What is ethnobotany?

Ethnobotany is an interdisciplinary field exploring the relationship between plants and people. It combines 'ethnology' -the study of culture- and 'botany' - the study of plants. It includes plants used as food, medicine, crafts, crops, weeds, wild or cultivated, and the present and past ways of manipulation, use and/or exploitation by people. It can be considered as a relatively new field compare to anthropology, archaeology or botany. The term of economic botany also encompasses most of the field, however while ethnobotany emphasizes the past and present usage of plants, economic botany also interested in the future and commercial uses (Wickens 2001:11). The cultural aspects of human-plant interaction is not always considered as the most important part of the study of economic botany, while it stoods at the center of ethnobotany. Usually anthropologists, botanists and ethnobiologists plays important role in recording traditional knowledge before it disappears through cultural assimilation, globalisation and environmental change (Alexiades 1996:20). The term of paleoethnobotany emerged in the USA, with the introduction of improved archaeological techniques in 1970s, however, this term creates some misunderstandings as 'paleobotany', includes the study of plant fossils, while paleoethnobotany interested only with people's plant use of the past. The term ethnobiology also covers the relationships of the biota to present and past human societies. The field can be divided into three major domains of inquiry: economic (how people use plants and animals), cognitive (how people know and conceptualize plants and animals), and ecological (how people interact with plants and animals, especially in an evolutionary and coevolutionary framework) (Stepp 2005).

A brief history

The term ethnobotany was first used in 1895 by the US botanist John William Harshberger in a public speech to the University of Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Association. His concept of the plants used by what he believed to be ‘primitive and aboriginal peoples’ may have been considered applicable in 1895 but is certainly unacceptable today (Wickens 2001:9). May not be term, but the history of the field begins much earlier (see some details of history at: Carl Linnaeus, Father of Botany, which wrote "Species Plantarum" in 1753, was also a pioneer ethnobotanist, who made extensive studies in the Lapland (for his picture dressed as a Laplander see: The knowledge on plants has not been studied systematically until the late 19th century. An American botanist Richard Evans Schultes from Harvard (1915-2001; can be considered 'the father of ethnobotany', with his longterm systematic studies among indigenous peoples of Amazon and Mexico. During the 20th century ethnobotany became a discipline with its various methods of data collection, quantification, and conceptualization.

Cyclamen europaeum from Vienna copy of Dioscorides. Cyclamen, sowbread: This herb gets its name (cyclamen means “circle”) from its bulblike, underground stem. Dioscorides suggested its use as a purgative, antitoxin, skin cleanser, and labor-inducer.
  • Medicinal plants and medical treatments with herbs were particularly attractive for many early scholars. We do have early written records related to medicinal and ritual plants in Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite texts, which goes back several thousand years. For example the earliest Chinese herbal dated to 3000 BC (Wickens 2001).
  • Various Greek, Roman, Chinese classics mentions plants and plant use. Major food plants such as cereals, pulses, fruit and nuts, as well as fiber, dye, fodder plants were usually mentioned, recorded in the earliest written texts and in classical works. We do have troubles to identify some of those mentioned names in species level, but for example the famous work of Dioscorides, De Materia Medica goes back to 1st century AD, includes more than 600 plant names and descriptions. This book translated in many languages and used throughout Europe during Middle Ages.
  • Before the development of modern medicine, many societies has developed their own traditional healing methods (e.g. Ayurvedic, Chinese), specialists for different treatments, herbalists, root gatherers, spice/herbal markets, trade roads, etc.
  • The medicinal aspect of ethnobotany has been also studied under the name of ethnomedicine or folkmedicine. However most information related to e.g. edibles, fuel, fodder, dye, fiber plants was not fully recorded, and this huge amount of information usually carried out by women, who gathers most of food and craft related plants, and various techniues of processes passed through generations verbally.


Biologists, botanists, agriculturalists, horticulturalists, foresters, anthropologists, pharmacists, chemists, archaeologists, historians and/or economists who wants to explore various aspects of plant use usually combined their special knowledge to complete the picture. Plants and their ecology in the context of their cultural, social and economic significance becomes an increasingly popular subject. Economic botany or ethnobotany courses is now available in several universities both to anthropologists and biologists. Archaeologists are still rare in this field, however ethnoarchaeology, ethnohistory, experimental archaeology, and archaeobotany has so many common grounds to explore together. Actually several of these subdisciplines has overlapping interests, aims and sometimes quite similar methods. For example, ethnoarchaeology, the ethnographic study of living cultures from archaeological perspectives (David and Kramer 2001:2) can have a focus on subsistence, and particularly plant use. Ethnoarchaeologists or ethnographers working as or with ethnobotanists can provide useful information for archaeologists too. Analytical approaches related to ‘crop precessing models’ by Dennell (1974), Hillmann (1984, 1985), Jones (1984, 1990) and Reddy (1997) were very useful in the reconstruction of archaeobotanical data. They proved to be very useful for the interpretations of archaeological data, e.g. provided data on what might be expected for each type of by-product, the types of weed seeds, etc. These ethnographic observations can be considered as ethnoarchaeology as well as ethnobotany as the main focus was the processing of crops, which is an important step in human-plant relationship.

Woman and wheat, Aksaray 1994, picture taken by F. Ertug.

Why it is relevant to archaeobotany?

Why studying ethnobotany is relevant? Because as archaeologists we want to visualize, to understand and to reconstruct the daily lives of the past societies. Their relations with plants is one of the most important part of their daily lives, their subsistence, their success or failure story. The faces of the past peoples, their hands on action can be much more visual by studying various aspects of human-plant relations in contemporary societies.

Among various plant groups such as algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, flowering plants includes almost all of the species we use for food and clothing and in many other ways. Of the 250,000 or more species of known flowering plants, it has been estimated that there are about 30,000 edible plant species, however only 3000 or so have historically been used to any extent by humans for food. Of these about 200 have become more or less domesticated (Heiser 1973).

While the humans changing their environment and modifying the plants, plants also mutually affected human cultures. While the plants we were domesticated became dependent to us, we also became dependent to them. We settled to work in the fields, gardens and in the orchards, to till, to sow, to tend, to protect, to water, to weed, to manure, to graft, to coppice, to collect, to harvest, every year and every season. We became so dependant to cultivation and to the crops we are producing, we created taboos, ceremonies, beliefs around them. We have celebrated every season with plants cultivated or wild, usually celebrated every single occasion with special foods and some symbols, such as Christmas tree. We have given sacred powers to some plants, created songs, stories, legends related to various plants, so not only get the taste and nutrition but zest from them.

All societies need food, medicine, shelter, clothing, fuel, and fodder for their domestic animals. Most of these requirements provided by plants, thus plants constitute a major component both in subsistence and in all aspects of material culture of all traditional as well as prehistoric societies. However until very recently evidences of plants and plant processing was far from fully recovered at archaeological sites or even searched for. Archaeobotanical reports of charred remains usually designed for analyzing plants for food and rarely fodder; and charcoal remains provides lists of fuel or timber. Sturdy materials such as stone tools and bones are usually outnumbered perishable materials of plant origin. However, archaeobotanical remains of wood and fibre artifacts outnumber all other types at waterlogged sites and dry areas (Adovasio et al. 2007; Hardy 2007). Adovasio et al. (2007) point out that where these survive in archaeological contexts such as dry caves, fibre artefacts outnumber stone tools by a factor of 20 to 1, while in anaerobic conditions 95% of all artifacts are either made of wood or fibre. While ethnographic observations indicates that the material culture of most traditional societies based on plants as main components (e.g. Sillitoe 1998; Ertug-Yaras 1997), recent archaeobotanical studies especially in dry and waterlogged sites give excellent evidences to prove that it was true for most of the archaeological sites (Jacomet 2006; Maier 2001). For the Neolithic era of Northern Alpine region, Jocomet (2006:77) states that the plant economy was based on the one hand on growing crop plants, including flax, opium popy and pulses, the gathering was also very important as shown by the large quantities of collected plants. In some waterlogged sites, modelling based on the conprehensively investigated deposits suggests that, gathered plants provided around 50% of the total calories arising from plant resources (Hosch and Jacomet 2004).

But not only the plants differ in various climates and landscapes, also people prefer, select or dismiss some species. Each culture use/manage their natural environment in a different way, cultivate some selected crops, and trade some others for their various requirements. Human interest in plants also extend to the crafts, objects, perceptions and beliefs, and each society generates all these according to their cultural background. Everywhere people develope various ways to prepare, process and use plants. All techniques, tools, know-how, and recepies related to their plant use represents their cultural identity. Archaeologists and particularly archaeobotanists need to know more details about plant use of modern societies to be able to understand parts of unwritten heritage. That is why studying plant-people interactions are important for anyone who would like to understand a culture in the past and present with all its aspects. There is also an urgency in this kind of interdisciplinary study as both indigenous/ traditional peoples, their habitat and traditional lifesyles are under a threat (Prance 1991).

Gathering edible greens in Central Anatolia, picture taken by F. Ertug.
Capparis sipinosa, flower buds and leaves are edible in the Mediterranean area, picture taken by F. Ertug.
Green broad beans, favorite food of various Mediterranean countries, while toxic and intolorable for others, picture taken by Adnan Gencay, 2005 Hakkari, Turkey.
A woman is standing in front of the fodder/hay pile, collected for winter months, Central Anatolia, picture taken by F. Ertug.

How to find out more about ethnobotany?

This tutorial is intended to be a brief guide for archaeology students to find out more about ethnobotany. For further information please check the sources below.


  • International Society of Ethnobiology meetings- every 2 years- 11th Congress of ISE was in 25-30 June 2008, Cusco-Peru; 2010 ICE will be in Tofino, British Columbia is May 9-14, 2010.
  • International Congress of Ethnobotany ICEB- every 4-5 years- 4th meeting was taken place at Istanbul-Turkey in 2005, and the 5th ICEB will be at Bariloche- Argentina in September 2009.
  • Annual meetings of SEB (Society of Economic Botany) The society will celebrate its 50th annual meeting in 2009. May 31-June 4, 2009, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, with a Symposium: African Ethnobotany in the Americas.
  • International Work Group for Paleoethnobotany (IWGP)- Symposiums in every 3 years. 14th IWGP was in Krakow 17-23 June 2007. 15th will be in Wilhelmshaven, Germany in 2010.


  • University of Kent - the Ethnobiology Laboratory at the University of Kent has pioneered research and teaching in ethnobotany and human ecology. The Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which has a long-standing global involvement with economic botany, are partners in major funded projects. This programme, the first graduate course of its kind in the UK, seeks to combine the different strengths of the three institutional partners, each at the forefront of work in its own field: anthropological studies of human-environment interaction and of socio-cultural knowledge of plants in different parts of world (Kent-Anthropology); ecology, conservation science, environmental law and biodiversity management (DICE); plant conservation and sustainable management practices, taxonomy, and economic botany (Kew). Professor Roy Ellen Department of Anthropology Marlowe Building University of Kent Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NR Email:
  • Ghent University - Department of Plant Production - Faculty of Bio-Science Engineering, Laboratory of Tropical and Subtropical Agronomy and Ethnobotany- research unit has been led by Prof. Dr. ir. Patrick Van Damme since 1992.
  • Universität für Bodenkultur Wien -University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna. Department für Nachhaltige Agrarsysteme, provides training in ethnobotany both in English and German. Also organizing summer schools in collaboration with the University of Kent. Contact to: and
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa - College of Natural Sciences- Department of Botany- Provides undergraduate and graduate courses towards Minor, BS, MS and PhD degrees. Ethnobotany Track Phone:(808) 956-8369

Institutions/ Collections

  • The Society for Economic Botany (SEB) was established in 1959 in New York to foster and encourage scientific research, education, and related activities on the past, present, and future uses of plants, and the relationship between plants and people, and to make the results of such research available to the scientific community and the general public through meetings and publications.
  • Centre for Economic Botany, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK
  • Economic Botany Collections of Kew illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world. The huge variety of objects ranges from artefacts made from plants, to raw plant materials, including a large collection of wood samples. Uses range from food, medicine and utensils, to social activities and clothing. While the majority of the objects were acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Collection continues to grow today and now holds over 83,000 specimens. These include present-day material as well as archaeological specimens and nineteenth century curiosities.
  • Missouri Botanical Garden: In 2009 MOBOT is going to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The gardens collections includes a large herbarium, library and medicinal plants garden. Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development (CCSD) conduct research not only in the USA, but in the Far East, Africa and Latin America. The Washington University in St. Louis and the Missouri University has close collaboration with MOBOT for ethnobotanical research and protecting biodiversity.
  • PittRivers Museum Collections, Oxford
  • National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden
  • The Museum of Ethnology in Vienna
  • Lists of Museum links related to Crafts and Arts:
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Economic Botany Collections, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Mediterranen Garden, in New York Botanical Garden.
New York Botanical Garden 2003.



To follow up on the refrences below please see the references page.

  • Alexiades 1996
  • Adovasio et al. 2007
  • David and Kramer 2001
  • Dennell 1974
  • Ertug-Yaras 1997
  • Hardy 2007
  • Heiser 1973
  • Hillman 1984
  • Hillman 1985
  • Hosch and Jacomet 2004
  • Howard 2003
  • Jacomet 2006
  • Jones 1983
  • Jones 1984
  • Maier 2001
  • Prance 1991
  • Reddy 1997
  • Sillitoe 1998
  • Stepp 2005
  • Wickens 2001