KATHARINE MILTON is a professor of physical anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from New York University in 1977 and carried out two years of fieldwork in Panama as a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Institution. Her research focuses on the dietary ecology and digestive physiology of Primates, both humans and non-human, and has involved her in fieldwork with howler monkeys, woolly spider monkeys and chimpanzees as well as forest-based human societies in both the Brazilian Amazon and Papua New Guinea. She is the author of more than 60 publications and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her publications on ecological practices of Amazonian groups include the following: Protein and carbohydrate resources of the Maku Indians of Northwestern Amazonia. American Anthropologist 86:7-27 (1984); Comparative aspects of diet in Amazonian Forest Dwellers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B. 334: 253-263 (1991); Civilization and its Discontents. Natural History, March 1992, pp. 36-45 (1992).
Lowland forests of the Brazilian Amazon are still occupied by a number of indigenous groups. Some, such as the Yanomami, have relatively large populations but many others are quite small, consisting, in total, of no more than 100-200 individuals. My work focuses on the study of the comparative ecology of these smaller societies, with particular attention paid to utilization of forest products, both as food and in medicinal and other contexts. The Amazon Basin was once regarded as a relatively homogenous and stable environment whose human occupants likewise were often described as if they were static, almost interchangeable entities. Recent research has revealed the tremendous climatic, floral and faunal diversity that characterizes Amazonia as well as a wide and impressive range of differences in almost all aspects of the comparative ecology of its different human inhabitants. Such diversity in human cultural and ecological practices exists whether one compares two groups in the same geographical region with distinct linguistic affinities or two groups speaking languages derived the same linguistic stock and occupying adjacent territories. Ethnobotanical inventories I have conducted with six Amazonian groups show considerable inter-group variation in terms of which sex-age classes have the greatest store of ethnobotanical knowledge as well as a surprising absence of such knowledge in younger members, both male and female, of at least one remote and little contacted group, the Mat's. Uses made of plants and animals likewise vary and one society may have no knowledge of the uses made of a particular animal or plant species that figures heavily in the cultural practices of another. These comparative data indicate that the preservation of traditional knowledge must be undertaken on a group-by-group basis and that the magnitude of loss of cultural biodiversity that has occurred in forest peoples is far more vast than originally believed.
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