Story at a glance

  • Indigenous languages are endangered in many parts of the world.
  • A study looks at the connections between Indigenous languages and medicinal plant species.
  • More than 75 percent of medicinal plants were linguistically unique, meaning they were known in only one language.

Indigenous knowledge is lost when it is not nurtured and cared for. What’s more, Indigenous languages are in unique positions when it comes to holding onto that knowledge. Experts are concerned about Indigenous languages going extinct as well as the knowledge associated with it.

In a paper published in PNAS, a group of researchers from the University of Zurich compiled databases of medicinal plant species associated with individual Indigenous groups from three regions: North America, northwest Amazonia and New Guinea. They classified by types of use and then analyzed the related Indigenous languages.

“We found that more than 75 percent of all medicinal plant services are linguistically-unique and therefore only known to one language,” said senior researcher Rodrigo Cámara-Leret at the University of Zurich in a press release.

The researchers also found that threatened languages support more than 86 percent of all unique knowledge in North America and Amazonia. In New Guinea, threatened languages support about 31 percent of all unique knowledge, although the country lacks an island-wide linguistic survey, according to the authors.

Indigenous languages are dying out. A study in Papua New Guinea found that 58 percent of more than 6,000 students, compared to 91 percent of their parents, were fluent in Indigenous languages.


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The findings from this study suggest that there’s a lot to learn from Indigenous communities.

“Our finding of high uniqueness in indigenous knowledge and strong coupling with threatened languages suggests that language loss will be even more critical to the extinction of medicinal knowledge than biodiversity loss,” the researchers said.

The coming decade from 2022 to 2032 has been declared the International Decade of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations.

“Keeping our languages alive is the work of generations…,” said Aili Keskitalo, co-chair of the steering committee, to Language Magazine. “Our languages are like sinews that tie us to our heritage and our ancestors; they might tear, but can be mended, with care, with love, and with lots of hard work.”

For experts concerned about the loss of medicinal knowledge, it will take more work to help combat that loss.

“The next steps, in line with the vision of the UN, will require mobilizing resources for the preservation, revitalization and promotion of these threatened languages,” said Jordi Bascompte, who also worked on the study and is a professor of ecology at the University of Zurich, in the press release.


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Published on Jun 12, 2021