Published On: Tue, Nov 13th, 2018

How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?

Quinine (Scientific name: Cinchona) is a plant that has influenced the course of human history. Used for centuries by the indigenous people of the Andes as a cure for fevers, Cinchona became known to Jesuits stationed in Peru in the early seventeenth century. The “Jesuit powder” was subsequently introduced to Europe as a medicine against malaria and remained the only effective treatment well into the twentieth century. 

Due to its medicinal properties, Cinchona was a key focus of many Spanish botanical expeditions to South America, including those by Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón, and by José Celestino Mutis. Indeed, so desirable was quinine to the botany of empire that the Spanish forbade the export of Cinchona bark from their territories in 1778 upon pain of death. Yet a reliable supply of quinine remained of great economic and military significance to the British and the Dutch, who succeeded in obtaining seeds and seedlings from South America by stealth.

Britain prospected Peruvian bark trees and grew them in India, having first transplanted them to Kew, one of many botanical gardens that served as a center for medical and colonial botany. In fact, the success of British rule in India depended partly on the control of malaria through the establishment of local Cinchona plantations. In Jules Verne’s 1874 fantasy novel The Mysterious Island, the sulfate of quinine that miraculously saves the life of one of the main characters turns out to be a gift from the reclusive Captain Nemo. Yet far from being a pure gift, Cinchona, like so many other botanical discoveries, was both a cure for suffering and an instrument of power.

While the story of Cinchona is well known, having been studied by historians of botany, empire, science, medicine and art (including Lucile Brockway, J.R. McNeill and Londa Schiebinger), the stories and travels of many other plants remain to be told. To fill that gap, Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR are combining their scholarly and digital expertise to launch the Plant Humanities Initiative, an endeavor generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Our joint aim is to advance plant humanities, the interdisciplinary field that explores and communicates the unparalleled significance of plants to human culture. 

Plants have shaped human societies even before the establishment of agriculture by providing food, clothing, shelter, remedies and poisons. As the source of psychotropic substances, they have facilitated communion with the sacred in some societies, and bestowed on others the ravages of addiction. As the focus of ethnobotany and archaeobotany, plants yield invaluable insights into the past. In art, they have served as both an ornament and as an index of wealth, networks and values. In these interrelated ways, plants offer remarkable opportunities for interdisciplinary research. It is the goal of the Plant Humanities Initiative to foster this work through scholarly programming, the exploration of primary sources, and digital publication via a new scholarly research tool.

Today’s researchers working in plant humanities today do not have to face the snakes, sinkholes and diseases that plagued López, Pavón and Mutis in South America, but they still face considerable challenges related to collecting, organizing, analyzing and disseminating vast amounts of material. Plants have already inspired ambitious digitization projects, such as the Mellon-funded Global Plants, a project that digitized more than two million plant specimens through an extensive international network of partners, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which works to improve research methodology by collaboratively making biodiversity literature openly available. 

Yet the sheer volume of digital collections presents additional challenges. There is the question of how to connect the plant specimens, herbaria, print and manuscript publications, and botanical illustrations that they contain to each another and to secondary sources that interpret and contextualize them, a problem exacerbated by inconsistent and shifting language and metadata. 

There is the problem of how to make these resources engaging to both scholarly and public audiences, while making the data and resources that informed the scholarly argument available to all. Beyond the challenges posed by the wealth of the materials, there are also practical and institutional obstacles to interdisciplinary work: how to generate conversations across different disciplines yet with a common focus? 

Often, as Peter Crane has pointed out, interdisciplinarity comes naturally when you have something concrete (a plant, a place, a focus) that people can bring different perspectives to. The Plant Humanities Initiative will provide a physical home for these concrete conversations through an array of fellowships, summer programs, and teacher residencies at Dumbarton Oaks.

 It will also provide a sustained focus and a virtual home at JSTOR through the creation of a new digital tool that will be developed by JSTOR Labs. Whether it helps researchers study the expeditions of famed botanists and naturalists or explore plant specimens through a multidisciplinary lens, the tool will support compelling storytelling. 

Just as plants travel across continents, often with human beings following in their wake, so their impact on civilization crosses disciplinary boundaries. The Plant Humanities Initiative will foster interdisciplinary inquiry through the close collaboration of researchers with different skills: from working with rare primary sources to digital and technical expertise, from familiarity with the techniques of material and visual culture to knowledge of plants’ scientific properties. 

These teams will be intergenerational, bringing together undergraduate and graduate students with established professionals and faculty members. We hope that this model of interdisciplinary research will allow for rich new perspectives on how plants have shaped human societies.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Scientific American Content: Global

Leave a comment

How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?