vrijdag 1 oktober 2010

Ethnobotanic Dare and Arachnophagy

Ethnobotany is the study of non-western / non-academic / 'savage' biology, here is funky little story about the scientific acumen of an Amazonian tribe.

Listen to Shepard Jr. and Yu (Rain forest habitat classification among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon)
The research that led to this paper began as a dare. Shepard (an ethnobotanist) heard that Yu (an ecologist) was teaming the taxonomy of Cecropia, a genus of pioneer trees that host a number of ant species. Shepard suggested that Yu consult with the local indigenous people, the Matsigenka, with whom he had been conducting ethnobotanical research for several years, and who recognized a number of folk species of Cecropia. Yu chided, "Cecropia taxonomy is a mess. We have been working on it for years. Some of the species are very close. Not even the expert on the genus has been able to figure them out. I doubt the Matsigenka even havenames for many species." Shepard dared Yu to test his instinctive distrust of folk biology. Open to the challenge, Yu began to interview the occasional Matsigenka visitors to the Cocha Cashu research station in Manu National Park, and was surprised by the findings. The Matsigenka had names for almost every species of Cecropia found in the area, including some that as yet had no established botanical names. More interestingly, the Matsigenka recognized various sub-groups of Cecropia that corresponded exactly with the intermediate taxonomic groupings identified by botanists after several seasons of field and herbarium work. Yu was impressed by the sophistication of Matsigenka folk taxonomy, "We could have saved two years of taxonomic muddle!" Unfortunately for Shepard, no formal wager had been made.

The Journal of Enthnobiology has an open archive for all issues before 2005 and amongs the zillion interesting papers found, but this is the best of all "Alune Arachnophagy and Approaches to Spiders Among an Eastern Indonesian People", or, a natural history of human consumption of spiders!

Listen to Christopher Healey and Margaret Florey:

Spiders often live in close association with humans, and are variously objects of interest, danger and aversion. Few ethnobiologists, however, have paid much serious attentiun to human knowledge of, and interactions with spiders. As a contributiun towards an ethnographic understanding of human-spider relations, this paper documents the uses and ethnotaxonomy of spiders among the Alune people of Seram Island in Indonesia.

It is now widely recognized in the anthropologlcalliterature that insects have formed an important part of the diet of human communities in many parts of the globe. Academic attention to the consumption and other uses of insects has been subject to the filtering lenses of Judaeo-Christian traditions and European gastronomy, which, with a few celebrated exceptions (honey, crayfish and escargots come to mind), eschew the consumption of non-marine invertebrates and their products. The Biblical vision of John the Baptist living a wandering existence in the desert, subsisting on locusts and wild honey, is a symbolic representation of his separation from the established social order. His diet combines the sublime honey, a pure insect product of nature, with a notionally inedible insect, which is, furthermore, inimical to subsistence in the Middle East through its plague attacks on crops. European observers of the subsistence habits of other peoples have tended to assume that the consumption of insects is an indication of destitute circumstances, such as The Baptist voluntarily endured, rather than a matter of choice. As Sahlins (1972:2ff) has pointed out, this ethnocentric view contributed to the long delay in realizing that a hunter-gatherer existence was by no means
as harsh as had been presumed.


The Khmer of Cambodia are reported to eat large tarantulas (Theraphosidae) deep-fried in oil and served on skewers. They are reputed to enhance virility (Menzel and D'Aluisio 1998). Similarly, the Yanomamo of Venezuela extract Theraphosa leblondi (Theraphosidae) tarantulas from their burrows to eat, roasting them on the fire (Menzel and D'Aluisio 1998). This species is the world's largest spider and contributes a substantial amount of meat to a meal.

Spiders and their webs are also used for purposes other than food. Again, there is very little of substance in the literature beyond passing references. The Nuaulu of central Seram, who are culturally related to the Alune, use the compacted web masses of Nephila species (Araneidae) as bait in line-fishing for needlefish, a practice Ellen (J993b:203) considers they must bave learnt from other people, as, like the Alune, the Nuaulu are traditionally an interior people. Speiser (1996 [1923]:241) reports the use of compacted web mass of unidentified spiders to construct purses and ritual masks in Malekula, Vanuatu. Spiders and their webs are also used for purposes other than food. Again, there is very little of substance in the literature beyond passing references. The Nuaulu 01 central Seram, who are culturally related to the Alune, use the compacted web masses of Nephila species (Araneidae) as bait in line-fishing for needlefish,

The Ngarinman of northwest Australia used spiders' web to fasmon small purses (Healey, unpub.fieldnotes). Spiders are reported to be used for medicinal purposes in a number of areas.

Hunn (1977:310-312) notes that among the Tzeltal of Chiapas, Mexico, tarantulas (Mygalcmorphae) are used in a cure for tumors, with the spiders induced to bite the affected area. Bodenheimer also reports the medicinal or magical use of spiders.
De Walckenaer notes that "in Brazil certain [unidentified] spiders are believed to be strong aphrodisiacs .. , , and the same quality is ascribed to them in folk medicine throughout the world" (Bodenheimer 1951:68). In the Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Russia eating unidentified spiders Is said to confer fertility on sterile women, and ease labor (Boaenheimer 1951:68). The seventeenth-century English antiquarian, astrologer, and solicitor, Elias Ashmole, provides us with evidence of another medicinal use of spiders in his diary for 11 April 1681: "I tooke early in the morning a good dose of Elixir, & hung 3 Spiders about my Neck & they drove my Ague away, Deo gratias" (Ashmole 1966:1680).! This was no Ashmolean idiosyncrasy; live spiders encased in a nutshell and worn about the neck were believed to relieve fever (Black 1883:5960). One of Bodenheimer's possibly idiosyncratic German eaters spread them on bread in place of butter "as a purge" (Bodenheimer 1951:68).

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