Knowledge of Medicinal Plants at Risk.

Phoebe Weston writes for the Guardian in journo-apocalyptic fashion:

Knowledge of medicinal plants is at risk of disappearing as human languages become extinct, a new study has warned. Indigenous languages contain vast amounts of knowledge about ecosystem services provided by the natural world around them. However, more than 30% of the 7,400 languages on the planet are expected to disappear by the end of the century, according to the UN.

The impact of language extinction on loss of ecological knowledge is often overlooked, said the study’s lead researcher, Dr Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a biologist from the University of Zurich. “Much of the focus looks at biodiversity extinction, but there is a whole other picture out there which is the loss of cultural diversity,” he said.

His team looked at 12,000 medicinal plant services associated with 230 indigenous languages in three regions with high levels of linguistic and biological diversity – North America, north-west Amazonia and New Guinea. They found that 73% of medicinal knowledge in North America was only found in one language; 91% in north-west Amazonia; and 84% in New Guinea. If the languages became extinct, the medicinal expertise associated with them probably would too. Researchers expect their findings from these regions to be similar in other parts of the world. […]

The areas with languages most at risk were in north-west Amazonia, where 100% of this unique knowledge was supported by threatened languages, and in North America, where the figure was 86%. In New Guinea 31% of languages were at risk. The anticipated loss of linguistic diversity would “substantially compromise humanity’s capacity for medicinal discovery”, according to the paper, published in PNAS. […]

Dr Jonathan Loh, an anthropologist and conservationist from the University of Kent, who was not involved in the research, said he was surprised by the degree of linguistic uniqueness in medicinal plant knowledge. He has previously spoken about the parallels between linguistic and biological diversity, commenting that these had evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both faced an extinction crisis.

I doubt humanity’s capacity for medicinal discovery will be substantially compromised, but if it’s exaggeration, it’s in a good cause. And if you think that’s apocalyptic, check this out: Neuralink Brain Chip Will End Language in Five to 10 Years, Elon Musk Says. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Marjanović says

    Indigenous languages contain vast amounts of knowledge about ecosystem services provided by the natural world around them.

    Sure, but preserving a language doesn’t automatically preserve that kind of knowledge. I come from long lines of city dwellers and don’t actually know any tree names in my unwritten dialect, let alone those of medicinal plants.

  2. Sure, but eliminating a language is quite likely to eliminate that kind of knowledge. Keeping the language isn’t a guarantee, just a form of insurance.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Can we have an attested historical example of this outcome of language shift? What tribe in South America traditionally made medicinal use of a specific plant in their environment but then shifted from their ancestral language to Portuguese or Spanish and immediately stopped using the plant, no longer even noticed the plant when they saw it etc., because it did not have a name in their new language and they somehow didn’t know how to coin words (by using the old-language word as a loanword or otherwise) for things they had previously talked about that did not have preexisting Portuguese/Spanish names?

    Now, if language shift is accompanied (as is often the case) by cultural/technological shift, such that for example now there’s a clinic in the village handing out penicillin, and the penicillin seems more efficacious than the old herbal remedies the grandmothers used to whip up so none of the kids want to listen to grandma drone on about how you use such-and-such plant in such-and-such way for such-and-such ailment, one can easily imagine such knowledge being lost, but that sort of cultural/technological shift obviously risks that outcome even if the language remains the same. Obviously the same is true of less positive cultural shifts, like when the government stops a particular tribe from doing its traditional hunter-gatherer thing in its traditional geographical range and decides it’s going to turn them into low-paid bauxite miners (for the multinational conglomerate that is giving kickbacks to the president-for-life’s brother-in-law) getting groceries at the company store. They’re probably going to lose a lot of detailed and perhaps irreplaceable local knowledge relevant to being a successful hunter-gatherer in that particular region, but they’re going to lose it whether or not language shift occurs.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I have an uneasy feeling that this line of argument has been largely concocted by linguists who are afraid that their real (and, in fact, perfectly sufficient) reasons for lamenting language loss and destruction of cultures won’t seem sufficiently hard-headed to supposedly practical politicians etc. It seems a bit like the contention that people should learn Latin because it will help them to spell in English.

    The idea that it is specifically the languages that contain the relevant knowledge also seems a touch Sapir-Whorfy.

  5. ktschwarz says

    See also Languages and Ecosystems from 2015, based on another story quoting Jonathan Loh, and with J.W. Brewer asking exactly the same question. Also with well-informed comments from Ken Miner and marie-lucie, and Bathrobe’s thoughts on Mongolian, where he observes some Mongolians keeping the language but losing the culture, and others vice versa. Worth a reread.

  6. Damn, I had a feeling I’d posted a similar story, but couldn’t find it. Oh well, it’s been six years…

  7. Yeah, DE, that’s exactly my thought. Just like some botanists need to justify saving ecosystems because maybe there are drugs to be discovered there —the Madagascar periwinkle! — or, more shamefully, descriptive linguists who justify their work because it may be somehow some day useful for machine language understanding. Everyone who does basic research faces the call to whore their dignity that way. Fortunately most johns, in this sense as in the literal one, are easily duped. Most basic research will never have any useful (i.e. money-making) consequences.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I guess the best answer I got to my question in the prior thread is that what would be lost would be stuff so deeply “encoded” that the speakers of the moribund language didn’t actually know what it meant in a practical sense. An example in English I guess would be something like “ring around the rosie / pocket full of posies,” which may or may not encode a medieval medical use for posies but is not consciously understood by most modern speakers to do so. So if we all started speaking a non-English language we would probably not take the tacit knowledge about the medicinal properties of posies with us, because we hadn’t known that we knew it. I guess that’s plausible as far as it goes, but the follow-up question is what’s the real-world example of a medical discovery being facilitated not by actual use by a particular culture of a particular local plant but of a not-consciously-understood reference to the plant buried in an old folkloric text that the speakers couldn’t themselves explain the implications of.

    Of my own statements in the prior thread, let me recapitulate “Language loss is often caused by something bad (or at least a dramatic shift in circumstances traumatic enough to have lots of negative side effects even if it ends up positive on net) happening to the community that spoke the language, so language loss will probably often co-occur with various negative things happening to the same people, but in a way that makes it hard to sort out whether language loss is an independent causal factor or just another consequence of a different underlying problem.”

  9. January First-of-May says

    saving ecosystems because maybe there are drugs to be discovered there

    I vaguely recall having read a brief story – possibly on LH – about a bunch of researchers who discovered that a plant sample from (IIRC) the Amazon contained a chemical with very high potential for (again IIRC) cancer treatment.

    Unfortunately. when the researchers tried to go back to get more samples of that plant, they found out that the forest area from which the sample was taken had in the meantime been cleared for mining.

    the Madagascar periwinkle!

    Wikipedia, incidentally, claims that medicinal use of this plant species is attested in Mesopotamian records from as far back as 2600 BC, citing an article that in fact provides the exact same bare claim (with no further sources that I could find).

    I wonder where that idea came from, and what the sources, if any, actually say. Surely in 2600 BC there could have been no contact, even via intermediaries, between Mesopotamia and (then uninhabited) Madagascar; in addition, a date of 2600 BC would be well into “nearly all the attested texts are brief economic records and/or aren’t actually very well understood” territory.

  10. a language without its culture (including its ecology) is fundamentally damaged.*

    it’s not that language preservation in an archival sense does a damn thing to maintain knowledge about the world around it (plants, animals, landforms, etc). it’s that for language preservation to be real and meaningful, it has to include the relations that we often separate out as “culture” and “ecology” – and acting based on that fact does, very concretely, help maintain that knowledge. whether any of it is in an extractable-for-profit form or not is a different question, and only important for pharmaceutical investors, not for languages or ecologies.

    * and languages that move from place to place have had many different strategies for reducing, scarring over, and healing that damage.

  11. I posted this BBC link in a previous thread, but it didn’t seem to get much attention, so at the risk of redundancy I’ll repeat it.

    South Africa’s language spoken in 45 ‘clicks’.

    The point is not only that the N|uu language is endangered, as are a number of other African languages. There is a lot of cultural knowledge embedded in the landscape and its traditional names and lore. Not just medicinal plants but other environmental knowledge. This knowledge is in danger because the San people have been forced out of their traditional homeland by the creation of a national park. (Following the American model, national parks in South Africa are created by first evicting the people who live there.) Without being given access to their traditional lands, San people are unable to pass knowledge of the landscape on to the next generation.

    I am sure that similar problems exist in other parts of the world, but the San, and the people who are trying to help them, is a story that I have been following for some time. As well as the BBC, ABC (Australia) has had some reporting on this issue.

    The South Africa constitution does specifically mention the San language as being one target to “promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of”, but it’s a long way from being mentioned in the constitution to anything concrete being done about their actual situation.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I vaguely recall from Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist (can’t find my copy) a passage where he expresses some disquiet at this noble-savage notion that indigenous peoples always have unique insights into their natural environment beyond what is practically necessary for survival. The example that sticks in my mind is that he says that the Dowayo (the people he lived among) are unaware that caterpillars develop into butterflies …

    Of course, it is perfectly possible that a small group may have unique insight into some aspect of the local flora and fauna (and, to put it mildly, not all small groups are the same in this or any other regard.) But the idea that they have such insight as it were ex officio seems to me to be akin to Orientalism. These people have natural rhythm, you know … (Ugh.)

    Moreover, insofar as they do have unique insights, their very uniqueness may make them untransferable across cultures. The mythological significance of some creature or plant may be huge within the culture itself, but mean nothing if divorced from that culture. The loss of the culture is itself a wound on humanity: but in this case nothing has been lost that could have been transmitted to another culture in any case (at least, without gross misrepresentation because of the loss of vital context.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    In fact, putting it like that crystallises my understanding of why I find this sort of thing disquieting: it implies that we should value threatened cultures in proportion to their potential practical value to ourselves (which then leads to misrepresention of the potential scale of that value. Knowing Latin actually is some help in spelling English: but learning Latin is a tremendously inefficient way of improving your English spelling, if that is your sole objective.)

  14. Dr. Loh makes that point at the end of the linked article:

    He said it was important, however, not to focus on utilitarian arguments for the conservation of languages, cultural diversity and biodiversity.

    “There may be valuable knowledge of medicines unknown to western science contained within these languages, and doubtless that is true to some extent, but it is not the most important reason for conserving them,” he said. “Every indigenous language and culture is a unique evolutionary lineage that once lost is lost forever.”

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Fair enough.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Is Elon Musk real?

  17. Is any of us?

  18. Stu Clayton says

    It don’t make no real difference one way or t’other. “I” will continue to do whatever “I” can get away with. When others scruple, the iron is hot. I would be a fool to discourage existential doubts.

  19. Is Elon Musk real?

    Is this one of your Earth jokes?

    (Yeah. Will he go Howard Hughes at some point? Will he change his name to Galileo Tesla? He’s bound to go off the deep end at some point.)

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Lots of people go off the deep end, all the time. Some of them are in the news. Even fewer have lotsa lolly. None of it counts.

    Except possibly to skint, inglorious Miltons.

  21. John Emerson says

    Is Elon Musk real?

    Even if you can’t see him, hear him, or touch hom, you can always sniff pthis je ne sais quoi lingering in the air.

  22. John Cowan says

    Knowing Latin actually is some help in spelling English

    I suspect that most of that value comes from being able to identify Latin cultismos by sight, and where possible by sound, since they have different spelling rules.

  23. On the subject of the medicinal value of plants, a friend of mine became very annoyed with an acquaintance of hers who is refusing to get the covid vaccine. She doesn’t need it, this deeply informed person said, because she’s taking herbs. My friend was too exasperated to ask which ones.

  24. Meanwhile, actual Amazonian herbalists, with thousands of years of experience behind them, do not have anything to keep those close to them from dying of this virus, just as they weren’t able to hold back smallpox and measles. I have deep respect for indigenous medicine, but no pharmacopoeia is able to cure everything. Having met folks of indigenous descent, whose people lost 99% of their population to infectious diseases only a century or two ago, makes me especially unsympathetic toward dilettante anti–Western medicine purists.

  25. CuConnacht says

    Does it seem likely that knowledge of medicinal plants native to central Italy was lost when Etruscan became extinct? I think more likely older people would have passed on the knowledge as they always did, speaking Etruscan to younger people. When the time came that those younger people learned Latin, and had children who did not speak Etruscan well, they would have passed the same knowledge down in Latin that they would have in Etruscan if Etruscan had still been thriving. Why would they have stopped passing down the knowledge just because they had to do so in a different language? In some cases they might not have known a Latin word for a particular plant and would either have had to use an Etruscan word, which might then have been borrowed into Latin, or have had to invent a Latin word for it. But the knowledge would not have been lost.

  26. You can sort of make the case that words like “fleabane” carry some old knowledge which would be lost if the language were lost.

  27. John Cowan says

    Gale and I were saved from permanent stains on our clothes while sitting under a walnut-tree by our indigenous knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan.

  28. John Cowan says

    that once lost is lost forever

    Like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion.

  29. CuConnacht says

    Y, I don’t think so. If an herbalist bilingual in Etruscan and Latin during the last days of Etruscan wanted to communicate the flea-repellent properties of fleabane to a monolingual Latin speaker, the fact that the Latin speaker did not know the Etruscan word would be no obstacle. Quite possibly the herbalist herself would not have known the word until she was taught the word along with how to identify the plant, and its properties, by some older herbalist.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    @CuConnacht: I think the hypothesized scenario is more or less one in which fleabane had fallen out of active use as a flea repellant in the given society because there seemed to be a better alternative, so herbalists at the point of language shift don’t have occasion to actively talk about the uses of the plant in the new language. What is then potentially lost is the possibility of some future generation of scientists doing flea repellent R&D backtracking and seeing if fleabane contains small concentrations of some chemical which, if isolated and concentrated, would be more efficacious than whatever prior advance had led fleabane to fall out of use. There’s nothing inherently implausible about such a scenario but I don’t know how to assess the odds that it’s actually likely to actually happen.

    OTOH, if fleabane had originally gotten its name because of a casual observation that fleas avoided it (while growing wild) while not avoiding neighboring plants, that observation could independently reoccur without the cue embedded in the name. If you shift from a language in which the etymology of “bear” is “honey eater” to one in which the etymology is “the brown one,” you will still probably rediscover the connection between bears and honey sooner or later.

  31. The thought that comes to my mind is that in some cases medicinal information might be contained in the names. How common and useful that is in the languages in question I don’t know. Beyond that possibility, it seems quite odd to associate medicinal knowledge of plants with languages, rather than with the communities that speak those languages.

    And, yes, that’s been brought up already with the example of fleabane. From what I read in the internet, fleabane does not actually repel fleas, so the name doesn’t actually convey something useful.

  32. Heh. Well, I agree the medicinal-information argument is pretty flimsy; I guess my feeling is that anything that gets people to think favorably of language preservation is a Good Thing.

Speak Your Mind