Medicinal Plant Knowledge, Botánicas and Health

The colorful interior of a typical botanica shop with candles, statuettes,
herbs and herbal products, stones and a plethora of various spiritual and
religious items.
Photo courtesy of Tarot by Jacqueline
by douglas reeser on May 30, 2012
A new study by ethnobotanists Ina Vandebroek and Michael Balick was just published in the journal PLoS ONE (and it's open access!). The article reports on a study conducted in New York City that measured medicinal plant knowledge among first generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The authors begin by explaining that the study participants noted a difference between food plants used as medicines and nonfood plant medicines. Food plants used as medicines made up 39% of the reported plants used by immigrants in NYC and knowledge of such plants was reported at a higher average per person than were nonfood medicinal plants.  

Among numerous findings, what is perhaps most significant about this study is that it shows that knowledge of medicinal food plants does not appear to be negatively affected by migration in either rural or urban migrating populations, and is actually reported at higher rates in NYC. In other words, people who migrated to NYC actually learned of more medicinal food plants once they were settled in their new home. The authors explain: 
“Our study demonstrated that cultural knowledge about medicinal plants in the context of a highly urbanized, transnational community in a globalized setting is kept alive and actively transformed by the geographic dynamics of that community.” 
This finding goes against most reports that traditional knowledge is typically lost or diminished among migrant populations. It has been argued that the new environments in which migrants find themselves make it difficult to transition their traditional knowledge, while the stress of migration makes it difficult to add to that prior knowledge base. This study shows otherwise. 

I found it particularly interesting when the authors attribute the increase in knowledge of food medicines to the use of botánicas among Latino populations in NYC. Botánicas are herbal/spiritual shops that are in many cities across the U.S., and are usually found in Latino neighborhoods. My research with botánicas in Tampa, FL showed that most shops offer consultations to customers. While, for legal reasons, the consultations are not advertised as medical, they do offer insight into a variety of health issues from the perspective of numerous medico-spiritual traditions actively practiced throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. My study (to be published in the open access journal vis-à-vis in September) posited that botánicas play a vital role in the overall health of its customers and may satisfy spiritual and psychological aspects of health and healing that are neglected by biomedical facilities. 

Other studies on botánicas have shown that they also offer important social space to customers who are often immigrants or children of immigrants. Some shops have become places where people gather to share remedies, stories, and other spiritual- and health-related information. The shops have become a safe space in which to discuss health and illness from a perspective that rests outside of the biomedical paradigm. This new study by Vandebroek and Balick reinforces this finding, and shows that people are not only using the botánica as a social space, they are learning there, and in turn expanding their knowledge base, and perhaps improving their health and that of their friends and families. 

Views from the ANThill: Living with the Spirits - Ghost Stories of Southern Belize

A lone fisherman in a dugout canoe paddles offshore in southern Belize. The waters are calm, so the spirits
of the sea are as well. But if the winds kick up, beware! Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on May 23, 2012

Oh, there’s lat’a ghost down deh.”

“A lot of what?” I asked, wanting to be sure I understood the statement in Kriol.

“Ghosts – I ‘fraid fo go down deh.”

Thus went my conversation with Dhir, a young East Indian boy I had met earlier that evening. I had traveled over six hours that day, for a meeting in a town in the north-central part of Belize. My meeting ended in the late afternoon, and I hadn’t been to this town in about five years, so I decided to stay the night. I found a room in an old wooden converted house still run by the original family. After freshening up, I decided to take a walk around town, take some pictures and find something to eat. During my walk, a young boy approached with the ubiquitous bucket.

“Do you want to buy sir?” he asked, talking with me first in English.

I love Belizean bucket food – breads, cakes and snacks sold out of a bucket, usually by children – and it almost always directly supports a local family, so I asked what he was selling.

“Fudge sir. It’s the best fudge in Belize! You won’t get anything like it anywhere else. My mother made it sir. Do you like fudge?”

Consumption Junction: Nothing but money is sweeter than honey

A bee pollinating a flower

by lana lynne on May 18, 2012
One of the four basic types of narrative conflicts is man versus himself (the others being man versus society, nature, or man). This type of conflict usually involves some type of internal struggle, where readers follow the character's journey of self-realization, sometimes arriving at a realization of their own. As the tragedy of the honey bee continues to unfold on the international stage, we have a story that takes this conflict to a new level.

It seems the industrial-agricultural complex has led us into an epic man versus himself battle. The colony collapse disorder that has caused mass die-offs of honey bees has been pinned most recently on neonicotinoid insecticides, which are often used to coat corn seeds. (Somewhat surprisingly, this finding jumped from the usual confines of natural news sites to the mainstream press last month.) Monsanto, one of the leading culprits in the bee die off, has recently acquired a leading bee research firm, Beeologics, dedicated to "restoring bee health and protecting the future of insect pollination." While some optimists could take this as a gesture of goodwill, many others see it as a way for Monsanto to control the output of information about bee health. To put a sliver of a silver lining on this toxic cloud, Poland, finding a correlation between Monsanto's genetically modified corn and bee die-offs, has taken steps to ban the seed baron.

Now, let's take our story back about 2.5 million years ago, when humanoids' brains got bigger. Attributing this growth to diet -- mainly meat and tubers -- has been a mainstay of evolutionary theories, but recently, a new possible factor was introduced: the consumption of honey. Through her field work with the Hazda people of east Africa, anthropologist Alyssa Crittenden has proposed that nutrient-dense honey may have contributed to feeding our brains all those years ago. In a fascinating example of people working in harmony with nature, Crittenden details how the Hazda people follow the trail of honeyguide birds to bee hives, communicating back and forth to each other along the way. Learning about the importance of honey to the Hazda people led to her thinking about honey in evolution. With no fossil evidence, she points out, honey's place in the humanoid's diet may have been overlooked.

If Crittenden's theory is correct, one could argue that our current relationship to the honey bee has reached an all-time low, and our metaphorical internal struggle has reached new heights. To put it simply, while ignoring the implications of the bee die-offs to our food supply, we are helping to destroy agents of our own evolution.

Li Hulak sa' Tzolleb'aal

Q'eqchi' language instructor, Thomas C'aal, assisting students during
class at the Punta Gorda, Belize Library.
Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on May 12, 2012

Li Hulak sa' Tzolleb'aal
Naq nink'ulun sa' tzolleb'aal
Nink'e xsahil xch'ool intzolonel,
Chi sa'li loq'laj waatinob'aal
Nintikib' xb'aanunkil ink'anjel

Jwal sa li tzolok sa' komonil,
Chi jo'kan jwal nakana chi qu.
Naqatzol li wank sa' tuulanil,
Xb'aan naq ha'an nake'xk'ut chi qu.


Arriving at school
When I arrive at school
I greet my teacher,
In my blessed language
I begin to do my work.

It feels so good to learn together,
In that way we learn.
We learn to live together peacefully and in harmony,
because that is what they teach us.


Above is a Q'eqchi' poem for school students given in class during the Punta Gorda Library Q'eqchi' Language Session in southern Belize. This poem was taught in our second class which was attended by more than 15 people from a variety of local and foreign backgrounds. After two classes we have learned the Q'eqchi' alphabet, the numbers 1-20, and some basic vocabulary and phrases. Simple poems have proven to be a fun addition to class, and I thought this one was particularly apt given that we are in a language class. You may not get the pronunciation quite right, but take the time to try and recite the poem, and you will get an idea of the difficulty we all face in learning this ancient Maya language.

Leadership and the Tribe

A tribal tattoo by Nissaco from Chopstick Tattoo.
Photo courtesy of Tao of Tattoos.
by douglas reeser on May 9, 2012
Does anyone remember the social network called "tribe"? It was something like the anti-social network, where people who practiced alternative lifestyles gathered online instead of creating profiles on myspace. Facebook wasn't in the picture yet, and at the time, the idea of the tribe appealed to something more primal than mainstream society had to offer, and it had the feel of going against the grain (I decided to check to see if it's still up, and to my surprise, it's still going - The idea of the tribe has fallen a little out of vogue these days, and I wonder if it has something to do with the proliferation of "tribal" style tattoos among more mainstream youth.

Whatever the case, while chatting with a visiting friend from Miami, she brought up a talk about tribes and leadership from TedX (see below) that had made an impression on her. It turns out the talk is by David Logan, and his TedX lecture is about his theory on a human typology - and he claims that all humans fall into one of five different tribes. Having only watched the TedX talk, I feel like I have a limited understanding of his typology (he has also authored a book titled "Tribal Leadership), but I'll attempt to give a short recap:

There are five levels of tribes. Level one is comprised of about 2% of the population and includes violent and criminal people - he mentions "jail culture" as an example. Level two claims about 20% of the population and is comprised of people that hate life and feel sorry for themselves - a step up from level one, but still highly negative. Level three, about 35% of the population is where most people reside - they are "one-up" types, or people who will listen to you and then jump in and explain why they're that much better than you. Level four, another 20% or so, are a bit more positive, and have a type of self awareness that allows them to encourage others to move "up" to the next level. Finally there is level five, again only about 2% of the population, who are people that are leaders in that they can bring people from disparate groups together and let them work together for the benefit of all.

I don't love this typology, but I found the talk fairly interesting. As an anthropologist, I realize that most attempts to put humans into a strict typology have been largely left in the past by scholars - mainly because such generalizations gloss over too many individualities and peculiarities. However, Logan's ideas allow for an understanding of how negativity and positivity can affect our outlook on life and our relationships with others. It allows for self-improvement, and even the improvement of humanity as a whole. And perhaps most important, Logan explains how bringing people together who may not otherwise meet is a unique, effective and highly valuable type of leadership that we can all strive to practice.

Check it out here, and share your thoughts and impressions below >>>

First Friday Picture Show: Be-ing(s) by Michelle

This month's Picture show is by our old friend Michelle. Michelle is a people photographer living in beautiful Central PA. When she's not documenting life for people, you can find her working in the garden, chasing her small herd of children, or reclaiming trash. You can see more of Michelle's work and contact her at Redheaded Ninja Photography.

~ True Bounty ~
We ran a CSA program for a couple years. What made it unique was that we had no house,running 
water, or electricity - we lived in tents. This is my middle child with one of our delivery boxes.
~ Two Eyes Rescued Dog ~
This is a rescue from the organization Dogs Deserve Better. This was taken for American Dog Magazine.
~ Best Friends ~
 These gorillas live at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

View the rest of the Picture Show Here: