Level II Application. Documenting the Ethnobiology of Mexico and Central America (DEMCA): A Digital Portal for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences

Jonathan Amith, Ben Brandt, Neil Cobb, John Wieczorek, Michael Thomas

  1. ENHANCING THE HUMANITIES THROUGH INNOVATION: This project is innovative in its interdisciplinary focus; its provisions for integrating, discovering, sharing, and exporting ethnobiological data; its potential for providing and organizing material important to understanding the cultural history (migration and contact) of native societies; and the unique manner in which it establishes the basis for ongoing collaboration among a diverse set of stakeholders: (a) linguists and anthropologists; (b) native communities and scholars; and (c) biologists and herbaria or museum collections.

      Documenting the Ethnobiology of Mexico and Central America (DEMCA) will be a substantive resource for research in cultural history (origins of and contacts among Indigenous populations) and in comparative ethnobiology (nomenclature, classification, and humankinds use of flora and fauna). It will contribute to the documentation of species diversity in botany and zoology. The information provided by DEMCA will be unique and important, a multifaceted scientific and humanistic endeavor enhanced by interactive functionality not present in any other comparable web portal (see Environmental Scan). It will incorporate a wealth of audio-visual and photographic material related to research on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). By offering Indigenous communities a means to participate in collaborative projects to document TEK, it offers the possibility of exponential growth. Almost the entirety of the budget is dedicated to the development of standards and software (Symbiota, see Environmental Scan) directed towards humanities-driven goals. The substantive content, data, and metadata that will be used to populate and test DEMCA has already been produced by research grants to Amith and David Beck: (a) over 10,000 plant collections identified to species by expert taxonomists; (b) the Indigenous names, classification, and use of these plants when such information exists; (c) over 15,000 high quality photos of plants in situ; (d) over 1,000 digital recordings in several Indigenous languages, all transcribed and many translated, of native experts in flora and fauna discussing their traditional knowledge in this realm.

      This project will develop and suggest a standard for sharing often highly varied ethnobiological data. For example, whereas an ecologist is interested in obtaining the most accurate identification to scientific species, those who study Indigenous systems of traditional knowledge are often equally interested in variation in nomenclature and classification. For any number of reasons, the relation of a single specimen (or a set of specimens) to an Indigenous name is often that of one-to-many: one scientific species may have several Indigenous names, even within a single community. In cognitive and sociological ethnobiological research, variation in the primary data may be very significant. Discrepancies, disagreements, and variation in nomenclature, classification, and use within and across communities are invariably interesting and informative. To give an example of intra-community variation: ta:la:mat (literally ‘earth or ground Ficus‘) is a name commonly applied to one or more Desmodium species (a legume) in a Nahuat-speaking subregion of the Sierra Nororiental de Puebla. The prototype is Desmodium caripense Kunth, the most common local Desmodium, the one used medicinally, and the one that even speakers with a restricted classificatory scheme (i.e., with only one species as the referent of ta:la:mat) would designate by this name. However, many speakers consider other low-lying herbaceous Desmodium as ta:la:mat but exclude the more shrubby species. Still other speakers include all Desmodium, including fairly substantial shrubs, under the term/category ta:la:mat. Preservation, discovery, and analysis of all primary nomenclatural and classificatory data, as DEMCA proposes to do, can yield what may be called the internal structure and fuzzy boundaries of Indigenous cognitive systems of classification.

      Intercommunity and cross-linguistic variation in biosemantic terminology can also reveal the cultural history of native communities. For understanding historical relations among cultural-linguistic groups the nomenclature, classification, and use of flora and fauna is particularly important. Cognates shared by genetically related languages are evidence of a common origin. Moreover, the historical depth of shared terms for flora and fauna may be highly varied. Some terms may be shared only regionally while others may be reconstructed to an ancient proto-language. The different depths of shared nomenclature reveal patterns of language diversification. Loan words, calques (loan translations), and shared cultural beliefs, on the other hand, provide evidence for historical contact and the sharing of linguistic and cultural material. Calques are words in two or more unrelated languages that are entirely distinct in form but share a meaning. Thus pi:na:wistli (‘shame’; Nahuatl) and ti1ka’3an4 (‘animal of shame’; Coastal Guerrero Mixtec) share a meaning and referent: Solifugae (camel spiders). A shared belief is exemplified by the fact that several Totonac, Mixtec, and Mazatec communities associate Mutillidae (velvet ants) with omens.