VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE. Dr. Raj Puri (Senior Lecturer in Environmental Anthropology Director of the CBCD; Convenor of Ethnobotany and Environmental Anthropology, University of Kent, Cantebury)

One of a series of interactive talks I organised for Eden Food Week in 2006, thanks to Raj Puri for taking part in the event.   

What are ethnobotanists?

Ethnobotanists explore the relationship people have with plants. They are interested in plants from a cultural perspective and do research into different societies around the world and how they use or think about plants. In particular they are interested in why different societies use the same plant in different ways.

What have they found?

They have found that what people eat is changing.

The traditional diet consisted of many fruit and vegetable species, wild greens, cultivated greens, wild animals etc.

Agricultural based societies are making a nutritional transition from a diverse traditional diet to a diet focusing on a few foods. Diets of the modern world are often high in fat and sugar and result in health problems.

Why are people changing what they eat?

The switch from the traditional diet is often cultural and takes place when there is contact with a more dominant culture for example the Penang of Indonesia? They changed from being hunter gatherers living on starch from the sago palm to being rice farmers. The dominant population ate rice and so it was seen as progressive while the sago diet was associated with primitiveness.

The switch from traditional diverse diet has nothing to do with economics or nutrition, it is a cultural change.  These changes take place on contact with a more dominant culture.

Why do we make the choices we do about what to eat?

Our mother prepared it for us when we were children. Cultural, passed from one generation to the next.  It tastes good and we like it.

Availability used to be more important but now we can get things from around the world.  We eat what we are told is good for our health.  If it looks good we are more likely to tuck in.

What’s important to eat is changing.

Look around the world categories of what is food are changing. Traditional diet had many species of fruit and vegetables, wild greens, wild animals, cultivated greens etc. People are leaving these traditional diets as globalization is affecting what we eat. Traditional agrarian or agricultural based societies are making a nutritional transition from a diverse diet to a diet focusing on a few foods. These diets of the modern world are usually fatty and high in sugar. This has resulted in health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

Why are people making these choices?

Reason is not necessarily economic. There is a symbolic association of certain types of food with progress.  For example I  studied the Penang who are hunter gatherers in the tropical rainforest. Lived off palm starch (sago flour from the pith of sago palm).  They go into the forest, find clumps of sago palm and cut them down.  They remove the pith of the sago palm and make it into flour, which is used to bake bread and make into porridge.  This is their staple food.  It is cheap and easy to get and their diet is supplemented with fruit, vegetables, animals and fish.

But ten to fifteen years ago the Penang settled down and became rice farmers. Why was there this major change?  It wasn’t for an easier life,  farming is harder work than being a hunter gatherer.   There is also a risk as rice farmer have to wait 6 months for crop to be ready. The main reason why rice farming took off was because it produced more food.

The Penang are a minority traditional society within a larger modernising Malaysia or Indonesia.  The dominant population lives on rice; rice is seen as progressive, the future, it has a higher status.  The traditional sago diet is associated with backwardness and primitiveness. People want to be thought of as ‘modern’.  The switch is partly because of a cultural change in the way people see themselves and the meaning of certain types of food and the associations people make with them.  The switch from traditional diverse diet has nothing to do with economics or nutrition.  It is a cultural change.  These changes take place on contact with a more dominant culture.

Humans anywhere in the world subconsciously list our food likes and dislikes,  food is so fundamental to life that talking to people met for the first time about the food that they eat is great ice breaker to get to know groups.  Groups of people . It works just as well in rural Cornwall, London,  Leicester, Glasgow or with the Penang in Borneo.   By listing popularity of fruits or other foods on a chart you can quickly get an idea of what people like in a community and can reveal variation with other communities and how diverse their diets are.   What’s more it can be great fun and start useful conversations developing!

During my research in Borneo,  I wouldn’t know what the plants or fruits were. People would take me out into their gardens and show me their plants. I would make a list and then make collections. I would learn about them and then be able to ask questions.

The Role of Ethnobotany

When analysing preferences for example if we take a favourite fruit in Britain – apples these are often listed as first or second most important fruit.  Why are they important?  Is it because they are important  food sources?  Or are there other reasons?  Are they important for cultural or historical reasons?  Ethnobotanists explore the relationship people have with plants, how they used them and the categories they have in their head. What this means and it can be used to see if there are differences between men and women, old and young and people with different life styles.


Rajindra K. Puri, Ph.D.;  Senior Lecturer in Environmental Anthropology;  Centre for Biocultural Diversity

School of Anthropology and Conservation;  Marlowe Building;  University of Kent at Canterbury, Canterbury, Kent   CT2 7NR;  United Kingdom   


For details of ethnobotany and anthropology courses see the website.




About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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