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ELDP Project Highlight: Totonac ethnobotanical knowledge

On the blog today, we’re featuring ELDP grantee David Beck’s project ‘Totonac ethnobotanical knowledge: Documentation traditional ecological knowledge across communities’. The project documents threatened traditional ecological knowledge in eight Totonac communities in the Sierra Norte of Puebla State, Mexico. By bringing together the expertise of native speaker linguists, historians and botanists, the collection documents indigenous uses of flora and documents eight different varieties of Totonac, some mutually intelligible with other varieties.

The languages included in this project belong to the Northern (Upper Necaxa, Zihuateutla, and Coahuitlán) and Sierra-Lowland (Cerro Xinolatépetl, Ecatlán) sub-groups.

xkú:la’ Southern Sunflower (poss. Tithonia tubaeformis). Flowers were used to decorate the torito during Carnaval.

Apart from David’s work on Upper Necaxa Totonac, the other Totonac languages in this project are entirely undocumented. All five Totonac languages are highly endangered and traditional ecological knowledge (including the nomenclature, classification, and use of local flora) is particularly threatened by a combination of language loss and significant changes in lifestyle and human-environment interactions.

xalakstín a’hasmá:lh or xasmatá’ha’ a’hasmá:lh White Mouth Dayflower, Slender Dayflower (Commelina erecta L.) or Climbing Dayflower, Spreading Dayflower (Commelina cf. diffusa Brum f.)

In June 2015, David’s project began the collection and determination of plant species listed in the Upper Necaxa Totonac Dictionary. He has now set up a website, representing 249 different botanical collections made in the Necaxa Valley. These are accompanied by ethnobotanical data provided by consultants, including Longino Barragán Sampayo (Ch.), Porfirio Sampayo Macín (Pt.), and Marcelo Mendoza Orega (Pt.). Photography is by fellow ELDP grantee and co-investigator Jonathan Amith and Jaime Canek Ledesma.

tzu’tzu’ni:’kí’wi’ tree (Calliandra sp.), used for firewood

David further explains, “All eight communities involved in the project have been very interested in the production of online and printed guides to local flora and fauna. There is uniform agreement that this important knowledge is being lost and is in dire need of documentation.

“We have botanical collections and linguistic data from eight Totonac communities, all but two of which have never been previously documented or described in the literature. These data will be immediately useful as part of comparative-reconstructive work and longer term will serve as unique records of typologically interesting but rapidly disappearing languages of Mesoamerica.”

tzu'lhnú:t species of Philodendron (Philodendron cf. inaequilaterum Liebm.)
tzu’lhnú:t species of Philodendron (Philodendron cf. inaequilaterum Liebm.)
xu'ku'na:ntzín Nance (Byrsonima crassifolia (L.)). The bark is chewed to strengthen gums and cure toothaches and the infusion from the boiled bark can be used to bathe wounds or sores in mouth.
xu’ku’na:ntzín Nance (Byrsonima crassifolia (L.)). The bark is chewed to strengthen gums and cure toothaches and the infusion from the boiled bark can be used to bathe wounds or sores in mouth.
tzujpí:n Bullhorn Acacia (Acacia cornigera), a type of tree with large spines that hosts a species of biting Ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea)

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