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ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation of Nahuatl Knowledge of Natural History, Material Culture, and Ecology

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Jonathan Amith’s project ‘Documentation of Nahuatl Knowledge of Natural History, Material Culture, and Ecology‘. Jonathan’s collection with ELAR focuses on three interrelated domains of endangered cultural knowledge and linguistic expression: nomenclature, classification and use of plants in Nahuatl communities in the municipality of Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico; the creation of objects of daily use from regional flora, and traditional ecological knowledge. The Nahuat variety spoken in the municipality of Cuetzalan is called Sierra Puebla Nahuat or Zacapoaxtla Nahuat.

Today on the ELAR blog, Jonathan tells us something about the project’s highlights and shares some pictures of the stunning regional flora taken by local researchers. 

Fieldwork in Yoloxóchitl, Guerrero, Mexico. From left to right: Esteban Castillo García, Constantino Teodoro García, Jonathan D. Amith, Esteban Guadalupe Sierra Photo by: Gibrán Morales Carranza

The ELDP project has been responsible for the continuing development of ethnobiological studies in northern Puebla and elsewhere. Considering ELDP‘s funding along with that from other agencies, this set of studies has produced one of the most extensive regional floristic and ethnobotanical collections in Mexico, if not Latin America. As mentioned above it has significantly increased the inventory of state of Puebla flora and has collected quite a few species new to science. From an ethnobotanical perspective it has contributed to the documented nomenclature, classification, and use of plants in Nahuat(l) and Totonac communities.

Photo by Osbel López Francisco (a Totonac speaker from Zongozotla, Puebla)

The DEMCA (Documenting Ethnobiology in Mexico and Central America) portal that has been developed to facilitate discovery and annotation of the botanical and ethnobotanical data from this and related projects has attracted interest of other researchers, including many linguists, who have expressed interest in contributing material to this portal and in developing a similar portal for other regions.

Extract from the illustrated Cuetzalan field guide.
Extract from the illustrated Zongoztla field guide.

Local impact

  • Field guides:  Each community in which fieldwork was conducted will receive an illustrated field guide of local flora and ethnobotanical knowledge.
  • Training of speakers: I have worked with seven native speakers who have learned the methodology of botanical and ethnobotanical fieldwork including accurate recording of information relevant to the collections of physical specimens and the documentation of linguistic and cultural knowledge. In an effort to help communities document their local flora and floristic knowledge, I have taught native speaker botanists a technique for field photography that I have developed and acquired equipment that I have lent out when collections are programmed.
  • Advanced degrees: Two Indigenous project members have either completed or will be starting a master’s degree program. Another plans on doing so within a year or two.
Photo by Osbel López Francisco (a Totonac speaker from Zongozotla, Puebla)

Scientific Highlight

Among genetically unrelated languages loanwords and calques provide significant evidence for contact between linguistic communities. Among genetically related languages retention of lemmas in different branches of a previously unified language can contribute to our knowledge of cultural history (e.g., the ecosystems and hence possible locations of ancestral homelands) and the factors that may contribute to lexical stability (evidence by retention) or flexibilty (evidence by loss or local neologisms for biotaxa). Already this project has revealed significant borrowing from Totonac into Nahuat.

Photo by Miriam Jiménez Chimil (a daughter of Mixe speakers from San Juan Metaltepec)

Moreover, as this project advances into regional coverage of biosemantics in Sierra Nororiental de Puebla Nahuat a clearer picture of the characteristics of lexical stability and variation in this domain will be forthcoming. Though not directly related to linguistics, the expanded version of this project, support of which has benefited immensely from the initial funding provided by ELDP, utilizes DNA barcoding for the first time in ethnobotanical research. If successful this will have an transformational impact on how ethnobiological knowledge ‐ the nomenclature, classification and economic and symbolic use of plants and animals ‐ can be documented. It will be even more useful for expanded and comparative ethnobotanical work in central Mexico. Most interestingly we are using the transcribed corpus to develop automated speech recognition tools. Our first attempt was very positive with over 80% accuracy of some speakers.

Photo by Osbel López Francisco (a Totonac speaker from Zongozotla, Puebla)

Thanks, Jonathan!

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