Meeting of minds: how do we share our appreciation of traditional environmental knowledge?


Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.


Ethnography is ‘writing culture’. This requires translating terms of understanding from the exotic to the familiar. If culture is, at least in substantial part, ‘what one needs to know … to act … in a given society’, then ethnography must convey a significant body of exotic knowledge, elaborated in a foreign language, enlightening readers while holding their attention to the intricate detail of the lives described. Ethnobiology's signal contribution is to show how traditional environmental knowledge or local natural history is central to cultural knowledge, at least for the mostly rural societies that have been our prime descriptive focus. Ethnobiologists tend to share with their subjects a fascination with natural history and thus an appreciation of their environmental knowledge. However, the audience for ethnography is predominantly urban and modern, profoundly ignorant of natural history. Our challenge is double, or triple: not only must we educate our audience about exotic ways of life, but also educate this audience about the wonders of natural history, translating into our vernacular a technical conversation between our subjects and modern biologists. I will offer a few suggestions based on my own ethnographic reading and writing on how we might best meet these challenges.

In this paper I reflect on the relevance of ethnobiological knowledge to the conduct and writing of ethnography. I am in the midst of a major ethnographic writing project based on my recent Zapotec research. The monograph has grown such that the acquisitions editor at the academic press to whom I had made my initial submission advised me that it was of a size for two books rather than one. So I reorganized the material in two volumes, but they share a common title, A Zapotec botany, with contrasting subtitles (Hunn n.d.). While my title lacks the catchy phrasing one might hope for, it is at least descriptive of the content and modest in its claims. It is A Zapotec botany, for in fact there can be no single Zapotec botany, as there are several hundred Zapotec communities, each with its own autochthonous traditional knowledge specific to its traditional lands. I chose to title the book A Zapotec botany rather than the more customary Zapotec ethnobotany to emphasize my belief that the knowledge of plants widely shared by the people of San Juan Gbëë manifests a universal human scientific turn of mind. As we can see, the writing of ethnobiological ethnography begins with the title. But that is the least of the challenges ahead.

I will speak first about the difficulties we face communicating our findings to an audience that more often than not is woefully ignorant of the experiential reality of natural history that is one face of our subject matter. My suggestions in this regard are rather pedestrian but reflect both specific and general issues of cultural representation. The topic ‘writing ethnobiology’ called to mind Clifford and Marcus’s influential volume Writing culture (1986). Thus I felt called upon to comment upon their critique of our ethnographic craft from my ethnobiological perspective.

Our task as ethnobiologists is not only faithfully to record what other cultures have learned in their daily encounters with their natural surroundings, but also to communicate an adequate appreciation of the perspicacity and intensity of the science of everyday life embodied in ethnobiological knowledge to an audience typically quite removed from the realities of extracting a livelihood with little more than head and hand.

When we speak of ‘folk’ biologies and of ‘traditional’ environmental knowledge, we self-consciously set our modern urban existence in opposition to a way of life that has endured far longer than ours and which I hope may continue, in some form or other, in the face of globalization. I see no reason to apologize for upholding this dichotomy nor for taking sides. I reject the notion that it is either romantic or patronizing to affirm the value of a way of life that has as its primary goal the continuation of that way of life through the generations – that is my definition of sustainability – and that is confined in space and through time to an intensely familiar landscape, one sufficient for the continued existence of an established community. Such confined communities are my definition of ‘indigenous’.

This focus on ‘traditional’, ‘indigenous’, or, as some prefer, ‘local’ knowledge may be rationalized also by virtue of the fact that ‘modern environmental knowledge’ is of anthropological interest primarily because of what such bodies of knowledge lack. Experts aside, common knowledge of local biodiversity in modern societies can only be described as impoverished by contrast (Dougherty 1979), though not for any inability to perceive natural discontinuities (Boster 1987).

Language barriers

Granting that these folk sciences are worthy of our understanding, how do we get that point across to a wider public? The first task is to confront the language barriers, as I take it as given that human knowledge is first of all embodied in a particular human language. Language provides us with the tools for thought, for memory, and for imagination, and allows us to share with our fellows these thoughts, accounts of experience, and plans for meeting the future. The global conversation which is modern science, of course, depends on a myriad of special vocabularies hammered out through the communal practice of science. The Latinate names that have been imposed on the diversity of living things is a classic example, without which biology would be impossible. (In the future the language of genera and species might be replaced by a language that more directly replicates the genetic basis of biodiversity. However, I doubt such a heroic reduction of the experiential reality of biological species and communities to nucleic acid sequences will ever be achieved.)

Scientific Latin is but one of thousands of human languages and reflects but one very special perspective on environmental diversity. What of those other thousands of human languages that have been put to the complementary task of grasping the essential details of the living environment? There is a curious paradox here. The dominant theoretical paradigm in contemporary linguistics implies that all human languages are but minor variations on a common theme of human understanding (Pinker 1994: 15-24). From this perspective it hardly matters which language we employ in our conversations about the world.

Yet cultural anthropology is inspired by a commitment to cultural relativism, in other words, that each cultural tradition defines a perspective on ‘reality’ that makes unique sense to those born and raised in that tradition. Sapir made the case emphatically: ‘The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached’ (1929: 209). Sapir's argument has been referred to as the linguistic relativity hypothesis: ‘Human beings do not live in the objective world alone … but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society … [T]he “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group’ (1929: 209).

Ethnobiological research has spoken on this issue, with authority. The relativists must grant that we all do live in the same world, with different names attached to the fundamental ‘things’of that world, at least with respect to the organisms with which we share the planet. Biologists as well as anthropologists have noted the striking facility of intercultural communication at this basic descriptive level. Jared Diamond’s essay on Fore ethno-ornithology is an early example (1966). Diamond had set up a field camp in the then rather mysterious central highlands of New Guinea in order to survey the little-known (to modern science) avifauna of this recently ‘pacified’ region of the world. He followed the example of his illustrious predecessor, Ernst Mayr, and hired local hunters to bring him a representative sample of the bird species of the local forests. The locals were willing, bringing specimens of each ‘kind of bird’ known to them. After careful comparison of these specimens with comprehensive collections of Papuan birds in museums of natural history, Diamond was able to recognize 120 Western ornithological species native to the area. These 120 species corresponded to 110 ‘species’ named in their native language by the Fore. But just how, more precisely, did their ‘species’ correspond?

Fore recognize a life form yakt, roughly equivalent to English ‘bird’. This is one of several tábe aké, or ‘big names’, that they distinguish. Such ‘big names’ include a variable number of ámana aké, or ‘little names’, which we may call ‘species’, though in Berlin’s analytic vocabulary they are ‘folk generics’ (1992: 15-17). As noted, yakt included 110 ámana aké, which encompassed the 120 Western ornithological species Diamond recorded. Of these: ninety-three ámana aké corresponded in their denotative ranges 1 : 1 to the species recognized by academic ornithologists; eight ámana aké were over-differentiated, that is, they corresponded to just four of our species; while nine ámana aké were under-differentiated, encompassing twenty-two of our species. Not only is the agreement on the basic categories of the Fore world close if not perfect, the disagreements are readily explained. The eight cases of over-differentiation involve Fore naming male and female of four species of bird-of-paradise as in English we distinguish ‘hens’ from ‘roosters’. The plumes of male birds-of-paradise are of extraordinary value to the Fore, in personal adornment and in exchange. Fore are, in any case, perfectly aware that their names refer to male and female respectively of four ‘species’. Thus this apparent exception to the rule of intercultural concordance in fact affirms a more basic agreement, in recognizing the biological basis of the notion of species, as interbreeding populations. The cases of under-differentiation likewise make sense, given the Fore experiential reality. The species ‘lumped’ by the Fore were in each case closely related from the Western ornithological point of view: for example, the Fore ámana aké atoku refers to four species of frogmouths and owlet-nightjars (order: Caprimulgiformes). Furthermore, these four species are nocturnal and obscurely patterned birds. Thus, the Fore – who have a healthy respect for the spirits about at night – have limited opportunity to make their acquaintance. Nevertheless, the Fore recognize that there are distinct kinds of atoku, each with distinct vocalizations, though they do not recognize these ‘species’ distinctions nomenclaturally. In current ethnobiological analytic parlance such categories are ‘covert folk species’.

Comparable examples might be multiplied ad nauseum from the ethnobiological ethnographic literature. At the same time it is clear that the correspondence of folk classification systems with that of modern evolutionary biology is in many intriguing details problematic. In part this is a function of the level of classification, that of Berlin's folk generic rank, demonstrating the least cultural flexibility, while life forms and other higher-order taxa often are deeply at odds with what modern science would like to accept as ‘scientific’, or, at least, phylogenetic. At the folk generic and specific levels of classification the contrasts with the generic and specific levels of the Linnaean system are largely with respect to over- and underdifferentiation, as in Diamond's Fore example, with folk systems typically more selective in according nomenclatural recognition to such natural kinds, particularly for small organisms or those of limited ecological or cultural salience (Hunn 1999). Such disagreements do not suggest any fundamental discord with respect to what is or is not a species. In fact, folk classifications at this basic descriptive level clearly recognize the biological basis of the species concept, namely that ‘species’ are self-reproducing populations of individual organisms, that is, they breed true, as the Fore treatment of bird-of-paradise demonstrates.

If our translation problems were limited to finding the corresponding scientific names for each local term, there would be no good reason to clutter our texts with native names, bedevilled by their orthographic idiosyncrasies, on the Chomskyan presumption – to a degree supported by ethnobiological research to date – that the underlying categories are innate and hence uninformative with regard to cultural peculiarities. However, the differences between a given folk classification and that which at the moment is judged most correct by modern science are highly informative of the range of possibility of the perception of order in nature. The classic debate with regard to just what is a cassowary is illustrative. Bulmer’s classic essay on this detail of the ethno-ornithology of the Kalam of Papua New Guinea – neighbours of the Fore of Diamond's study –‘Why is the cassowary not a bird?’ (1967) explores the complex role that cassowaries play in the lives of the Kalam. This is not a question primarily of the ability of Papua New Guinea highlanders to perceive ‘true’ taxonomic relationships, since what is in fact a ‘bird’ is a less than obvious question, particularly in light of the recent dinosaur problematic (e.g. Gauthier & Gall 2001). Both academic ornithologists and Kalam observers agree that cassowaries are quite unlike the great majority of ‘birds’ (Fig. 1), yet for Kalam these idiosyncrasies express more profound differences, as the cassowary is in some sense more human than bird. In this regard Kalam understandings are based on radically different premises than our own.

Figure 1.

. Kobty, Casuarius bennetti, Dwarf Cassowary, drawing by Chris Healey (Majnep & Bulmer 1977: plate R, reproduced with the permission of Chris Healey).

What's in a name?

A careful consideration of the morphology and semantics of names for plants and animals offers rewards beyond simply identifying points of agreement or disagreement with modern science. The ‘descriptive force’ of native plant and animal names is revealing as well of what is seen most clearly by Native eyes. For example, binomial names, composed of a ‘head’ which in isolation names a superordinate plant or animal category (which itself may be binomial) plus a modifying attributive, explicitly mark taxonomic relationships, while the attributive may signal as well some distinctive quality of the category useful in distinguishing it from its close allies. Such systematic naming patterns are by no means restricted to Linnaean classification: for example, ‘black oak’ is a kind of ‘oak’ distinguished from, say, ‘white oaks’ and ‘red oaks’ by the blackish bark of mature trees, while Tzeltal Maya differentiate several local species of ‘robins’, naming them binomially as ‘spiny robin’, ‘yellow robin’, ‘black robin’, ‘red robin’, and so on (Fig. 2). Note, however, that binomials may name folk generics, in which case they are ‘productive primary lexemes’, or folk specifics, in which case they are ‘secondary lexemes’, according to Berlin (1992: 26-31). Care is required, however, to distinguish true binomials from pseudobinomials, in which case the head element names a category which could be but which is not in fact superordinate to the taxon so named, for example ‘silverfish’, which is silver alright but not a fish, though it bears some superficial resemblance to one.

Figure 2.

. Tzeltal robins (Hunn 1977: 56).

Other names are onomatopoetic, characteristic of many bird and amphibian names (Berlin & O’Neill 1981), while still others indicate features distinctive, but never definitive, of the category named, marking, for example, colour, size, shape, taste, odour, behaviour, habitat preference, and/or cultural utility. Thus local names, carefully analysed, are rich in cultural nuance and highly informative of contrasting cultural perspectives on the living environment.

Practical implications

Thus an ethnobiological ethnography should at least summarize local vernacular names and illustrate in some detail how those names are applied to the local flora and fauna, which, to the extent it is an exotic flora and fauna not familiar to the majority of readers, can only be accurately characterized in the Latinate medium of the Linnaean ‘etic grid’. Literary critics might dismiss this injunction as a rationalization that obscures a more telling motive, to wit, that by citing scientific and native names we validate the authenticity of and give authoritative weight to our accounts. However, this is at best but a small part of the story. More to the point is the fact that an adequate appreciation of the subtlety of local understandings of natural history is hampered by failing to appreciate the limitations of English for translating native vocabulary. For example, the definitive ethnographic account of the Sanpoil Indians of the Columbia Plateau of northwestern North America described local harvests of five species of Camassia, the Latin name for the camas lily, a key local staple (Hunn 1990; Ray 1933). Students of Plateau ethnography searched in vain for these species, as just one species was known to occur in the region. The ethnographer assumed that the local English vernacular term ‘camas’, used by his bilingual Indian consultants, was equivalent to the Latin genus Camassia, a term originally borrowed from a different Indian language to refer to this native lily. In the English vernacular, however, the term was generalized to refer to a variety of edible roots and bulbs of distinct botanical families. The ‘camas’ species in question proved to be not only camas, properly so called, but also several species of Lomatium, a genus in the carrot family. To keep faith with the indigenous perspective, we can avoid neither the indigenous nor the Latin linguistic medium. As a consequence, we belabour our ethnographic stories with hundreds of italicized terms that carry no ring of familiarity for the average reader, as in the example below from A Zapotec botany:

One may ‘lift’aires bedeviling one's house – which inflict nightmares (mcàal) and insomnia induced by a ‘fright’– with limpias‘cleanings’ or ‘sweepings’, either by burning specific curative plants – as for example, balsam fir (yàg-lgâzh, Abies guatemalensis) – in the house or literally sweeping (rliòob) the room (or the patient) with the plant. One such plant is yàg-ngùd-guèy-pcàal‘nightmare white zapote’ (Bysonima crassifolia). Another is yàg-bdìin‘bad airs tree’, a.k.a. guìzh-zhwèe‘injury herb’ (Eupatorium mairetianum). Leaves of these specially-designated herbal remedies are mixed with leaves of rue (Ruta graveolens) and white zapote (yàg-ngùd-guèy, Casimiroa edulis) to prepare an infusion for bathing or to be taken as a tea (Hunn n.d.: part 1, 241).

How may we avoid alienating the audience for our ethnographic stories so burdened?

Narrative layers

One solution might be to write our accounts in layers, each designed to appeal to a distinct audience. I will describe three such narrative layers: the master narrative, the technical narrative, and the monographic narrative. The top layer would address the most generalized audience and be designed first of all to convey the power and complexity of our ethnobiological material to an audience with limited firsthand knowledge or appreciation of natural history. Such narratives must capture the reader's attention. Distraction can be deadly. Gary Nabhan (1982) and Richard King Nelson (1983) have shown us the way, as have authors not known first of all as ethnobiologists, but who are gifted interpreters of natural history, for example Barry Lopez (1986) and Peter Matthiessen (1978), whose appreciation of nature is sufficiently nuanced to encompass the human. Let me quote one brief example:

My pickup truck bounced along over the washboard road. Amadeo, Remedio, and I pointed out plants to each other as we went – the bristle-topped senita cactus, heavy-trunked ironwood trees, and odorous, yellowish-green croton shrubs.

We edged over a rise, and all of a sudden the desert was whisked away – palms and cottonwoods reached above the horizon, and teal splashed up into the air. Amadeo grabbed his field glasses – a white-faced ibis down on the mudflats of the pond, and a couple of pigs foraging in the saltgrass.

Remedio sighed, knowing that this place was the place he had heard of: ‘Ki:towak’ (Nabhan 1982: 90-1).

We may call these master narratives. Master narratives are designed to convince the reader with all the rhetorical powers at our command, to convince intellectually, emotionally, and sensually. Master narratives are a form of propaganda, but heartfelt. Our master narratives may argue that other peoples at other times and places deserve our respect for their humanity, their intellect, their curiosity, their sense of place and attachment to family and community.

This may be the master narrative of anthropology, which takes specific ethnobiological forms. For example, in our analyses of folk biological classification we intend to show how folk biology is a science, comparable to modern biological science, if judged on its own terms. Likewise, we may analyse traditional resource management practices to demonstrate their sustainability or the comparability of animist moral narratives to the biophilia of E.O. Wilson (1984). However, competing master narratives may spin the evidence in quite another direction, as when a neo-Darwinian master narrative defines our common humanity by affirming, ceteris paribus, that short-term self-interest shall prevail (Hunn, Johnson, Russell & Thornton 2003) or when a conservation biology master narrative portrays humanity as a lethal virus infecting the biosphere.

If we consider ourselves scientists – as I believe most ethnobiologists do – we will not be satisfied with master narratives. Rather, we will seek to convince our colleagues not solely by rhetoric, but also through the soundness of our analyses and by appeals to evidence and logic. This brings us to the second ethnographic layer, our technical narrative. As narratives, these texts are argumentative still, but must address the issues in more detail, for example citing the academic literature to highlight the status of particular debates that engage various scholarly communities. For instance, the technical narrative beneath our master narrative highlighting nomenclatural curiosities or the impressive detail of native taxonomic distinctions might elaborate on the fit of the particular case to general principles, such as those of Berlin. Or, if one elaborates a master narrative to the effect that the local herbal apothecary demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of the pharmacological properties of local plants, the underlying technical narrative might include comprehensive lists of medicinal plants with detailed recipes and notes to the pharmacological literature by way of measuring the empirical validity of local herbal remedies:

Adiantum poiretti (Sahagun 1950-1969: book 11, 196; Hernández 1942-1946: vol. 2, 340). Tannins are hemostatic. The plant is used as a diuretic in Guatemala (Orellana 1987: 174) and by the Iroquois (Moerman 1986: 11, 19). Diuretic action satisfies Aztec criteria for a fever remedy. A. lucida is used in the West Indies as a febrifuge (Ayensu 1981: 152) (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 254).

One might finally elaborate a third layer, that of the monographic narrative, that would explore the limits of the data, acknowledging ambiguities and varied opinions among consultants, summarizing the consultant sample with respect to how representative it might be of the wider community, and detailing taxonomic uncertainties in voucher specimen determinations. An extreme case might be Laughlin's characterization of the apparently chaotic naming of macrofungi by his Zinacantecan consultants (Fig. 3). These two or three levels of narrative might be managed in print, for example, in banks of footnotes printed in progressively smaller fonts to conserve space, available for ready consultation, but only if the reader feels compelled to break off from the master narrative for a technical detour. Alternatively, supplementary exemplification, documentation, and/or referencing might be relegated to appendices or marginal text boxes. Of course, if publication were digital, these layers could be seamlessly integrated.

Figure 3.

. Graphic representation of the correspondence between Tzotzil and scientific names based on Laughlin’s raw data (1975: 8, reproduced with permission).

A system of narrative layering might go some way towards addressing the fact that the audiences for ethnobiological ethnography are highly diverse. The audience for our master narratives about people, plants, and animals is ample and the potential audience – that is, those who should confront our master narratives – larger still. However, the audience for our more detailed technical and monographic narratives is quite limited. In part this is a consequence of what makes our master narratives so broadly appealing, the inextricably multidisciplinary nature of our subject matter, encompassing as it does cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, cognitive psychology, systematic and evolutionary biology, auto- and syn-ecology, pharmacology, and agronomy, not to mention epistemology and ethics.

At the level of our master narrative these various disciplinary perspectives combine to enhance our audience, but at the level of our technical narrative they intersect to exclude all but the most dedicated interdisciplinarian, restricting at the same time our publication options. By writing two or three books in one, targeting general and specialists audiences, we may perhaps overcome this paradoxical limitation.

Limitations of the written word for ethnobiological narratives

Though we may address the problem of writing for our diverse audiences, this does not address a more fundamental problem, inherent in writing itself. Words simply cannot convey to the uninitiated the experience of biodiversity, the complex patterns and shading of form, colour, scent, and sound of living things at home in their native habitat. Children of the societies we describe do not learn to recognize the hundreds of plants and animals they come to know well by their tenth birthdays by means of verbal descriptions, any more than they learn them by means of dichotomous keys. Rather, children are programmed to learn to recognize, visually but also in all their sensory modalities, family resemblances among living kinds and to associate names in their native language with these patterns (Gelman & Coley 1991; Hunn 2002). And they learn in powerful social contexts, from their parents, elders, and peers, though typically without formal instruction.

I believe that an effective ethnobiological ethnography should replicate to the extent possible this natural learning process, given that our audience will most certainly lack the experiential basis to appreciate that which our native consultants implicitly understand. In short, names are not enough. We must illustrate our ethnographies, ideally illustrating the full complement of species present in full colour, while highlighting the rich contextual meanings of each.

I recognize the valiant efforts of my colleagues to achieve some semblance of this goal, yet I would have to judge our efforts to date lacking on this account. To cite just a few representative examples, Takashi Ijichi's evocative water colours in Rea's At the desert's green edge (1997) (Fig. 4), Terry Bell's fine pen-and-ink drawings that illustrate Breedlove and Laughlin’s monumental The flowering of man (2000) (Fig. 5), and Christopher Healey's birds in Majnep and Bulmer’s collaboration, Birds of my Kalam country (1977) (Fig. 6). However, more often than not we have had to make do with the occasional illustrative example or stark black-and-white photographic images of dead plants and animals pulled from their museum shelves (e.g. Berlin, Breedlove & Raven 1974; Hunn 1977) (Fig. 7) or the mind-numbing sameness of pure text.

Figure 4.

. Takashi Ijichi sumi-e illustration of Malva parviflora (Rea 1997: 235, reproduced with the permission of Takashi Ijichi).

Figure 5.

. Pen-and-ink drawings of avocado cultivars by Terry Bell (Breedlove & Laughlin 2000: Fig. 30, reproduced with permission).

Figure 6.

. Chris Healey's lesser bird-of-paradise (Majnep & Bulmer 1977: 137, reproduced with the permission of Chris Healey).

Figure 7.

. Photograph of voucher specimen of Lantana hirta (Berlin, Breedlove & Raven 1974: Fig. 8.6, reproduced with permission).

I have recently hit on one rather effective, if partial, solution, at least for the botanical images: scans. Scanners are now quite portable and provide excellent resolution, though in a narrow focal plane and limited to the 9 × 12 inch frame of the glass. (I scan fresh plants at 300 pixels/inch; each scan is several hundred kilobytes to a megabyte if saved as a jpeg file [Fig. 8].) With the possibility of publishing print books with CD supplements or on-line, the cost of reproducing a large number of colour illustrations is no longer prohibitive. We may even incorporate sound clips of birds singing and frogs croaking. We may illustrate onomatopoeia by directly comparing the spoken name with the animal's vocalizations (and with our practical orthographies). I believe such multimedia ethnographies soon will be standard practice in ethnobiology.

Figure 8.

. Scanned image of Solanum lanceolatum.

The critics

Writing culture edited by Clifford and Marcus (1986) challenged ethnography to abandon the scientific pretence of a search for truth and to accept ethnography as literature. This requires not only that our writing be judged by the aesthetic canons of literature, but also that we bring to our writing a sophisticated self-consciousness of narrative devices and the power they wield, to subject our writing to the critical scrutiny of contemporary literary deconstruction.

Those of us who were writing culture before Clifford and Marcus may dismiss them as upstart literati. Yet the issues raised by the ‘literary turn’ that they helped foment in anthropology are not entirely irrelevant to our craft, at least at the level of our master narratives. However, I would argue that our technical narratives should be responsive to quite different, non-literary standards, to wit, those of scientific reportage, and in particular our monographic texts are best considered anti-narratives. That is, the goal is not to convince by rhetoric or appeals to the best of our evidence, but, rather, self-consciously to expose our arguments to their foundations, however shaky these may be, playing the devil's advocate. This is ultimately still an effort to convince, but by pre-empting all reasonable alternative interpretations. Postmodern literary critics may deny that this is possible (Clifford 1986: 3).

Clifford and Marcus positioned themselves in the avant-garde, but their critical ruminations came rather late for ethnobiologists, as we were well ahead of the curve they traced. Consider Clifford's call for dialogic ethnographic narratives that allow the ‘subaltern’ voice of the Other to be heard (Clifford 1986: 17). I believe still the finest example of such an effort in ethnographic writing is Majnep and Bulmer’sBirds of my Kalam country, first published in 1977, nine years before Clifford and Marcus's volume. Bulmer, the ethnobiologist, and Majnep, the native consultant, collaborated on this book in the most profound sense, though Bulmer was the titled professor, while Majnep had had no formal post-primary schooling. Majnep's text appears in full, translated by Bulmer, then set beside Bulmer's complementary account, which brings to bear his modern scientific perspective to complement Majnep's richly experiential and culturally informed account. Such collaboration is perhaps an essential quality of ethnobiological research. Our research builds on conversations among aficionados of natural history. We meet our indigenous colleagues on the common ground of our shared fascination with the natural world.

We do not need Clifford and Marcus to point us in the direction of truly collaborative ethnography or to instruct us in the fine art of narrative writing, as we count among us true masters of the art. Nor do we need Clifford and Marcus to inform us that our ‘earlier modes of unselfconscious representation’ are incoherent (Rabinow 1986: 250), that our theoretical projects are ‘in disarray’ (Marcus 1986: 263), or that our discipline is ‘in crisis’ (Clifford 1986: 3). Clifford and Marcus's critique of ethnographic writing was raised on the philosophical quicksands of postmodernism, rejecting classical epistemology in favour of a hermeneutical game of ‘knowledge without foundations’ (Rabinow 1986: 236). Ethnobiology plays a different ‘game’, I believe, because we confront in our ethnobiological practice powerful evidence that ethnobiological knowledge is firmly grounded in concrete encounters of human minds with the natural world. Marcus grudgingly recognizes this contrast between the reflexive subtlety but substantial poverty of Stephen Tyler’s collaborative ethnographic writing (1988) and the straightforward empirical emphasis of Bulmer's collaboration with Ian Saem Majnep. Bulmer has the last word in putting aside the ethical agonizing so prominent in postmodern critical analyses. He muses, ‘Surely it is better to go on doing something we [that is, Majnep and himself] both enjoy so much, than to be paralyzed into inactivity by ethical anguish’ (quoted in Marcus 1991: 41).


Ethnobiological ethnography poses particular challenges due to the eclectic diversity of the subject matter treated and the doubly alien nature of the substantive material to be described – involving alien cultural perspectives expressed in an alien language and an unfamiliar flora and fauna. I argue that the alien cultural perspective requires extensive reference to technical nomenclature in both the language of the alien culture and the, for many, equally alien language of modern science. I suggest that one solution to these peculiar obstacles to effective communication to our target audiences is to compose layered narratives: (1) a master narrative designed to convince a broad lay audience, (2) a technical narrative that marshals factual evidence and academic argument to convince a potentially sceptical scholarly audience, and finally (3) a monographic narrative that exposes the weaknesses along with the strengths of the evidentiary basis of the technical narrative. Integrating these layers effectively will require creative design choices and sophisticated multimedia technology. Ethnobiological ethnography should not be judged primarily as literature but rather with regard to how effectively we meet the expectations of the diverse audiences addressed at each narrative layer.

Rencontre d’esprits : comment partager notre compréhension des connaissances environnementales traditionnelles ?


L’ethnographie, c’est «écrire la culture ». Il faut pour cela traduire les termes de la compréhension de l’exotique au familier. Si la culture est, en grande partie au moins, « ce qu’il faut savoir … pour agir … dans une société donnée », l’ethnographie doit transmettre un corpus significatif de connaissances exotiques élaborées dans une langue étrangère, éclairant les lecteurs tout en attirant leur attention sur les détails des vies décrites. La contribution principale de l’ethnobiologie consiste à montrer que les connaissances traditionnelles de l’environnement ou l’histoire naturelle locale sont indispensables pour comprendre la culture, du moins dans les sociétés en majeure partie rurales qui ont été le plus souvent décrites. Les ethnobiologistes partagent avec leurs sujets d’étude une fascination pour l’histoire naturelle et, de ce fait, une compréhension de leurs connaissances écologiques. En revanche, le public de l’ethnographie est principalement urbain et moderne, et sait bien peu de choses de l’histoire naturelle. La difficulté est double, voire triple : il faut non seulement porter des modes de vie exotiques à la connaissance du public, mais aussi lui ouvrir les yeux sur les merveilles de l’histoire naturelle, en traduisant dans un langage commun une conversation technique entre les biologistes modernes et leurs sujets d’étude. Je proposerai quelques suggestions sur la manière dont nous pourrions nous y prendre, basées sur mes propres lectures et travaux d’écriture ethnographiques.

Eugene Hunn is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has conducted fieldwork in Mexico (Tzeltal Maya ethnozoology, 1971; Zapotec ethnobiology, 1996ff.) and with Native North American communities (Sahaptin, 1976ff.). His books include Tzeltal folk zoology: the classification of discontinuities in nature (1977), Resource managers: North American and Australian hunter-gatherers, co-edited with N.M. Williams (1981), and Nch’i-Wána, ‘The Big River’: mid-Columbia Indians and their land (1990).