Tropical Ethnobiology



Armando Medinaceli

Naso man with seeds used in dying woven Chácara bags

Department of Anthropology
Washington State University
Pullman, WA, 99164-4910
phone: 610.203.8495


COURSE DESCRIPTION: This 4 week course will emphasize tropical ethnobiology in the context of tropical rainforest and island ecosystems. The material covered is equivalent to an upper level university course in ethnobiology or ethnobotany.  The course explores the biocultural diversity of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and mainland Panama. There are indigenous groups residing in our area including the Bokata, Naso, Guna and Ngöbe. Non-indigenous cultures include Mestizo and Afro-Antillilean. Readings and lectures will focus on the plant and animal use by traditional cultures of Central and South America, as well as innovative methods, current theory in ethnobiology and ethical frameworks that surround traditional knowledge and biological conservation.  The course will include demonstrations by local healers, artisans and other specialists who utilize plants and animals. Much of the course will be spent learning field techniques with classmates where students have the opportunity to gain research experience through fieldwork in the surrounding rainforest.  Independent research projects based upon individual interests will be conducted with local indigenous or non-indigenous communities, under the direction of an experienced field ethnobiologist.

Cháraca bags for sale in Bocas del Toro


  • Definition and Evolution of the Discipline of Ethnobiology
  • Ethnobotany and Culture of Bocas del Toro and Panama
  • Tropical Plant and Forest Ecology
  • Useful Plants Classification- NeoTropical Plant Families
  • Ethnobotanical Research Project Development
  • Ethics, Intellectual Property Rights and Ethnobotanical Protocols
  • Role of Humans in Diversification of Plants and Gendered Knowledge
  • Qualitative Techniques and Quantitative Methods
  • Interviewing and Ethnographic Methods
  •  Plant Collection, Pressing, Drying and Mounting Herbarium Specimen
  •  Audio, Photo, and Video Documentation
  • Local Markets and the Commodification of Plant Resources
  • Wild Foods and Traditional Diets
  • Tropical Agriculture and Agroforestry
  • Entheogens- Psychoactive Tropical Plants
  • The Botany of Cacao and the Production of Chocolate
  • Traditional Medical Systems and Ethnomedicine
  • Medicinal Plants and Bioprospecting
  • Non-Timber Forest Products
  • Biocultural Conservation
  • Sharing Research Results and Development of Community Projects

Ngöbe Family

READINGS: Readings corresponding to lecture-topics will be assigned from the course text and from relevant articles in the primary literature. In addition, each student will read, critique, and provide oral reports on published papers from the primary literature.

Required Text: Anderson, E., D. Pearsall, E. Hunn, and N. Turner. 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey, NJ.
Required journal articles will be provided to students before the field semester.

Group Exercises: The purpose of group projects is to familiarize students with an array of field qualitative and quantitative techniques commonly used in ethnobotanical studies. Students will practice techniques, collect and analyze data, present the results in class and/or write a report. Students will learn the following field techniques:

  • Market Surveys

    Ngöbe home garden

  • Homegarden Inventories
  • Rapid Rural Assessment
  • Free Listing
  • Pile Sorting
  • Forest Walks
  • Forest Plot Analysis
  • Ranking
  • Consensus analysis

INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECTS: Each student will be responsible for designingand completing an original research project, which may deal with any topic in ethnobotany. During the first week, students will visit several sites to familiarize themselves with the area and to make observations that may lead to individual research project topics. In the evenings, students will participate in ‘debriefing sessions’ during which they will identify characteristics and patterns of local plant use, which will assist them in establishing their independent field projects. In consultation with the instructor, students will chose their research topic, and by the beginning of the second week, will submit a written proposal for evaluation in terms of conceptual validity, experimental design, and feasibility. Students will have about 10 days for data collection.  Students will analyze their data and write up their findings in scientific journal format. Findings will also be presented to the people from whom they gathered data and an oral presentation will be given during a station-wide symposium on the last day of the course.

GRADING: Students should arrange credit for the course in advance through their home institutions. All assignments must be completed before leaving the field station, so that a final course grade can be assigned. Course grades are calculated as follows:

  • Individual Research Project – 40%
  • Group project participation 30 %
  • Written Exam – 20%
  • Classroom Presentation – 10%

Guna woman selling Molas in Bocas del Toro

FIELD BOOK: A field book will be required in the course. The field book will contain all data related to group projects and the independent research project. The field book should also contain all other incidental observations such as species lists, ethnographic notes, etc., and contain detailed location information. The field book must be water-proof and either pencil or water-proof ink used to record data.

GRADING & CREDIT: Up to 6 units of credit will be given, 3 for the lecture portion
and 3 for the field portion. A letter grade will be assigned based on exams, research
reports and presentations, lecture attendance, and participation in discussions and
activities. Course credit must be arranged at the student’s institution. Contact ITEC for

Guna dugout canoes

Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation
2911 NW 40th PL,
Gainesville, FL 32605.
Phone: (352) 367-9128