ANT 393                     Brian Stross  


Office Hours     Wed   4-7pm                                  SAC 4.124





Ethnobotany, as the study of interrelations between humans and plants, generally deals with such

interrelationships one society at a time.  This course intends to cover a larger region, Mesoamerica,

to formulate a program for ethnobotanical work in indigenous communities, and to deal with such

general topics as systems of classification and nomenclature, plants and archeaology, plant cultivation,

food plants, medicinal plants, entheogenic plants and divination, plants in cosmology and religion, plants

in construction and furniture, plants in clothing and ornament, plants in discourse, plants and the question

of pre-Columbian contacts, and the impact of humans on plants (including forest management).  These

topics will be explored in a seminar format and exemplified from a perspective of indigenous

Mesoamerican communities.  No knowledge of botany is presupposed, nor is an interest in

Mesoamerica required. 


TEXTS   Required:   Paul E. Minnis  (Ed.) 2000.   Ethnobotany: A Reader. 
U. of Oklahoma Press    [PEM]


               Recommended:   Richard Evans Schultes & Siri von Reis  1995.  Ethnobotany:

Evolution of a Discipline.  Dioscorides Press/Timber Press  [RES]

                                    GN 476.73 E84 1995 PCL Stacks


                                                Anthony Huxley. 1974.  Plant and Planet.   Viking Press.  [AH]


                                    Herbert G. Baker.  1970.  Plants and Civilization.  Wadsworth  [HB]


This semester I would like to suggest a number of topics for discussion that we might find

profitable to explore in trying to understand the breadth and depth of the topic of 

Mesoamerican Ethnobotany.    Come to class prepared to discuss the topics of the week

(one person will take the role of facilitator each week, and will help facilitate the discussion

both of the current topic and of the assigned homework).


Notebook/Journal -   I would like all participants to keep a running record or journal of insights,

thoughts, and general notes about Mesoamerican ethnobotany that occur in the course of the semester.   

I will ask to see it during a class in the middle of the semester, and it will be handed in on the last day

of class (for return within a week).


Internet -  It will be useful for all of us to explore the internet for sites dealing with ethnobotany in

general and with Mesoamerican ethnobotany more specifically, keeping a record (with brief annotation

of content) of URLs that have useful information whether in the form of databases, articles, pictures,

or other.   






WEEK 1          INTRODUCTION  -   what is botany, what is ethnobotany,  economic botany, 

cultural botany, comparative ethnobotanical studies  (plant domestication,

cultivation, origins of agriculture ( 2, 3, 6, ) (old world, new world),  weeds, 

living abroad,  seeing the other

Homework:  pick a society (or linguistic group)  in Mexico, Guatemala,

or Belize, and search on the internet for botanical and

ethnobotanical information relating to that group.  Select material from

the search and prepare it for oral presentation in class.

                        Readings: [PEM] Chapters 1-3 ;  [HB] Ch. 2

Optional:  [RES] Part 1 (23-74);  Huxley Chs. 1-2 (The Planet Sharers,

The Ways of Change);  M. Walter Pesman  Meet Flora

Mexicana.  (G. Lawrence, An Introduction to Plant Taxonomy);



palynalysis, microcolonial fungi, identification of plants from codices and

inscriptions; iconography and glyphs.

Readings:  Barthel, Mourning and consolation:… (handout);  Bowles, Notes

On a floral form represented in Maya Art and its Iconographic

Implications (handout).

Optional:  [RES] Part 10 (391-405), Part 3 (93-130);  Deborah Pearsall

2000 Paleoethnobotany (second edition); Nina Etkin (ed.)1994.

Eating on the Wild Side (chapters 10, 11);     



field collections, plant press, plant trail identifications, oral narratives

(folktales, origin myths, legends),  anthropomorphic metaphors for plants,

plant metaphors for people, speech play and verbal art, other discourse

genres (e.g. counting out formulae – e.g.  one potato, two potato…)

ACQUISITION OF PLANT KNOWLEDGE   by children, by adults

                        by botanists and anthropologists -  (Berlin, Zarger, Collins)

                        INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS   -  rainforest plants ;

                        biodiversity and intellectual property  (free downloadable book)

Readings: Frake "Ethnographic study of cognitive systems" in S. Tyler [ed.]

                                    Cognitive Anthropology;   Roy Ellen "Putting plants in their place"

                                    (see ethnobotany link in week 1 of syllabus)

                        Optional:  [Lipp in RES]);  Stross (1973 "Acquisition of Botanical Terminology

                        by Tzeltal Children");  Dougherty.



WEEK 4          BOTANY  (western concepts:  scientific and folk nomenclature;  keys)

Linnaean Plant Classification, Plant taxonomy (a course). History of

                        Systematic botany,

Methods in the study of plant evolution, 

                        kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus, species, variety

Protista kingdom (protozoa, algae, slime molds),

Fungi kingdom (fungus, breadmolds & yeasts),

Plantae kingdom:

     bryophytes [mosses & liverworts],

     ferns [ferns & horsetails],

     gymnosperms [conifers, cycads, ginkgo],

     angiosperms [flowering plants]

                                    liliopsida (monocots)

                                    magnoliopsida (dicots)

Evolutionary adaptations of plants.    Leaves, stems, roots, nutrients, 

                        Botanical terminology.   gymnosperms, angiosperms, monocots, dicots,

                                    photosynthesis, cell structure, plant tissues & body, respiration,

                                    mitosis & meiosis,  ecology & ecosystem

Plant Identification -  keys,

Plant specimen collection and preservation



Optional:  Breedlove and Laughlin, The Flowering of Man; 

Huxley Ch. 3, 4 (From Cell To Tree, The final Flowering);

V. Schlesinger Animals & Plants of The Ancient Maya;



and classifying -  non-western concepts)

                        Readings: [PEM]  Part 2 (65-142); H. Conklin or C. Frake. …

Optional:  Berlin, Brent. 1973. Folk systematics in relation to

biological classification and nomenclature. Ann. Rev. Ecol.

Syst. 4: 259-271; Berlin, Brent et al.1992. Ethnobiological

Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and

Animals in Traditional Science;  W.J. Stearns, Stearns

Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners; 

Huxley, Chs. 8, 9 (Eccentric and Bizarre, The Flower);

                                    Berlin et. al, Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification (ch. 1-6).


WEEK 6          STAGES OF PLANT GROWTH  (life cycles of plants -  maize,

beans, and squash; climax forest; cleared earth and weeds;

forest fires; calendar cycles; intercropping), diversity

                        FOREST MANAGEMENT   biodiversity

                        CONSERVATION AND DEVELOPMENT

                        Readings:  Alcorn

                        Optional:  R.B. Yepson Jr. (ed.) 1976.  Organic Plant

Protection. Rodale Press;  Huxley, Chs. 5, 6, 7  (The

Great Invention, Nature the Engineer, The Power Station), 

Huxley, Ch 10 (Growth and Rhythm)



plants (vs. old world plants)  Mesoamerican flora, Vavilov (plant

origins and dispersal)

                        NATIVE vs INTRODUCED plants

(cacti / euphorbiacae, bromeliacae),  bromeliad in Africa (Pitcairnia), 

prickly pear in middle east (Opuntia), sweet potato, coconut, cotton.

                        Readings:  [HB] Ch. 4 ; 

                        Optional:  Riley, Kelley, Pennington, and Rands (eds.)  Man Across the

Sea: Problems of Precolumbian Contacts.  Section III pp. 309-444.

                                    V. Schlesinger 2002.  Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya:  A

                                    Guide.  Foster and Cordell (eds.) Chilies to Chocolate: Food the

                                    Americas Gave the World.


WEEK 8          PLANTS IN RELIGION   religious usage (divination, shamanistic

curing [tobacco]), plant offerings to deity (incense, including frankincense,

myrrh, copal [cf. Lacandón copal pom, rubber figures k'ik',  mead balche',

tamales nahwah, atole säkha', chocolate drink käkäoh, cigars, annatto

dye k'uxu,  rubber ball game in Mesoamerica (Castilla elastica & Ipomoea

alba), sacred and symbolic plants (hoja santa, Plumeria), decoration of altars,

doorways, and crosses (bromeliads) and floors (pine needles),  plants in

creation narratives, plants for death  (marigold ladder to heaven), birth

(planting trees, maize), other life crisis rituals,  souls (maize spirit is a little

girl w/ bloody nose).   CHR  corn god, bean goddess

                        PLANTS IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE e.g. murals, sculpture,

                        codices, buildings, indoor plants for decoration and air freshening, etc.

                        Readings:   A. McDonald 2002.  Botanical determination of the Middle

                                    Eastern Tree of Life.  Economic Botany 56:113-129; 

Stross (copal);

Optional:  [RES] (131-146);   Michael F. Brown, Tsewa's Gift

pp. 88-132 (Peruvian Amazon); Huxley Ch. 12 (Do Plants Feel)


WEEK 9          ENTHEOGENS    Entheogens / Psychoactive plants   (identifications; 

soma as mushroom, soma as lotus; ololiuhqui) ,  peyote, mushrooms

(Amanita muscaria, Psilocybe), tobacco, ayahuasca, water lily (Nymphaea),

Salvia divinorum,  Datura,  Datura links,  sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia),

beach beans (Canavalia maritima),  axocatzin (Sida acuta)

Gordon Wasson (on peyote, mushrooms, tobacco and Ololiuhqui)


                        Optional:  [RES] (343-361, 369-384, 385-392);  E.F. Anderson, Peyote:

the Divine Cactus;  D.L. Spess, Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen.

                                    Chris Kilham 2001.  Psyche Delicacies.

                        Optional Resource:  Jonathan Ott, Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs,

Their Plant Sources and History.



                                Curing by divination with plants (for cause and cure)

                                Curing by use of plants/herbs with pharmacological properties  (Herbweb)

                                Curing by use of plants with symbolic properties (for sweeping, baths, wearing)

                                Biopiracy  and Intellectual property issues in Indigenous medicine (Maya)

                         Readings:  [PEM] Chs. 7, 8;   [HB] Ch. 13:  N. Etkin 1994.  Eating

                        On the Wild Side Chs. 2, 8, 9, 12;

Optional:  [RES] (289-342, 362-368);   S. Orellana, Indian Medicine

                                    in Highland Guatemala;  V. Vogel, American Indian Medicine.

                                    Herbalgram 27 (Special Issue—New World Medicinal Plants) 

                                    Herbalgram 34:44-55 (Medicinal Plants of the Tarahumara); 

22-27 +  (Ma Huang: Ancient Herb, Modern Medicine,

Regulatory Dilemma); L. Bremness, Herbs;  Joie Davidow,

Infusions of  Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American

Herbal Remedies.   A. DeStefano 2001.  Latino Folk Medicine;

Heinerman, New Encyuclopedia of Fruits and Vegetables. 

Parker Publishing Co.



plant domestication (wild / domesticated distinction, wild useful [protected,

unprotected]; old world vs. new world food plants);

agriculture (the milpa: maize, beans, squash), interplanting, 

 companion planting; mixed planting/cropping. 

grains (maize  The Maize Page, ),   seeds,    nuts,

                        Readings:   [PEM] Chs. 9-13;  [HB] Ch. 1  

Optional:  [RES] ;    Sophie Coe, America's First Cuisines (ch. 1-9);

N. Foster & L. Cordell, Chilies to Chocolate;  J.N. Cole, 1979.


WEEK 12        FOOD PLANTS IN MESOAMERICA II  (vegetables, horticulture,

edible "weeds" (Portulaca oleracea – verdolaga, Amaranthus,

Brassica campestris - mustard),

famine foods (Oxalis, Brosimum alicastrum, Dioscorea - yam),

fruits Morton's fruits of warm climates link ; (black zapote; matasano; chicozapote)   

perceptions about food plants; metaphors and other figures of speech

(love apple, hot tomato, hot potato, two peas in a pod, carrot top,

cool as a cucumber, corny, seedy, nutty, fruity, willowy, reedy)

                        Readings:  [HB] Ch. 5, 6

                        Optional:  Cole, Amaranth: From the Past, For the Future.  Rodale Press.


WEEK 13        DRINK PLANTS IN MESOAMERICA  classification (e.g.  medicinal,

food beverage, alcoholic);   herbal teas, coffee, cacao,

maize (atole, pozole, pinole, popo), juices, licuados, 

alcoholic beverages – agave (pulque, mescal, tequila), honey beer

(balché),  sprouted maize beer (tesgüino, sugiki), pineapple beer (tepache),

plums (wine), pitahaya (wine), cornstalk (wine), sugar cane (beer, rum),

grapes (wine), sweet potato (wine).

                        DRINK ADDITIVES:   yam (popo), chocolate (popo),

Acacia angustissima (bark fermenter catalyst - pulque), Lonchocarpus

                        longistylus/violaceus (mild euphoric, alcohol potentiator - balché)

                        Readings:  Herbalgram 37:50-55 (Chocolate: Past, Present and Future

of Cacao);  Herbalgram  37:33-40 (Rediscovering Tea);

                                    [HB] Ch. 9, 10;

                        Optional: Bruman, Alcohol in Ancient Mexico. 



palms, reeds, agave, cotton,   (hats, belts, blankets, pants, shirts, skirts)


                        coral bean [tzompantle], hibiscus

Readings:  Herbalgram 29:26-33;    



(lumber, tying fiber, firewood)


PLANTS FOR GUMS AND RESINS (chewing and glueing).


PLANTS FOR DYES (clothing, blankets, skin, ceramics).


(culantro, annatto, )  (Spices of the world)


                        Readings:  [PEM] Ch 2 ;  [HB]  Ch. 3, 7, 12, 14;







Each participant is expected to read the assigned reading and come to class prepared to discuss the

readings of the week.   For a given week's topic, the readings will be given under the heading of that

week.    To the extent possible one person will facilitate discussion of the readings each week.

Each week will have one person (or more) presenting findings on a specific topic of relevance to the

week and of interest to the group.  


In addition to the group project, each student will be expected to write a brief research

paper or a proposal for an original project on some aspect of Mesoamerican ethnobotany

(up to 20 pages) and to make a brief oral presentation of the research or proposal to the class.





Alcorn, Janis    1984  Huastec Maya Ethnobotany.  (San Luis Potosí, Mexico)

F 1221 H8 A42 1984 Benson Latin American Collection

F 1221 H8 A42 1984 Life Science Library
GN 476.73 A42 1984 Center for American History TXC-ZZ


Berlin, Brent, Breedlove, Dennis and P.H. Raven  1974.  Principles of Tzeltal

plant classification: an introduction to the botanical ethnography

                        of a Mayan-speaking people of highland Chiapas.  (Chiapas, Mexico) 

F 1221 T8 B47 Benson Latin American Collection

F 1221 T8 B47 Benson Latin American Collection


Breedlove, Dennis and Robert Laughlin  1999.  The Flowering of Man: Botany of

Zinacantán. (Chiapas, Mexico)  F 1221 T9 B733 1993 V.2 Benson

Latin American Collection  GN 1 S54 NO.35 PT.1 PCL Stacks


Bruman, Henry.   2000.  Alcohol in Ancient Mexico.   University of Utah Press.


Clark, Phil. 1972.  A Flower Lover's Guide to Mexico.  Minutiae Mexicana.


Collins, Darron Asher 2001. From Woods to Weeds: Cultural and Ecological

Transformations in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. PhD. Dissertation in Anthropology,

Tulane University.  (focuses on the Q'eqchi' Maya)


Davidow, Joie.  1999.  Infusions of Healing:  A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal



Ebeling, Walter  1986.     Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America.

E 78 W5 E34 1986 PCL Stacks
E 78 W5 E34 1986 Benson Latin American Collection


Felger, Richard S. & Mary Beck Moser. 1985.  People of the Desert and Sea : Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians.

(Sonora, Mexico)  F 1221 S43 F45 1985 Benson Latin American Collection

F 1221 S43 F45 1985 Life Science Library


González, Roberto J.   2001.  Zapotec Science:  Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra

of Oaxaca.  University of Texas Press.


Heffern, Richard.   1974.  Secrets of the Mind-Altering Plants of Mexico.  Pyramid Books.


McAndrews Gina Marie. 1995.   Utilization of Medicinal Plant Species in the Zapotec

Community of Yatzachi el Bajo, Oaxaca, Mexico.  Unpublished MA Thesis, Iowa

State University.  See at:


Orellana, Sandra L.  1987.  Indian Medicine in Highland Guatemala: the Pre-Hispanic

and Colonial Periods. (Highland Guatemala)

F 1435.3 M4 O74 1987 Benson Latin American Collection


Pesman, M. Walter  1962.  Meet Flora Mexicana. 


Reko, Blas Pablo   1945.   Mitobotanica Zapoteca.  (Oaxaca, Mexico)

G580.144 R279M Benson Latin American Collection


Roys, Ralph L.  1931, 1976.   The Ethno-Botany of the Maya. (Yucatan, Mexico)

F 1435.3 M4 R7 1976 Benson Latin American Collection
F 1435.3 M4 R7 1976 Life Science Library


Schlesinger, Victoria.  2001.  Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide.  U.T. Press.


Tapia, Fermin   1978-80.  Etnobotanica de los Amuzgos.  2 vols. Centro de Investigaciones

Superiores del INAH  Cuadernos de la Casa Chata. 14, 28 .

Contents: pt. 1. Los Arboles -- pt. 2. Los bejucos, zacates, yerbas y otras

plantas. (Guerrero, Mexico)

F 1221 A58 T36 1978 Benson Latin American Collection

Weiss, Janna    1998.  Diagnostic concepts and medicinal plant use of the Chatino

(Oaxaca, Mexico) with a comparison of Chinese medicine. (U.T. doctoral

Dissertation -  Diss 1998 W436 PCL at Periodicals Desk;  Digital version accessible



Wiggins, Ira. 1975.  Vegetation and Flora of the Sonoran Desert.  ISBN #080470 1636


Williams Linera, Maria Guadalupe.   1980.  Estudio Etnobotanico de Algunas plantas

Rituales Utilizadas por un Curandero de Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz.
F 1219.1 V47 W54 1980 Benson Latin American Collection


Yetman, David and Thoms R. Van Devender.  2002.  Mayo Ethnobotany:  Land, History, and

Traditional Knowledge in Northwest Mexico.  Berkeley:  University of California






Carmack, Robert.  l98l.  The Quiche Mayas of Utatlan


Dow, James  1986.  The Shaman's Touch: Otomí Indian Symbolic Healing.


Guiteras-Holmes, Calixta.  1961.  Perils of the Soul: The World View of a Tzotzil Indian


Kennedy, John G.  l978.   Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre.


Lipp, Frank  1991.  The Mixe of Oaxaca.


Madsen, William.  l96O.  The Virgin's children:  Life in an Aztec Village Today.


McGee, R. Jon  1990  Life, Ritual and Religion Among the Lacandonn Maya.


Monaghan, John.  1995.  The Covenants With Earth and Rain: Exchange, Sacrifice, and

Revelation in Mixtec Sociality.


Parsons, Elsie Clews.  l936.  Mitla: Town of the Souls.


Pennington, Campbell W. l963. The Tarahumara of Mexico: TheirEnvironment and

Material Culture.


Pennington, Campbell W.  1969.  The Tepehuan: Their Material Culture.


Petrich, Perla   1985.  La Alimentación Mocho.  Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas.


Redfield, Robert, and A. Villa Rojas.  l934.  Chan Kom: A Maya Village.


Sandstrom, Alan R.   1991.  Corn Is Our Blood:  Culture and Ethnic Identity in

a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village.


Wisdom, Charles.  l94O.  The Chorti Indians of Guatemala.


Vogt, Evon Z.  l969.  Zinacantán


 Vogt, Evon Z.  1976.   Tortillas for the Gods. 






University of Texas Plant Resource Center


Guide to Botanical Resources on the Internet


Links to selected botanical websites


More links to selected botanical websites


Database of California flora, including excellent photos


Articles on Indigenous Knowledge




Online Botanical Index    glossary of botanical terms with links



Intellectual Property Rights:


For information regarding specific case of disputed intellectual property rights, see URLs below:

Dr. Brent Berlin's defense of Maya ICBG project in Chiapas.

Further defense of ICBG project: Code of Ethics

Announcement of Maya ICBG project cancellation






Bibliography (Mesoamerican Ethnobotany) 


Bibliography 2  (Ethnobotany)




Related Links





Course description