Language extinction triggers loss of unique medicinal knowledge

Language extinction

Indigenous and local people pass on their knowledge of medicinal plants orally. If their language goes extinct, valuable medical knowledge will be lost. A study by the University of Zurich estimates that 75 percent of the world’s medicinal plant applications are only known in one language.

This study assesses the degree to which indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants is linked to individual languages. Senior researcher Rodrigo Cámara-Leret and Jordi Bascompte, professor of ecology, analyzed 3'597 medicinal species and 12'495 medicinal applications associated with 236 indigenous languages in North America, northwest Amazonia and New Guinea. “We found that more than 75 percent of all medicinal plant services are linguistically-unique and therefore only known to one language,” Cámara-Leret points out.

To quantify how much of this linguistically-unique knowledge may vanish as languages or plants go extinct, the researchers turned to the Glottolog catalogue of the world’s languages and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to gain information on the threat to languages and medicinal plant species, respectively. They found that over 86 percent of all unique knowledge is communicated in only one threatened language in North America and Amazonia, and 31 percent of all unique knowledge in New Guinea. By contrast, less than 5 percent of medicinal plant species were threatened.

Reference publication
Rodrigo Cámara-Leret & Jordi Bascompte.
Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. June 8, 2021.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2103683118

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