How we define ethnoscience in relation to “science” and the “history of science,” the extent to which it is a conceptual “other,” and the way knowledge moves between them, depends on our starting point. Ethnoscience is configured differently depending on context: sometimes a linguistically-rooted methodology (usually in anthropology), sometimes referencing any traditional or Indigenous knowledge that approximately matches the conventional branches of science. Here I examine plant identification in the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch naturalist Rumphius living in Ambon, comparing it to the practices of Indigenous Nuaulu people in modern Indonesia. When seeking to identify plants in our ordinary lives or as professionals, what we mean by “identification” is not the same. Differences between people in the production of identifications arise from the way material presents itself in varying socio-cultural situations, and the reasons why identifications are sought. But to begin with I shall illustrate the interplay between seventeenth-century European beliefs, emerging scientific method, and Rumphius’s appraisal of Ambonese natural history knowledge.

Plant Worlds in Seventeenth-Century Europe and Ambon

Georgius Rumphius (1627–1702) joined the Dutch East India Company in 1651, along the way acquiring some familiarity with Dutch “Protestant science.” He arrived in Ambon, the center of the spice trade, in 1654, where he remained for the rest of his life. As a merchant he took an interest in local flora. He also found a partner in Susanna, probably a mixed-race Ambonese woman who bore him three children. This fact is significant not only because it tells us much about racialized gender relations in the Indies, than because it indicates an unusual cross-cultural intimacy in the production of new plant knowledge. After a series of personal disasters, including blindness, he completed his Herbarium Amboinense. His posthumous publications came to the attention of Linnaeus in Leiden, who adopted many of his plant descriptions (see Rumphius 1741–1750 (2011); Beekman 2011; Baas and Veldkamp 2013; Yoo 2018; Snelders 1995). The titles of each “book” in Rumphius’s Herbal are a mixture of utilitarian categories, groupings referencing morphology, and ad hoc residues. The order makes sense when seen as a journey from the south shore of Ambon through forests and mountains to the north shore. There is no standard order within each book, but groups of chapters begin by describing a representative type, followed by chapters devoted to individual Rumphian taxa. Rumphius described each plant in relation to that proceeding it, using the same template: a preamble (including characteristics), followed by names, places found, and uses.

We can compare Rumphius’s scheme with the hierarchical model of folk classification introduced by Brent Berlin (Berlin, Breedlove and Raven 1974), using concepts of over- and under-differentiation to measure correspondence with scientific taxa. Rumphius had a notion of “species” or “basic category” but understood the biological relationship between taxa differently. Berlin’s approach is partly post-Darwinian hindsight: we are drawn to a semblance of phylogenesis in a folk classification being accustomed to the idea of descent with modification. For Rumphius this cannot be assumed. Rather, the logical “kind-of” relation was often the same as “similar-to.” There is evidence of taxonomic hierarchy, but he does not necessarily invoke inclusion of lesser categories into larger. He is more “agglomerative,” emphasizing greater or lesser proximity. We might envisage cross-cutting schemes along two axes: one approximating what we today think of as phylogeny, and one stressing other major morphological features. For example, he does not treat Ficus (the fig genus) as a single unit, though he sees some resemblance in the grouping of species. Instead, he appropriates Ambonese categories to model the groups of species at the lower level, while a division between trees, shrubs, and vines prevails at the highest levels, overriding genetic similarity (Peeters 1979).

Rumphius’s botanical ontology must be judged by the diverse influences upon it. He was a scholar, and in organizing his Herbal was influenced by Pliny the Elder, seventeenth-century ideas about “natural history,” and the notion that nature is planned to benefit humanity. But he was not only a post-Reformation thinker. His early life was steeped in European beliefs that we would nowadays regard as unscientific. These are reflected in his later writings. For example, he incorporated a homunculus in the nymphs of the crustacean Irona renardi (Ellen 2004), observed that overhanging mangrove leaves of Sonneratia caseolaris became fish on touching water (Rumphius 1741–1750 (2011)), and accepted the spontaneous generation of life.

Rumphius’s botany has been hitherto assessed using the framework of globalized post-Linnaean taxonomy. Indeed, Rumphius and Linnaeus make an interesting comparison, their lives and work falling around the transition between what Foucault called the natural history and biology epistemes, where traditional or scholastic knowledge became recognizably science. Both sought to confer legitimacy to their writing by deferring to Indigenousness and by appealing to the wisdom of local peoples (Foucault 1970; on the authority of Indigenous peoples see Cooper 2007). Linnaeus self-consciously revered Saami traditions, while a feature of Rumphius’s work is his trust in local knowledge authenticated through an intimate familiarity with both language and ethnography. At a time when Moluccan spice gardens were being extirpated and violence perpetrated against their owners, Rumphius frequently claimed that Ambonese know more of nature than his detractors in the East India Company. Much of his data were collected first-hand, while his descriptions systematically interweave Indigenous knowledge with his own European interpretations and experience.

Rumphian ideas among the Nuaulu

Rumphius was therefore a precursor of Linneaus, sheds light on the ethnobotany of seventeenth-century Ambon, and is also an illuminating subject for the study of European natural history at a crucial moment in its transition. His observations have impacted my own work as an anthropologist and ethnobiologist studying the classifying behavior of Nuaulu, a people of central Seram (Ellen 2020). Rumphius knew of Nuaulu, mentioning them in his history of Ambon. He traveled to West Seram, but probably not into the hills where Nuaulu were living at that time. To illustrate how Rumphius’s observations have helped me disentangle some ethnobotanical puzzles, I take the example of gender in plant nomenclature.

The terms hanaie (male) and pina (female) appear in about 40 of 597 Nuaulu plant binomials (7 percent). One might think these refer to male and female plants of dioecious species, but this is unclear. Dioecious species are infrequent in the coastal tropics, perhaps constituting 14 percent. Of the more obvious dioecious species, none reported for Nuaulu display names suggesting this. One genus divided using gender terms is Clerodendrum. Unuhutu hanaie is Clerodendrum rumphianum (with a spike-like inflorescence), while unuhutu pina is usually Clerodendrum speciosissi-mum (similar leaves to rumphianum but a shorter more open inflorescence). Neither is technically bisexual but avoids self-pollination by staggering the maturation of male and female reproductive parts. 

Things become complicated where species are optionally dioecious (male and female flowers on different plants) and monoecious (all plants bisexual), where several types of female plant are distinguished as separate kinds. This is so with the kenari nut iane (Canarium indicum), where iane hanaie is distinguished from iane hanate (larger fruit) and iane mkauke (smaller fruit). Other Canarium are either monoecious or carry both male and female flowers (Ellen 2019). Terms are rarely used by Nuaulu to specifically indicate sex types, but serve to differentiate paired species, varieties of the same species, species of the same genus, or even genera in different families. This mirrors a wider occurrence of male-female opposition in Austronesian languages, found also in Rumphius’s Herbal. He sometimes used terms to reference same species sex morphotypes, but did not recognise the male as having a role in fertilizing female flowers. The sexuality of plants was a matter for speculation in Europe while Rumphius was writing, but the issue was quite unsettled (Taiz 2017).

Communities of Practice Across Time

The term “community of practice” derives from the situated learning theory of Lave and Wenger, emphasizing identification as a socially-shared, processual, and practical task, contextually embedded and embodied (Lave 1991). It marks doing rather than thinking, outcomes achieved through everyday activity rather than abstract theorizing, where “everyday” ranges between the practices of formally-trained professionals and of Indigenous people with skills undivided by occupation. But how do Rumphius’s working practices compare to modern taxonomy or Nuaulu ethnobotany? In what community of practice was he a member or participant? He was connected with the world of Western scholarship, but interacted everyday with Ambonese and had a different vision of plant relatedness. This necessitated intra-cultural and cross-cultural translation in hybrid spaces, where different assumptions and practices met and overlapped, evoking “partial overlaps” (see Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).

Taxonomists theoretically start with a post-Linnaean model, procedurally working down a hierarchy from family to sub-species. They employ tested lexical distinctions to ensure plants are described in the same way, have articulated concepts of level, and have words defining these. Botanists share a domain of knowledge excluding many uncertainties and variables important to others identifying plants—such as use—only employing non-taxonomic distinctions at the initial stages of a decision tree to achieve effective “keying-out” (Dupré 1993). Naturalists have sought to deliberately discard “artificial” and “practical” classifications and replace them with forms dependent on logic internal to the theory of science, whether Linnaean primacy of sexual organs or Darwinian models of common ancestry. Classification as against identification is more distinct in scientific taxonomy, making identification more efficient by grouping associated characters and reducing the steps in a sequence. 

Nuaulu identification of plants is multi-sensorial, in that touch, smell, and taste are as important as visual clues (Ellen 2020). Among professional botanists, the sense that underpins taxonomic practice is primarily visual. An obvious difference between Nuaulu identifiers of plants and contemporary taxonomists is that the former do not write  descriptions to which they can refer, or create images of diagnostic characteristics. Writing, text, and the physical medium on which text is inscribed had massive impacts on conceptualizing and executing acts of identification. Something as definite as “a classification” could hardly exist before it was written down. For Jack Goody, the impulses to classify that accompany literacy encourage “over-systematisation,” overwhelming “reasonable human purposes” (Goody 1982). Science has extracted individual plants from their contexts and re-thought them through abstract features, aided by the globalization of knowledge, and the facility to store specimens and descriptions. Once inscribed, plant names become discrete “things,” and where improvised, likely to become accepted once archived, even when not shared widely (Goody 1977; Ellen 1979). In Rumphius’s Herbal, because each plant is described through a template in relation to that proceeding it, an “order” is possible but rarely achievable where knowledge is orally transmitted. Nuaulu operate as if names were stable, but in effect, the relationship between name and plant is only as good as the last identification, and its frequency of application.

Though writing simplifies sensory reality and perpetuates mistakes, by permitting an “archival” tradition it allows systematic comparison through lists, tables, and lexically-annotated diagrams (Olson 1994). Rumphius drew pictures or had pictures drawn, and by the time of Linnaeus, it was accepted that natural history demanded “arrangement and designation” (Olson 1994, 226). Even modern ethnobiological accounts retrofit the operations of folk classification within the conventions of the written mode, often distorting the significance of notions of hierarchy and level, diminishing category overlap, suppressing dimensionality, and generally constraining the fluidity otherwise enjoyed by orality. 

In Nuaulu plant identification there is built-in flexibility enabled by the absence of one ultimate physical reference specimen or tight permanent descriptions that must be matched to achieve accuracy. For both Nuaulu and professional taxonomists, plant identification involves constant revision, partly because the boundaries of taxa change depending on the criteria selected. The scientific taxonomist faces the same practical and cognitive problems as the Indigenous expert, but whereas modern taxonomists are generally specialists, Nuaulu and Rumphius are generalists. Whereas professional taxonomists always refer to earlier physical specimens and descriptions, Nuaulu identification is fluid, informed by memories established from experience, confirmed or revised with the benefit of other people’s shared experiences. Rumphius too identified plants with reference to general abstractions incorporated into his written descriptions and likely in illustrated notes never preserved (Ellen 2020, 155-59).

Rumphius provides a bridge between several worlds. His work illuminates how the history of biological theory between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries intertwined with ethnobiology as we construe it today. Existing local knowledge systems made the conditions for science possible. In moving from Rumphius to late Linnaeus (and after), European botany rode “a wave of objectification” by which specimens were wiped clean of cultural complexities in order to be “pasted neatly into folios of European herbaria…and classificatory systems” (in Schiebinger and Swan 2005, 7). A focus on the practice of identification sheds light on issues surrounding the integration of heterogeneous knowledge systems. What early ethnoscience ignored with its strict focus on linguistics was the way bodily practice and skill influence how we secure something as mundane as identification (Conklin 1962; see also Ellen 2018). Identification and classification operate in all empirical knowledge systems as distinct processes. Yet in the case of scientific literacy, the two conflate, classification effectively overwhelming identification.

*Read another work in this series here.*

Works Cited

Baas, P. and J.F. Veldkamp. 2013. “Dutch pre-colonial botany and Rumphius’s Ambonese Herbal.” Allertonia, 13: 9–19.

Beekman, E.M. 2011. “Introduction.” G.E. Rumphius. (1741–1750) 2011. The Ambonese Herbal, Volume 1 (translated by E. M. Beekman_. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, vol. 1, 1–169.

Berlin, B., D.E. Breedlove and P.H. Raven (1974). Principles of Tzeltal plant classification: an introduction to the botanical ethnography of a Mayan-speaking people of highland Chiapas. New York: Academic Press.

Conklin, H.C. 1962. “Lexicographical treatment of folk taxonomies.” International Journal of American Linguistics 28: 119–41.

Cooper, A. 2007. Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dupré, J. 1993. The Disorder of Things. Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.

Ellen, R. 1979. Introductory essay. In Classifications in Their Social Context, edited by R. F. Ellen and D. Reason. London: Academic Press, 1–32.

———. 2004. “From ethno-science to science, or ‘What the indigenous knowledge debate tells us about how scientists define their project.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 4(3–4): 409–50.

———. 2018. “Ethnoscience.” In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. Callan, v4: 2086–87. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

———. 2019. “Ritual, landscapes of exchange, and the domestication of Canarium: a Seram case study.” Asian Perspectives 58 (4): 261–86.

———. 2020. The Nuaulu World of Plants: Ethnobotanical Cognition, Knowledge and Practice Among a People of Seram, Eastern Indonesia. London: Sean Kingston for the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock.

Goody, J. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1982. Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. 1991. “Situating learning in communities of practice.” Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, ed. L. B. Resnick, J. M. Levine and S. D. Teasley. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Ludwig, D. and C. N. El-Hani 2020. “Philosophy of ethnobiology: understanding knowledge integration and its limitations.” Journal of Ethnobiology 40: 3–20.

Olson, D.R. 1994. The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peeters, A. 1979. “Nomenclature and classification in Rumphius’s ‘Herbarium Amboinense’.” Classifications in Their Social Context, ed. R. F. Ellen and D. Reason. London: Academic Press, 145–166.

Rumphius, G.E. (1741–1750) 2011. The Ambonese Herbal, Volumes 1-6 (translated by E. M. Beekman). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Schiebinger, L. and C. Swan. 2005. “Introduction.” Colonial Botany; Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, ed. L. Schiebinger and C. Swan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1–18.

Snelders H. A. 1995. “Naturwissenschaft und Religion in den Niederlanden um 1600.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 18 (2): 67–78.

Taiz, L. and Taiz, L. 2017. Flora Unveiled: The Discovery and Denial of Sex in Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yoo, G. 2018. “Wars and wonders: the inter-island information networks of Georg Everhard Rumphius.” The British Journal for the History of Science 51 (4): 559–84.

Roy Ellen: contributions / / University of Kent