Our planet is home to an astonishing diversity of plants—close to 400,000 species. Over the millennia, indigenous communities around the world have been studying those plants, experimenting with them, using them as a sort of free-growing pharmacy. Certain species, prepared in certain ways, might be used for digestive ailments; others for the skin, teeth, or liver. But this vast trove of medicinal knowledge is now under threat. Under two threats, really—we’re losing plant species and we’re losing indigenous languages and cultures.
My guests this week are Dr. Rodrigo Camara-Leret and Dr. Jordi Bascompte, both of the University of Zurich’s Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies. Rodrigo is a Senior Researcher there, and Jordi is a Full Professor. We discuss their remarkable recent paper titled ‘Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge‘, published this past summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In the paper, Rodrigo and Jordi analyzed data from three hotspots of biocultural diversity—New Guinea, the Northwest Amazon, and North America. They were trying to better understand the nature of indigenous medicinal knowledge, the threats it is facing, and how we might best protect it.
This is one of those papers that immediately grabbed me. It’s deeply, unclassifiably interdisciplinary; it takes on an urgent question with a clever approach; and it tells us something we genuinely didn’t already know. As I already said, our global stores of ethnobotanical knowledge are under threat—and from different directions. What Jordi & Rodrigo’s work shows is that, in order to protect that knowledge, we need to focus on protecting indigenous languages.
Before we get to it, just wanted to mention that, as it happens, Jordi was just very recently awarded the prestigious Ramon Margalef prize for his groundbreaking contributions to the field of ecology. So it was an extra special honor to have him on this episode.
Alright friends—on to my conversation with Dr. Rodrigo Cámara-Leret and Dr. Jordi Bascompte. Enjoy!