Plant Use of the Motherland: Linking West-African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany

National Herbarium of the Netherlands: one post-doc, two PhD students, several MSc students.
Duration: 1 January 2010-1 January 2015. Funding: NWO Vernieuwingsimpuls VIDI.

When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they were not only challenged to maintain their culture under severe circumstances, but also to find useful plants similar to those of their motherland. How did the forced migration of Africans influence their knowledge and use of plants? Ethnobotanical research in the Neotropics has focused on Amerindians, but herbal medicine in the Caribbean is used and traded by millions of people of African descent. Their plant use is often branded as ‘typical Afro-Caribbean’, but few scholars have compared actual Afro-Caribbean and African plant use. The Suriname Maroons are descendants of runaway slaves that live in tribal communities in remote rainforests, surrounded by plants they did not know at first. Maroon culture is said to be the most ‘African’ of the Americas. But what about their ethnobotany? This study will compare medicinal and ritual plant use between Maroons and their main ancestral tribal groups in Benin, Ghana and Gabon. We will focus on plants used for women’s health, child care and African rituals, as these are understudied, strongly linked and highly traditional. By means of literature reviews, database analyses, quantitative market surveys, interviews and plant collection, we will test our hypothesis that although the plant species used by Maroons are mostly Neotropical, their preparation methods and applications are predominantly African. We expect that, in their quest for useful plants in the unfamiliar Neotropical environment, they chose not only plants that were phylogenetically related to the African species they knew, but also selected botanically unrelated plants with similar appearances. Due to their long-term forest residence, we assume the percentage of trees in their medicinal flora to be comparable to that of neighbouring Amerindian groups. This will be the first comparative research on West African and Afro-Caribbean plant use, supported by fieldwork in both continents.