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Ethnobotany of the Lisu in Thailand

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Title:Ethnobotany of the Lisu in Thailand
Authors:Sellers, Holly
Contributors:Sellers, Holly (speaker)
Date Issued:04 Mar 2017
Description:The Lisu are one of several non-Thai minority cultures residing in the northern region of Thailand which borders Burma/Myanmar and Laos. There are approximately 40,000 Lisu speakers in Thailand and over 1 million speakers in total, with a large proportion being located in China and Burma/Myanmar, and a small number in India. The language has four main dialects which are somewhat mutually intelligible, but it is Southern Lisu that is usually spoken in Thailand and is the focus for this presentation. Although the language itself is not currently endangered, the Lisu’s traditional knowledge of plant names and their uses is at substantial risk of being lost in the near future, despite being intrinsically linked to their cultural heritage and personal (and, for some, spiritual) wellbeing. This loss is partly due to the increasing use of modern medicine for both convenience and effectiveness, but also because younger villagers are moving away for work or study and are therefore unable to spend the lengthy time required to learn detailed plant knowledge in their village. Furthermore, the beliefs of some Lisu practising animism include that plant identification and related information, especially for rare or specialised plants, should only be passed down to an appropriate disciple from the village. Plant data for this project was collected from both animist and Christian Lisu speakers over two field trips in northern Thailand, forming a new botanical corpus of more than 300 scientific plant identifications and their names and uses in Southern Lisu. The data set as a whole includes plant specimens, photographs, voice recordings and translations of plant uses, stories, and scientific and Lisu names along with their folk categories, where available. This presentation will briefly explore the folk taxonomy of Southern Lisu plants and some of the limitations of the existing model put forward by Berlin (1992) based on the collected data. I will also discuss how the Lisu plant names themselves encode information about the plants; this is frequently based upon visual metaphor but there are also examples of use-related names, including medicinal, as well as at least one name that encodes a specific plant’s germination process. The implications of traditional animist beliefs for an outside researcher trying to obtain this kind of data will also be discussed, as well as the ethical considerations specific to collecting plant data which may affect the community and others. Reference: Berlin, B. 1992. Ethnobiological Classification. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Appears in Collections: 5th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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