By STEVEN WINDUO
THE world of the indigenous people is viewed through their language, which British behavioural researcher Daniel Nettle and American linguist Suzanne Romaine describe as a window; a living museum or monument. Losing a language can lead to the loss of culture.
Accoording to Nettle and Romaine, “it is a loss to everyone of us if a fraction of that diversity disappears when there is something that can [sic] have been done to prevent it”.
Researchers are already talking about the relationship “between areas of biodiversity and areas of highest linguistic diversity”. Nettle and Romaine described this relationship as biolinguistic diversity: “The greatest biolinguistic diversity is found in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, who represent four per cent of the world’s population, but speak at least 60 per cent of its languages and control or manage some of the ecosystems richest in biodiversity.”
Indigenous people of these areas, too, face a similar fate as the biodiversity that they inherit. Said Nettle and Romaine: “Although the fate of indigenous peoples is decisive for the maintenance of biolinguistic diversity, they too are endangered.”
Many researches have followed the systematic documentation of medicinal plant uses in indigenous communities, but none seem to have clearly shown the indigenous accounts of the inter-relationships of the ecolinguistic environment.
Where indigenous subsistence activities are abandoned then the “specialised syntactical structures and their associated vocabularies” are no longer in use, according to one study. Many of the results of the researches carried out by ethnobiologists have never gone beyond explaining the cultural dynamics that sustained the ecological knowledge of traditional communities.
Most have ignored even the importance of explaining the complex dynamics that contain the knowledge of medicinal plants.
The researches done so far have avoided discussing the importance of ritual, magic and cultural observation of ecological spaces, where knowledge of medicinal plants have their foundations.
Many ethnobiological field studies have completely ignored this cultural framework. It is critical that ethnobotanical researches consider the indigenous understanding of the biological and linguistic interactions in the societies studied.
Sometimes there is a call to “more attention to traditional ecological knowledge of plant-animal interactions”.
American agricultural ecologist Gary Nabhan’s pointed out that “when one first looks at ethnoecological accounts some indigenous observations may seem irrational or counterintuitive, (but) they may in fact be linguistically encoded means of validly explaining certain relationships between plants and animals”.
British ethnobiologist Ralph Bulmer said: “Many plants are used in religious and magical ritual, and their symbolic meaning may in part be self-evident to the community at large, or may be mainly the esoteric knowledge of the ritual specialist.
“In either case it is often extremely hard for the outside investigator to find out the significance of these plants, particularly if he or she is not a botanist. To a lesser extent, animals or their parts are also used. An even wider range of plants and birds and other animals in invoked in magic spells of all kinds, including sorcery.
“Very many traditional societies had complex systems of prohibitions, including restraints on killing, eating, destroying, handling, sometimes even just seeing or saying names of various plants and animals.
“These applied variously to some people for all their life, to others at certain stages or episodes of their life, and to everybody in certain locations and under certain special circumstances.
“The immediate explanations for these prohibitions were often not mystical at all; for example, that certain kapul with dappled markings should not be killed or eaten by anyone planting gardens or going into newly planted gardens, lest crops should develop blotchy leaves (blight).
“Finally, the mythology and folk-tales of Papua New Guinea are full of animals and plants. These stories are important to an understanding of man’s perception of his relationship to nature, both taken at face value and analysed structurally. Many of them explain features of the environment, and justify ritual practices and prohibitions.
“They all indicate the perceived opposition of the social and the natural world. They show how forest and cultivation are opposed, and why the forest should be important as an ultimate source of fertility, health and good things; and in spite of that, be treated as alien territory, to be annexed and destroyed.”
Nabhan described ethnobotonical studies as “salvage ethnobotany missions” who go into the field to collect, press samples of plant, with the assistance of local collaborators.
“Most of these salvage ethnobotany missions,” he argued, “only scratch the surface of indigenous knowledge about the nature world by simply recording indigenous names of plants and cataloguing their uses.”
Such an artificial approach does nothing to further the understanding of the indigenous perspectives of the ecolinguistic environment.
“Such descriptive, purely utilitarian ethnobotanical surveys . . . hardly tell us anything about how “the natural world works” from an indigenous perspective because of the assumption of some that ethnobotanical fieldworld is no more than the elicitation of “folk taxanomies,” which therefore allow correlations between indigenous names for plants and Linaneaen species”.
There is more at stake if we ignore the importance of doing sustained research on Papua New Guinea’s biolinguistic environment.
By STEVEN WINDUO