with spreading the idea. I got into the field in 1960, by which time “ethnoscience” had just been added to the mix. My personal experiences at the dawn of that field may be useful to historians of ethnobiology.


            To me, the critical moment in ethnobiology was the point at which anthropologists began to specify what words meant in traditional small-scale languages. The near-universal pattern before had been to use an English or Latin equivalent. Earlier translators of all forms of literature were often quite careless about this. Apparently Mary, the mother of Jesus, became a virgin by mistranslation: the Aramaic for “young woman” was translated early into Greek parthena, “virgin,” and even later Biblical writers followed this. More clear are the mistranslations of Asian writings into western literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that point, most of the translators were missionaries, and they cared little about biology or even philosophic concepts. They had been concerned largely with translating Christian concepts into Asian languages. Thus, translating in the reverse direction, 18th and 19th century translators rendered Chinese mei “sour apricot” as “plum,” Japanese tanuki “raccoon dog” as “badger,” and so on. This continues. Chinese qing, the comprehensive term for green, blue, and light gray, is translated with glorious indifference to context into English; I have seen references to a “green fox,” a “blue buffalo,” and so forth. Non-anthropological writers in general cannot seem to understand that many languages lump these colors, and it does not mean that the people could not see the differences in actual hue. Chinese, in fact, has distinctive words for pure green and pure blue, derived from dyestuff names. Such mistranslation extends to philosophy. Missionaries often could not resist pushing their favorite Christian words onto the Chinese. Thus the famous pair of ren and li, literally “humaneness and principle,” appear as “benevolence and righteousness”—good forthright Victorian Christian virtues.

            On the other hand, scholars since the earliest times often worked to find the right words to translate alien concepts. This was perhaps especially true in religion, where exact translations of the Bible were required from earliest times. Even so, countless errors crept in, such as “eagles” for “vultures” in the King James Bible (see Hunn 1979). Islam reduces the problem by holding that the Quran was revealed in 7th century Arabic and must stay that way. Students must learn it in the original, hopefully with good glosses to explain the meaning. Chinese classics are also read and studied in classical Chinese, with commentaries to explain them. Translations into modern vernacular Chinese are a new thing. The characters are the same, but grammar and usage are different, and the classics are in a telegraphic form that would have required unpacking even in their own time. Greek and Latin classic presented much deeper problems, because their main modern readers were people speaking daughter languages or wholly different languages. Concepts like kalon agathon “beautiful and noble” had implications far beyond their literal meaning.

            The problem of translating concepts to and from unwritten languages of small-scale societies confronted Bible translators from the beginning. Trying to discuss deserts, camels, lions, and such in Inuit or Paiute posed obvious difficulties. Trying to understand what the Inuit or Paiute were saying was often even harder. Countless mistakes are enshrined in modern placenames. “Arequipa” means “yes, you may rest here,” an answer to the Spanish request expressed by pointing to the ground and making questioning noises. Similarly, when Columbus on one of his voyages stopped a canoe full of Maya north of the Yucatan peninsula and asked about the name of the land over there, the person he questioned looked blank, and somebody helpfully said “Ma’ u’ yu’u’ ka t’aan ih”—“he didn’t understand what you said.” Columbus took the accented syllables and everyone was happy. The Spanish then compounded the error by thinking tan was the Nahuatl locative ending tlan or tan, and thus started to refer to the inhabitants as Yucatec, tek being the Nahuatl ending for “people a place ending in tan.” Some scholars have now taken this to a truly ridiculous level by assuming “Yucatec” is a genuine indigenous term, and spelling it Yukatek. Such is linguistic evolution.

            Seriously translating unwritten languages became a real scholarly concern with the rise of kinship studies, and especially the landmark work of Lewis Henry Morgan. He was far from the first to realize that traditional kinterms do not map onto English or Latin ones, but he was the first to realize how much it mattered for understanding society. His monumental compilation kinship systems, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), remains unparalleled. It came out in the same year as Darwin’s Descent of Man and Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture—surely the true birth year of anthropology as a serious discipline.

            Morgan’s students and correspondents were quickly converted. He and they expanded the interest in what would come to be called “native categories.” He applied them to Iroquois terms (Morgan 1954 [1851]) and house terms (Morgan 1882), but it was left to his follower Frank Cushing to invent what we now consider real ethnobiology. Cushing was a New York boy who became fascinated with “Indians.” Discovering the work of Morgan, he was converted, and became an anthropologist, without at the time needing much teaching. He attached himself to research trips in the southwest, and was influenced by Jesse Walter Fewkes, who started so much in southwest studies; Fewkes was already working on Indigenous plant names and uses. Cushing nested in Zuni Pueblo, and spent several years there. Here he invented participant observation, leading an entirely Zuni life—farming, hunting, and eventually being initiated into the highly respected Bow Priesthood. Unfortunately, he was always sickly, as well as being a bit erratic, and he died before publishing most of his work. (According to Zuni tradition, he was disclosing some secrets of the Bow Priesthood, and thus was struck dead.) Enough survives to produce profound respect for his ethnographic skills.

His most impressive work appeared in an odd fashion: during one of several periods of needing money, he wrote a series of articles for a milling company’s house magazine. These were collected after his death, and published as Zuni Breadstuff by the Museum of the American Indian in New York (Cushing 1920). This is possibly the most anthropologically sophisticated and thorough report on a small-scale culture’s staple food in early anthropological literature. Almost all the articles concern maize. Cushing not only wrote down all the practical knowledge he could collect, but also all the Zuni rituals and religious and ideological ideas about maize. They were an integral part of maize production and consumption.

In this and in his articles on Zuni ethnobiology (see Cushing 1979), he was meticulous about explaining the Zuni words rather than providing a simple translation. For this, he was taken to task by Matilda Cox Stephenson, who had written a Zuni ethnobotany conspicuously failing in that regard. Cushing responded with a reasoned argument for getting the Indigenous concepts right, rather than merely approximating.
             Morgan and Cushing continued to inspire authors. The next generation included Frank Russell, who taught briefly at Harvard before being consigned by ill health to the deserts of Arizona. Here he completed a superb ethnography of the Pima (now Akimel O’odham) before passing away (Russell 1908). The book is the first ethnography to take the Indigenous perspective consistently in all aspects of culture. At about the same time appeared Alice Fletcher and Joseph La Flesche’s enormous ethnography, The Omaha Tribe (1906), compiled largely by La Flesche, who was himself an Omaha. Franz Boas’ enormous ethnographic compilations of Northwest Coast lore similarly involved reliance on Indigenous consultants. His work with George Hunt (part Anglo, part Tsimshian, but raised from early childhood by and as a Kwakiutl) is famous as perhaps the most utterly comprehensive ethnography from a largely Indigenous point of view. It includes a vast number of recipes, collected with the help of George Hunt’s Kwakiutl wife. She also supplied a range of respectful sayings used by women for such acts as asking permission of trees to take bark from them, and then thanking them for the gift.

The other major development of the time was the beginning of John Peabody Harrington’s epochal work. He dedicated his life to documenting Native American languages, working on dozens of them, focusing most on Chumash, a nearly lost language family. He and his wonderful Chumashan consultants had a great deal to do with saving the languages and culture, now being robustly revived by tribal members. Unfortunately, he became more and more paranoid, hiding his work and refusing to publish. A few early researches on Pueblo groups and on the Karok saw the light, and in these he and his coauthors argue for full exploration of Indigenous categories in linguistics (Harrington 1932; Henderson and Harrington 1914; Robbins, Harrington and Freire-Marreco 1916). Cushing is duly acknowledged in the Pueblo work, and his influence clearly lies behind it. It is worth noting that these books popularized the fairly new coinage “ethnobotany” (Harshberger 1896) and introduced the companion word “ethnozoology.”

The scene now shifts to England. British ethnography had rarely taken Indigenous perspectives. Bronislaw Malinowski was to change all this. Apparently Cushing was the ultimate source of Malinowski’s ideas. As nearly as I can reconstruct it from the histories (Kuklick 1991; Kuper 1983; Stocking 1995), A. C. Haddon met Cushing in New York and was told how and why to seek out Indigenous categories rather than simply using loose translations. Haddon told his co-explorer W. H. R. Rivers, who was Malinowski’s main teacher in anthropology. Rivers tried some work with Indigenous categories, but was pulled back by his main field, psychology, working with “shell-shocked” soldiers in World War I. His work laid the foundations of what we not call post-traumatic stress disorder and its treatment. Meanwhile, Malinowski found himself interned on the Trobriand Islands by Australia; being from Poland, at that point occupied by Germany, Malinowski was classed as an “enemy alien.” With nothing to do but ethnography, Malinowski compiled what may still be the best single corpus of ethnography ever done on one group of people, in spite of Malinowski’s thoroughly Colonial and unregenerate attitude. (He was to reform later, and train Jomo Kenyatta and other rebels against the British Raj.) His classic book was Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961, orig. 1922), which greatly elaborated on Morgan’s analysis and understanding of kinship. His work Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935) was his major contribution to ethnobiology, and here he meticulously documents the full meanings of all terms for crops, garden tools, processes of gardening, and so forth. Following Cushing again, he details the rituals as an integral part of the gardening process.

The next major event was the birth of ethnobiology and ethnoscience, new coinages that rose along with the union of cognitive, linguistic, ethnological, and biological research in the 1950s. This union was effected by students of George Peter Murdock at Yale. Many had worked on Murdock’s enormous project to study Micronesia, newly acquired from Japan after WWII. The first on the post, however, was Harold Conklin, who had been researching the Philippines. Here the veteran botanist H. H. Barnett introduced him to ethnobotany and the need to get the names right. The result was Hanonoo Agriculture (Conklin 1957), still a landmark in the field. His papers (the major ones collected in Conlin 2007) discuss in detail his ways of studying language.

The other great ethnobiologist and linguistic analysis of the Murdock lineage was Charles Frake. He wrote little, but his papers (collected by Anwar Dil, 1980) remain the best introduction to semantic analysis of words for things, specifically in Indigenous languages. It is revealing that Conklin’s and Frake’s main contributions to the field were dictionaries, not ethnographies. Among Frake’s students at Stanford was Brent Berlin, who quickly became the leader of semantic analyses of traditional terminological systems for plants and animals. His work Ethnobiological Classification (1992) remains the definitive study of that field. It has never been surpassed, and findings since then have largely confirmed his analysis, though qualifying it substantially in some areas.

In particular, we have rediscovered Cushing’s finding that religious and spiritual dimensions are often embedded in traditional words and concepts, and must be considered part of the definition of a term. (See, for various perspectives on this observation, Anderson 1996; Berkes 2008; Kohn 2013; Sponsel 2012).

A large number of publications in ethnobiology and ethnoscience followed, and the field acquired increasing sophistication in cognitive psychology and in linguistics. Some pushback developed, from people who opposed such detailed study of people’s actual concepts and words. Marvin Harris (1968) attacked the entire enterprise as a waste of time, since he considered simple comparative ethnology to be the only real purpose of anthropology. His mission was to ground the field in functional studies of how cultures guide people in getting calories and protein. Among other things, he was largely responsible for the misuse of “emic” and “etic” to mean “insider’s view” and “outsider’s view,” a mistake that still bedevils the field. Kenneth Pike generalized the terms from “phonemic” and “phonetic,” to mean “given by the structure of the language itself” as opposed to “given by analysis using a generalized grid suitable for all languages.”

An example I always use of how clueless Harris was even about his own chosen area (calories) was his attack on Metzger and Williams’ study of Tzeltal firewood (1966). He considered it too trivial a topic. He should have known that firewood was at the time the principal use of wood by humans, and probably still is today. I had to spend serious time in the field with the Maya learning which woods to use and how dry they should be. In an area with dozens of tree species, ranging from worthless woods that flash off in a minute to the rock-hard, slow-burning, coal-forming jabiin (Piscidia piscipula), firewood gathering is a major subject, and getting firewood can absorb two or three hours of a Maya woman’s day.

The earlier work could now be rooted in knowledge of how humans classify and how language is constructed. Findings on traditional biological classification were brought together in Ethnobiological Classification (1992).

People with similar anthropological, linguistic, cognitive, and biological backgrounds formed a tight group, coalescing around the Society of Ethnobiology and the Society for Economic Botany, which eventually changed its name to the Society for Ethnobotany. Impressive ethnographies, comparable in scope to the earlier works of Russell and Malinowski but drawing on far more sophisticated social science, included Eugene Hunn and James Selam’s ethnography of the Sahaptin, N’Chi-Wana, the Big River (1990), and Russell Bernard and Jesús Salinas Pedraza’s Native Ethnography (1989). From many non-United States examples, we may simply mention Ian Saem Majnep’s magical books with Ralph Bulmer (1977, 2007).

This type of tightly constructed, meticulously detailed, scientifically grounded ethnography continues today. Eglée and Stanford Zent’s work with the Venezuelan Nï Jotï y Jodena U (2019) is exemplary (but hard to find and solely in Spanish).

Berlin, Hunn, Conklin, and other stalwarts set standards that cannot be totally neglected, and all serious ethnobiological research now takes account of the need to document Indigenous linguistic usage, as well as both practical ceremonial associations of plants and animals in the cultures in question.

Unfortunately, I am seeing a drift away from the standards of the late 20th century. Several factors have conspired to thin out the use of Indigenous categories in current ethnobiological work. One is the steady rise of academic silos. The easy cross-disciplinary days when we could merge anthropology, biology, psychology, and linguistics are gone. Specialized knowledge is now required to make significant contributions to any of these areas, and no one can stay current enough to be functional in even two of them. This, in turn, leads to loss of focus on the essential cross-disciplinary nature of the field. We can fix the problem up to a point by working with people from different disciplines, but even this is getting hard to do.

Under such case, the disciplines are drifting apart. More and more biologists are attracted to ethnobiology, but they are not always well trained in eliciting and recording Indigenous categories and worldviews. More and more anthropologists are interested in “animal studies,” “plant studies,” “multispecies ethnography,” and similar newly-evolving subfields, but they are often quite ignorant of biology. They can write at length about people who live with animals, but they are not always in a position to say much about the animals. There is a new field of “critical plant studies,” but apparently it has nothing to do with ethnobiology; it seems to be about modern people’s attitudes toward plants. A notable exception is Anna Tsing (e.g. 2015), who does her homework on biological as well as ethnographic issues. Similarly, there is a new and exciting trend in environmental history to combine standard history with extremely competent and well-deployed biology, allowing for major new insights in that area (some good new examples are Hoffmann 2023 for Europe, Lander 2021 for China).

            It is thus useful to recapitulate the reasons for wanting more accuracy in these matters. First, it should be common scholarly convention to at least be accurate in identification. Blue buffaloes and plums that are really apricots should absolutely not be allowed. Second, there is point made by Cushing and echoed by his many followers: We are trying to understand Indigenous culture, including language, and we obviously are not understanding those matters if we insist on using simple glosses for words that cover complicated realms. Working on China, I have found that sloppiness in translating simple plant and animal names goes with sloppiness in translating more serious philosophical and religious terms. Understanding is not served by that. Third, there are serious issues of psychology and linguistics at stake here. There are even philosophical questions to address, as David Ludwig has been telling us for some years now (Ludwig 2018; Ludwig et al. 2023). Brent Berlin has been so much the authority for years that few think of going beyond his work.

            Fourth, the world’s languages are among the most amazing creations of the human spirit. Every language is a masterpiece of brilliant innovation. The classifications of the world embodied in biological terminology are stunning works, like the masterpieces of portraying nature that one finds in medieval manuscripts (e.g. Phebus 1998). We should pay them the highest respect. This, at the very least, means getting the names right.


Some examples of why you need to look at local categories: What happens to words.

            Other categories can be really different. In Tahitian East Polynesian, there is no concept of “water.” Salt water is a totally different thing from fresh. Salt is “white people’s seawater”—so seawater and salt are classed together, but fresh water has a totally different word.

            Words can be polysemous—having more than one meaning. “Wood” in English means both the material and the grove that produces it. “Tree” once had a similar extension, meaning “wood” as a material, but this has been lost, and “tree” means only the living plant itself.

            Words very often get used metaphorically, and then the metaphoric meaning may become commoner than the original meaning. Only dog breeders now use “bitch” in its original sense.

            Words can get expanded over time. Chinese wen “marks” originally meant spots on an animal, tally marks made by people, and the like. When writing was invented, it was used for characters. It thus came to mean “literature,” and then “culture in general,” and by extension “civil” as opposed to “military”: wen vs. wu, people who write vs. people who fight. Something similar happened with English “score,” originally meaning to scratch something, thus expanded to mark a win in a game, and on from there. “Current” extended from streams to electricity, to say nothing of current events.

            Words can contract in meaning over time. “Man” was the original gender-neutral term for “person” in English (cf mann in German). It has only recently come to mean “male.” One of Frake’s examples of semantics is the multiple-level contrast of “man” in English: Person vs animal; male vs. female; adult vs child (man vs boy); stalwart tough guy vs meek one (“Are you a man or a mouse?”). Thus the word has four levels of contrast (Frake 1980).

            A Chinese example is fan “cooked grain,” which originally meant any grain or even root staple crops, and still does in North China, but has become restricted to cooked rice in South China, parallelling Southeast Asian words for cooked rice (e.g. Indonesian nasi).

            And, speaking of rice, in English we call the semidomesticated aquatic grain Zizania “wild rice,” though it is not very closely related to rice. However, in China, real rice (Oryza sativa) occurs in both domesticated and wild forms, and so does Zizania. Worse, Zizania has now been fully domesticated in US. Thus, we now speak of “wildrice” to mean Zizania, even when it is domesticated, and “wild rice” to speak of wild Oryza. So, China has both wild rice and domesticated wildrice. Clear?

            Another process famous in ethnobiology is marking reversal. Newly introduced animals, foods, etc., are very often called “foreign X,” “new X,” or something like that, “X” being the local equivalent. Thus, in English, chiles get called “red pepper,” using the term for a completely different and unrelated plant that is similarly spicy. Chinese does this a lot: “foreign jakfruit” for pineapple, “foreign pomegranate” for guava, and so on. Often, the foreign item becomes more familiar than the local, and thus the “foreign” gets dropped. So pineapples are jakfruits in China now. Maize is called by a name formerly applied to a kind of millet. Similarly, anyone learning Maya might wonder why there are native Maya words for horses and guns, in spite of those being very new to Maya experience, coming with the Conquest. The answer is that the Maya soon saw the resemblance of horses to tapirs, and called the horse the “Castilian tapir”—kaaxlan ts’iimin. Soon the horse became much better known than the tapir, so the horse is now just ts’iimin, while the tapir is k’aaxih ts’iimin, “forest tapir.” The word for gun originally meant “blowgun.” So the Spanish gun was at first a Castilian blowgun.

            All these processes are common in most languages. Thus, pinning down the meaning of a word often means following up metaphoric extensions, expansions, restrictions, changes over time, marking reversals, and much more. It is not a simple or easy process. Ethnobiologists must spend a great deal of time in the field hearing people actually talk about plants and animals.


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