Tag Archives: ethnobiology

The yam question

My thanks to those brave few people who actually answered the yam survey. (For those who had no idea there was such a thing, please consult http://bit.ly/en05b4 and answer the questions!) I did promise Felice Wyndham I’d post the results, so here’s what I uncovered.

The whole haggis hunt was set off by the need to prepare a Māgh Saṃkrānti feast at our house in Aberdeen. That’s one of the only solar, as opposed to lunisolar, feasts in the Newar ritual calendar, and among other things one should eat ही [](in Newari) or तरुल [tarul](in Nepali)—that is, Dioscorea root. Bhāwanā and I had a long conversation about exactly what plant was involved, and what other tubers might be confused with it.

Particularly confusing to me was the listing in several Newari dictionaries of a term चकु ही [caku hī]—that is, a sweet Dioscorea—referring to Ipomea batatas. Neither Bhāwanā nor her father had ever heard that term (even though it was listed in Sugat Das Tulādhar’s little dictionary from the 1950’s) and both were sure that Ipomea was the wrong food. Strangely, K Shrestha’s Dictionary of Nepalese Plant Names didn’t give any Newari word for Dioscorea or Ipomea, though to be frank, it’s not much good for Newari language terms. It made formal sense that in Newari, Dioscorea was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas thus became a ‘sweet Dioscorea’, while in North America, Solanum tuberosum was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas was thus a ‘sweet Solanum tuberosum’ — except that it was only dictionaries, and not real people, who actually had the term. When we talked about Ipomea batatas with the Nepal family, everyone used the Nepali word शकर खण्ड [śakar khaṇḍ] and my suspicion is that चकु ही is a hyper-Newari back formation associated with the Newar language movement, much like च्वसा [cvasā] for pen instead of the ‘Nepali’ कलम [kalam](actually from the Persian قلم (ghalam), so predating the much-resented Gorkha conquest).

Being a Californian, to me Ipomea batatas was either a ‘sweet potato’ or a ‘yam’ – I had no English word to refer to Dioscorea spp. tubers. English language dictionaries confirmed this: although ‘yam’ should refer to Dioscorea tubers or plants, for North Americans, ‘yam’ was an orange-fleshed Ipomea batatas and a ‘sweet potato’ was one with white flesh. That was news to me: I had never encountered either with anything other than orange flesh. Since we’re reading Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s The Yearling at night just now, I’m hoping among its other intricate descriptions of animals and crops she’ll let slip a hint of whether the Baxter grew and ate white or orange Ipomea…but I’m getting distracted here.

I trundled down to our local Asian shop on King St., by a little bit worried that I would get the wrong thing.

When I got there, this is what I saw (with apologies for quick iPhone shots and messy stitching):

kingstshoptuberphoto-2011-02-18-10-382.jpg

From left to right, what you are seeing are the roots of
Ipomea batatas, Manihot esculenta, Dioscorea spp., and Colocasia esculenta.

Of course, I had no idea what word they would use to refer to ही so I just pointed, and that’s when it got interesting. Given that the staff at City Spice, who are a mix of Scots, Bangladeshi and sometimes also Nepali, need to sell this range of tubers in English (or Scots) to folk from Scotland, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, they have unambiguous words for each. For them, what you have here are:
Sweet potato, cassava, yam, and taro.

The shopkeeper confirmed that a significant number of customers used the word ‘yam’ to refer to Ipomea batatas and he thought they were mostly North American.

I bought my ‘yam’, after a long conversation about names for these, trotted home, and wrote the survey. It seemed to me that migration and changing foodways might well be driving a change in how people distinguished these roots. It made sense that the proprietors of shops that sourced and sold foods to a wide range of migrant populations would need to have clear distinctions, but would that also apply in urban centres elsewhere as global cuisines began to spread? I assumed that the sorts of people who would answer the survey—because I publicized it through my own social networks—would be unusually mobile, highly educated, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and have a wide exposure to different foods. Would there be a clear consensus?

Nah.

To begin with, I had only 9 responses. To those of you that saw my pleas to do the survey and moved on, well, fine. I guess I shall simply have to write more appealing surveys. I was able to follow up with a handful of those responses. Here’s a brief summary:

1. One respondent had never encountered ‘yam’ at all, whether as food or as commodity, and before the survey had suspected it was a fruit.
2. Three of the respondents distinguished between ‘yam’ and Ipomea batatas; two identified it as Dioscorea, and one was sure that it was not a ‘sweet potato’.
3. Two respondents said that ‘yam’ was a sweet potato or a variety of sweet potato.
4. While I had hoped to pick up further distinctions through asking ‘What other tubers are like yams’, this didn’t work the way I had expected. Seven respondents, including some who said yams were sweet potatoes, listed sweet potatoes among tubers like yams. One person used this answer to record their confusion as to whether a yam was a sweet potato; another used the ‘when you last ate a yam’ question to do the same.
5. Three respondents distinguished yams by country of origin, and two also by similarity to some other tuber. Responses included (a) ‘Old World version of American sweet potato’; (b) ‘South American tuber’; (c) ‘potato-like tuber of African origin’.
6. Almost everyone saw their yams in supermarkets. One person saw theirs in a CSA delivery box.

7.Three respondents had cooked their own; two of these identified it as Dioscorea and one as Ipomea batatas and all were confident of their answers.

8. Of the remaining six respondents, four had been fed by a relative or friend and were less sure of their answers. One had eaten it in an Indian restaurant, and was sure it was not a sweet potato.

Just from this, it is clear that among the respondents there is still a division in the use of the term between kind-of-Ipomea and Dioscorea. Three answers were markedly confident, but for the rest, just asking these questions exposes respondents to considerable doubt as to their answers.

In one response where I was able to ask further questions, it became clear that the respondent had learned what a ‘yam’ was through playing Farmville, on Facebook—and thus although they were not from North America, had internalised ‘yam’ as a kind-of-Ipomea through virtual agriculture (!).

Without a much larger response pool and a more carefully crafted survey, not much can be done; but I suspect as a result of this exercise that there are two trends at work. One is, as I suggested above, the movement of foodways through migration and globalisation. The other—which I didn’t expect—is the possibility for unfamiliar terms to acquire a firmly held definition through internet or mass media socialisation wholly divorced from the actual crop or food item.

However, if anyone does care to pick this project up, I propose that seeking changes in just the English terminology would be comparatively unrevealing. Given that the hard work of constructing immigrant foodways often happens in retail transactions at ‘Asian shops’ (where I often meet as many African cooks as I do South or East Asian) it would make sense to look for changes in several languages where those languages are the lingua franca of shopkeeper or hotelier networks, such as Cantonese, Punjabi, Bengali, or Spanish. In each of these communities there will have to be adjustments to a wider inventory of food types as well as a complex clientele; will they move in parallel within each major urban region?

(With thanks to those of you who responded, and thanks to the kind staff at City Spice Shop.)

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Cameroons bushmeat in the news

Bushmeat in Africa is a hot topic right now, less so in South and Southeast Asia. No one so far has written clear theory for the study of bushmeat – as with many such crises, it’s the conservation folks and the journalists who are making the running. We anthropologists are only just waking up on this one.

Here’s the BBC article that links through to an excellent documentary on eating bushmeat in Cameroon. I have to admit to serious discomfort, not just at the endless pictures of dead monkeys for sale, but at Stefan Gates’ apparent indifference to the practice – he really is there in part to decide whether or not porcupine or civet cat are tasty, though he does take a stand when it comes to primates.

We need to think about bushmeat clearly: the young restauranteuse cheerfully declaring that the chimpanzees and gorillas will never go extinct is not so surprising in itself; nor is the fact that the same police who raid the bushmeat stalls will cheerfully tuck in to bushmeat stew. Yet there has been a Cameroons public education campaign that all the hunters, vendors, cooks and eaters have obviously heard—and in that context, the insistence that ‘no matter how much we eat, I know it can never disappear’ seems to be more of a claim about the bush itself than an educated claim about population sustainability. Bowen-Jones, Brown and Robinson used commodity-chain analysis in a 2003 article, which established the socioeconomic complexity of the problem; but there’s been almost nothing on the anthropology of bushmeat—and without this, seemingly incomprehensible claims of the inexhaustibility of bushmeat will remain incomprehensible.

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Ethnobiology Conference, Berkeley

That was the most interesting conference I have ever attended. After several years of reading through articles, doing interviews, tentatively teaching: this the reward. Good people. Interesting data. Good arguments. Wow.

Perhaps the most striking thing was the huge range of methodologicial maturity. There were presentations that sounded like exotic tour offers, flashy but also extremely patronizing. The well-meaning liberals and the developing-world bioprospectors were both in evidence. But—some of the papers I heard there did combine theoretical sophistication with rigorous research methods. Key notions that resurfaced over and over were:
• multi-sited research
• migration
• hybridity
• the clear use of statistics
• historical depth
• the importance of shifting from ethnobotany to ethnoecology (that includes critters)
• the importance of literate or non-literate canons as determiners of conceptual inventory
• the economics and trade routes that connect collectors to markets and migrants to their home ecosystem.

I missed the Thursday night session on collaborations with indigenous communities, which would have been good, and a Friday afternoon session on ethno-ornithology, including a whole paper by Gregory Forth on bat classifcation. There was a jarring note from one contributor at the final paper, an overtly racist comment, that in being so jarring made clear how harmonious most of the proceedings were.

Important papers for me were those of

Tom Carlson on clinical practice that was not afraid of listening to the ethnomedicines of the clients
Jennifer Sowerwine on multi-sited studies of Iu Mien in California
Elda Miriam Aldasoro Maya, again a multi-sited study of Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) immigrants in Oaxaca and Hillsboro, Oregon
Ranier Bussman who delivered a double whammy with real historical depth on comparative studies across the Ecuador/Peru border
Gary Martin on marketplace studies in Marrakesh, work which I shamelessly have to borrow in order to pursue my own research in the Kathmandu marketplaces.

Next year’s conference is in the Arkansas Ozarks.