Hierarchy, utility and metaphor in Mapuche botany

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: This book is about the knowledge and management of plants among the Mapuche of southern Chile. Field studies of this extensive cultural patrimony have been carried out over a period of two years, with participation in various activities and rituals in which plants play an important role. Herbalists, shamans and other specialists have explained the practical use and significance of different species, from trees to herbs. The discussion integrates three perspectives: first, the formal plant classification and its resultant taxonomy; second, the practical side of the utilization of plants as food, in medicine and various other aspects of daily life; third, the symbolic relations established between plants and some basic cultural values. The study shows how community rituals, social gatherings and the practice of traditional medicine by shamans and herbalists contribute to the persistence of traditional plant lore, in spite of drastic changes in the local vegetation and in living conditions. A detailed plant taxonomy is part of the understanding of this cultural patrimony. This taxonomy shows that the Mapuche classify plants in accordance to established ethnobotanical principles of general validity. At the same time, such a taxonomy is not emphasised by rural specialists. They are interested in a practical understanding of plants that has a natural, social and moral background. Thus, a proper understanding of this folk-botanic knowledge must move beyond the principle of classification as an epistemological standard and also consider the specific cultural elements found in this southern Andean society.

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