Monroe Library Blog

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Trees, Herbs, Flowers, Birds, Beasts and Bugs in Oaxaca

I just finished reading "A Zapotec Natural History" by Eugene S. Hunn. The author is professor emeritus in anthropology at the U.W. I checked out this book because of my interest in indigenous peoples of Central America. The author writes about the inhabitants of a village in the highlands of the Mexican state of Oaxaca and their incredible knowledge of the local environment.
Dr. Hunn involved children as young as five in his research, paying them a small amount to collect and identify for him as many specimens of plants as they could bring him. Although this wasn't the focus of his research, Hunn was struck by the "precocious" knowledge village children possessed of the natural world surrounding the village. They could name flowers and plants, know their use (one shrub is used to counter the effects of the 'evil eye'. Another protects against witches.

The children acquire their knowledge innately through play, for example. A flower with sticky properties is used in a game. Pine cones become sheep in a corral.

Children are very familiar with their family kitchen gardens, where flowers, fruits and vegetables for medicinal, ritual, and food uses grow.

As I think about library programming for young children, the children of San Juan come to mind. The children are not taught about the natural world systematically through formal instruction.

Acquiring environmental knowledge is akin to learning a first language, Hunn says.

Can the Zapotec languages, culture, and environmental knowledge survive in a global society?

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