The struggle for nutmeg

Plants, People, and Culture

November 1, 1996

In recent years ethnobotany has become rather fashionable, dealing as it does with issues that are inextricably linked with ecology, green politics and indigenous communities on the cutting edge of rainforest decimation. Despite being the offspring of anthropology and botany its origins can, as the authors show, be traced to no less a figure than Linnaeus himself. The fieldwork of the great taxonomist among the Sami people of Lapland is shown to equal modern research in quality.

Michael Balick and Paul Cox write that "on his travels in search of ethnobotanical knowledge Linnaeus learned exotic languages. He travelled alone or with only a few companions and with a minimum of gear. (He) ate indigenous foods and learned to use plants as the indigenous peoples used them. Most important, Linnaeus established a deep rapport with the people he studied."

That Balick and Cox's account of the staple plants stresses their great historical importance comes as no surprise. They quote a demographic estimate that calculates the introduction of maize, and the potato alone led to a doubling of Europe's population in post-Columbian times. The enrichment of the European diet from colonies throughout the world is shown to be mirrored by a corresponding decline in the health of indigenous peoples who forsook their traditional fare for western processed foods.

The importance of staples can sometimes overshadow the economic significance of other foodstuffs. The apparently insignificant powdered nutmeg that is found in millions of kitchens today was once viciously fought for by Venice, Genoa, Portugal, England and the Netherlands, their mutual violence only surpassed by their near-extermination of the indigenous inhabitants of the Banda Islands - the source of the nutmeg tree. This can be viewed as a microcosm of the shifting fortunes of the European powers during the period of nascent capitalism.

A brief sketch of the history of hemp as a fibre plant is rightly separated from the discussion of its psychotropic properties. The ecological potential of hemp paper is still not receiving sufficient support by governments due to the presence of THC, the mind-altering compound, in the plant. The legal status of cannabis and the utilisation of the plant's other potentials are actually two distinct issues as non-psychotropic strains can easily be grown. Balick and Cox's discussion of other plants used in material culture covers little-known historical and ethnographic data.

In no other sphere of plant use is the difference between indigenous and modern European cultures so polarised as in the consumption of psychotropic plants. The authors' discussion of peyote, ayahuasca, kava, ebena and cannabis demonstrates that our secular use of drugs is in radical contrast to the sacred function such plants have in other cultures, and in their explanation of the relationship between coca and cocaine Balick and Cox show acute awareness of the economic ties between the production of the former and the consumption of the latter.

The last chapter, dedicated to biological conservation, does not turn the whole work into a domesday book. Despite the sheer scale of the salvage enterprise that the authors are practically and ideologically committed to, there is a refreshing and uplifting tone as they select tales of hope when they could so easily have given us horror stories. Ethnobotany has been served well by this stimulating, accessible and finely illustrated book.

Richard Rudgley is the author of The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society (1993).

Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany

Author - Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox
ISBN - 07167 5061 9
Publisher - Scientific American Library
Price - £19.95
Pages - 239

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