Search: Mesoamerican Ethnnobotany

Welcome to the Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical Database

The Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical database is a collaborative ethnobotanical and archaeobotanical project between The Searle Herbarium of the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) and the Department of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). Archaeologists, botanists, ethnobotanists, and interested laypeople often recover parts of flowers, seeds, and fruits in their research. As Miller (2011:9-10) noted, the largest obstacle to advancing archaobotanical research in Central America is the lack of “resources aiding identification (on-line and published reference material and databases).” This website was created to address this situation.

Excavation site

This website is a work in progress, and we are working toward completion during 2014. We are grateful for the support given to our project by the National Science Foundation Archaeology—Senior Research Program (BCS-1321469), FMNH, and NEIU. Please send comments, identified errors, and suggestions for improving this resource to jhageman@neiu.edu.

How to Cite this Database: "Hageman, Jon B., David J. Goldstein, Kelsey O. Nordine, Christine Niezgoda, and Joanna McCaffrey 2014 The Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical Database. Electronic Document, http://emuweb.fieldmuseum.org/botany/search_mesoamerican.php, accessed MM/DD/YYYY. "

What is in the Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical Database?

In the non-industrialized world, relationships between social groups were (and in some cases, continue to be) based not on money, but instead often on the consumption of symbolically charged food items. We believe that asymmetric power relations are decipherable by the presence of particular plant remains in specific archaeological contexts. Additionally, archaeobotanical samples help us to describe the local paleoecology and reconstruct the cultural landscape of cultivated, tolerated, and wild plants. With this catalog we rely upon one of the most comprehensive Neotropical herbaria, the Searle Herbarium, to establish a baseline morphological reference resource to identify archaeobotanical remains recovered by archaeologists working in the Neotropical lowlands of the Maya area.

Over 1600 plant species with human utility have been identified and documented in the Central American ethnobotanical literature (see References Cited, below). Of these, about 250 are represented in existing published sources (e.g., Lentz and Dickau 2005). The remaining species comprised our list of species to include in this database.

We pulled voucher specimens (plant samples mounted on 11x17 sheets of paper) from the Searle Herbarium originally collected in both dry and rainy seasons (where possible), in addition to accounting for notable variation in morphology, color, maturity, etc., and digitized them to curatorial standards using FMNH equipment. In practice we have 1-4 examples of each species in an effort to characterize this seasonal and developmental variation, as we do not know which parts of many of these plants were used in antiquity and in what season they were collected or harvested. Where possible, we also created high-resolution (1200 dpi) digital closeup scans of woody plant parts and reproductive organs —parts often used by people. In addition, we took digital photographs (minimum 5 MP resolution) of seeds (when available) using incident light microscopes on a 1 mm grid. The Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical Database currently contains 2158 vouchers representing 140 plant families. The most highly represented families are (in descending order): Fabaceae, Asteraceae, Rubiaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Verbenaceae, and Poaceae.

As our resource is based on where botanists collected their samples, the vouchers represented in our work come from both highland and lowland contexts. Most vouchers were originally collected in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Some species were also obtained from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. A handful of species are represented by vouchers from South America.

The inclusion of common names and uses from a variety of published sources may help enhance ethnobotanical research in Central America. Common names may help identify plant names in the epigraphic record, and uses of plants form particular archaeological contexts may stimulate the creation of new archaeobotanical research agendas in the region, such as paleoethnomedicine or archaeoaesthetics. “Medicine” and “ornamental” are two common uses for plants among ethnographically known populations, but are not widely addressed in the archaeological literature.

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References Cited

Note that, for common names and uses, direct citations have the author’s name, publication date, and page number in parentheses, while such a reference that cites another work has that work represented in brackets. All references, whether directly consulted by us or cited by another author, are below. “BADEPY” refers to the Banco de datos Etnobotánicos de la Peninsula de Yucatán, cited by Arellano et al. (2003), and located in the herbarium of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán.
  1. Anderson, Eugene F., José Cauich Canul, Arora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, Pastor Valdez Chale 2003 Those Who Bring the Flowers: Maya Ethnobotany in Quintana Roo, Mexico. ECOSUR, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
  2. Andrews, Dorothy Heath de Zapata 1979 El libro del judío, o: Medicina doméstica: descripción de los nombres de las yerbas de Yucatán y las enfermedades a que se aplican. Mérida, Yucatán, México.
  3. Ankli, Anita, Michael Heinrich, Peter Bork, Lutz Wolfram, Peter Bauerfeind, Reto Brun, Cecile Schmid, Claudia Weiss, Regina Bruggisser, Jurg Gertsch, Michael Wasecha, and Otto Sticher 2002 Yucatec Mayan Medicinal Plants: Evaluation Based on Indigenous Uses. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 79:43-52.
  4. Ankli, Anita, Otto Sticher, and Michael Heinrich 1999 Medical Ethnobotany of the Yucatec Maya: Healers’ Consensus as a Quantitative Criterion. Economic Botany 53:144-160.
  5. Anonymous 1949 Plantas medicinales de Yucatan. Unedited manuscript. Mérida, Yucatán, México.
  6. Arellano Rodriguez, J. A., J. S. Flores Guido, J. Tun Garrido, and M.M. Cruz Bojorquez 2003 Etnoflora Yucatanense: Nomenclatura, forma de vida, uso, manejo y distribución de las especies vegetales de la Península de Yucatán. Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Facultad de Medicina, Veterinaria, y Zootecnia, Fascículo 20. Mérida, Yucatán, México.
  7. Arvigo, Rosita, and Balick, Michael J. 1988 Rainforest Remedies: One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize. Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.
  8. Atran, Scott 1993 Itza Maya Tropical Agro-forestry. Current Anthropology 3:633-700.
  9. Balick, Michael J., Michael H. Nee, and Daniel E. Atha 2000 Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize, With Common Names and Uses. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden Vol. 85, The New York Botanical Garden Press, New York.
  10. Barrera Marin, A., A. Barrera Vasquez, y R.M. Lopez Franco 1976 Nomenclatura etnobotanica maya: Una interpretacion taxonomica. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Coleccion cientifica No. 36. México City, México.
  11. Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven 1974 Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification: An Introduction to the Botanical Ethnography of a Mayan-speaking People of Highland Chiapas. Academic Press, New York.
  12. Breedlove, Dennis E. and Robert M. Laughlin 2000 The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantan. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
  13. Comerford, Simon C. 1996 Medicinal Plants of Two Mayan Healers from San Andres, Peten, Guatemala. Economic Botany 50:327-336.
  14. Del Amo Rodriguez, S. 1979 Plantas medicinales del estado de Veracruz. lnstituto Nacional de lnvestigaciones de Recursos Bióticos, Xalapa, Veracruz.
  15. Duke, James A. 2009 Duke's Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
  16. Kunow, Marianna A. 2003 Maya Medicine: Traditional Healing in Yucatan. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
  17. Lentz, David L., and Ruth Dickau 2005 Seeds of Central America and Southern Mexico: The Economic Species. Memoir of the New York Botanical Garden No. 91, New York, New York.
  18. Martinez, Maximino 1969 Plantas medicinales de México, 5th ed. Ediciones Botas, México, D.F.
  19. 1979 Catálogo de nombres vulgares y científicos de plantas mexicanas. Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, D.F.
  20. Mendieta, Rosa Maria, and Silvia del Amo R. 1981 Plantas medicinales del estado de Yucatán. Compañía Editorial Continental-INIREB, México, D.F.
  21. Miller, Naomi F. 2011 Archaeobotanical Methodology: Results of an Archaeobotany Questionnaire. The SAA Archaeological Record 11(4):8-10.
  22. Morehart, Christopher, David Lentz and Keith Prufer 2005 Wood of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Pine (Pinus spp.) by the Ancient Lowland Maya. Latin American Antiquity 16:255-274.
  23. Morton, Julia F. 1981 Atlas of Medicinal Plants of Middle America, Bahamas to Yucatan. Charles C. Thomas Company, Springfield, Illinois, USA.
  24. Osado, Ricardo 1934 El libro del judío o medicina doméstica: Descripción de las virtudes de las yerbas medicinales de Yucatán. Facsimile edition, Mérida, Yucatán, México.
  25. Rico-Gray, V., A. Chemas and S. Mandujano 1991 Uses of Tropical Deciduous Forest Species by the Yucatecan Maya. Agroforestry Systems 14:149-161.
  26. Rico-Gray, Victor, and Jose G. Garcia-Franco 1991 The Maya and the Vegetation of the Yucatan Peninsula. Journal of Ethnobiology 11:135-142.
  27. Roys, Ralph L. 1931 The Ethno-botany of the Maya. Middle American Research Series, Publication 2. Tulane University, New Orleans.
  28. Souza, Novelo N. 1942 Plantas medicinales. Unedited manuscript.
  29. Standley, Paul C. 1930 Flora of Yucatan. Botanical Series Vol. 3 (3): 57-492. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
  30. Standley, Paul C., and Julian A. Steyermark 1958 Flora of Guatemala. Fieldiana, Bot. 24(1):1-478.
  31. Williams, Louis O. 1981 The Useful Plants of Central America. Ceiba 24(1-2):1-342.
  32. Wisdom, Charles 1940 The Chorti Indians of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.


Michael Trojan and Will Graham scanned voucher specimens and photographed seeds during the summer of 2010. Daniel Le photographed several vouchers, seeds, and fruits too large to fit in the Herbscan equipment, and was of invaluable help with the database preparation.

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