Medicinal plant knowledge threatened by loss of languages

A Native American crushes seeds of a plant for a red colour during a visit to the "Pataxo de jaqueira" reserve near Porto Seguro in Brazil Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

The predicted disappearance of certain indigenous languages could also lead to the disappearance of the knowledge of many medicinal plants. In three-quarters of the cases identified by researchers in Zurich this knowledge is transmitted only orally in one of these languages.

This content was published on June 10, 2021 - 19:02

Linguists estimate that about a third of the 7,400 languages currently spoken in the world will have disappeared by the end of the century. Yet the only way some indigenous cultures transmit their knowledge is by word of mouth.

To investigate the extent to which the medical knowledge surrounding plants is under threat, Rodrigo Cámara-Leret and Jordi Bascompte from the University of Zurich collected data on 3,597 medicinal plants. They looked at 12,495 ways of using these plants, the knowledge of which is transmitted in 236 indigenous languages spoken in North America, the northwestern Amazon and New Guinea. Their study is published in the journal PNAS.


The result is that 75% of the knowledge of these plants is preserved in just one language. “And it’s precisely these languages that are the most threatened,” Jordi Bascompte told the Swiss News Agency Keystone-ATS.

The irreplaceable knowledge of the northwestern Amazonian cultures is particularly at risk. Some 90% of the ways of using plants are transmitted in just one language.

“This is a tragedy because there’s no way to ‘recover’ these languages once they have disappeared,” Bascompte warned.

In a globalised world it’s difficult to stop this trend, he added. “The most important thing is to recognise the beauty and value of the diversity of languages, to let human beings speak their mother tongue and to document the languages that are threatened with extinction.”

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