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Science Botany

Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge

Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America

by (author) Nancy J. Turner

McGill-Queen's University Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2014
Botany, Native American Studies
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2014
    List Price

Classroom Resources

Where to buy it


Volume 1: The History and Practice of Indigenous Plant Knowledge. Volume 2: The Place and Meaning of Plants in Indigenous Cultures and Worldviews.

Nancy Turner has studied Indigenous peoples' knowledge of plants and environments in northwestern North America for over forty years. In Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge, she integrates her research into a two-volume ethnobotanical tour-de-force.

Drawing on information shared by Indigenous botanical experts and collaborators, the ethnographic and historical record, and from linguistics, palaeobotany, archaeology, phytogeography, and other fields, Turner weaves together a complex understanding of the traditions of use and management of plant resources in this vast region. She follows Indigenous inhabitants over time and through space, showing how they actively participated in their environments, managed and cultivated valued plant resources, and maintained key habitats that supported their dynamic cultures for thousands of years, as well as how knowledge was passed on from generation to generation and from one community to another. To understand the values and perspectives that have guided Indigenous ethnobotanical knowledge and practices, Turner looks beyond the details of individual plant species and their uses to determine the overall patterns and processes of their development, application, and adaptation.

Volume 1 presents a historical overview of ethnobotanical knowledge in the region before and after European contact. The ways in which Indigenous peoples used and interacted with plants - for nutrition, technologies, and medicine - are examined. Drawing connections between similarities across languages, Turner compares the names of over 250 plant species in more than fifty Indigenous languages and dialects to demonstrate the prominence of certain plants in various cultures and the sharing of goods and ideas between peoples. She also examines the effects that introduced species and colonialism had on the region's Indigenous peoples and their ecologies.

Volume 2 provides a sweeping account of how Indigenous organizational systems developed to facilitate the harvesting, use, and cultivation of plants, to establish economic connections across linguistic and cultural borders, and to preserve and manage resources and habitats. Turner describes the worldviews and philosophies that emerged from the interactions between peoples and plants, and how these understandings are expressed through cultures’ stories and narratives. Finally, she explores the ways in which botanical and ecological knowledge can be and are being maintained as living, adaptive systems that promote healthy cultures, environments, and indigenous plant populations.

Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge both challenges and contributes to existing knowledge of Indigenous peoples' land stewardship while preserving information that might otherwise have been lost. Providing new and captivating insights into the anthropogenic systems of northwestern North America, it will stand as an authoritative reference work and contribute to a fuller understanding of the interactions between cultures and ecological systems.

About the author

Nancy J. Turner is an ethnobotanist, and Distinguished Professor Emerita, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, Canada. She has worked with First Nations elders and cultural specialists in northwestern North America for over 50 years, helping to document, retain and promote their traditional knowledge of plants and environments, including Indigenous foods, materials and traditional medicines. Her two-volume book, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge (July, 2014; McGill-Queen’s University Press), integrates her long term research. She has authored or co-authored/co-edited 30 other books, including: Plants of Haida Gwaii; The Earth’s Blanket; Keeping It Living (with Doug Deur); Saanich Ethnobotany (with Richard Hebda), and Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, and over 150 book chapters and papers. Her latest edited book is Plants, People and Places: the Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond (2020). She has received a number of awards for her work, including membership in Order of British Columbia (1999) and the Order of Canada (2009), honorary degrees from University of British Columbia, University of Northern British Columbia and Vancouver Island and Simon Fraser Universities.

Nancy J. Turner's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"This two-volume set combines the testimonies of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest with archaeology and history to produce a record of cultural memory for this population. Numerous testimonials are from interviews with remaining Native peoples, supplemented with much evidence from scientific and historical sources. In this style, Turner keeps the memories and plants of the Pacific Northwest peoples alive. Highly Recommended." Choice

"This magisterial work - exploring the deep, abiding, and ever-evolving relationships between plants and indigenous peoples - is monumental in its scope and depth. It is authoritative, accessible, full of wonderful anecdotes and stories, and will interest scholars of North American anthropology, geography, botany, and ecology, as well as general readers." Thomas F. Thornton, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

"Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge will be an instant classic. It is far more than an ethnobotanical or ecological study of a region in North America. This volume includes both, but they are incorporated into a theoretical structure that will be the methodological basis for all future efforts that attempt a regional overview. It is not just one or two theoretical stances to organize the material, but multiple inter-woven approaches that give this book uniqueness and exceptional importance." Richard I. Ford, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

"Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge is a metaphorical betrothal that begins to unveil the wonder and mysteries of Indigenous knowledge and wisdom such that, if embraced by the wonders and mysteries of Western knowledge and wisdom, it may launch humanity into a future characterized both by oneness and infinite diversity - hisukis cawaak, everything is one." E. Richard Atleo, author of Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis

"In this colossal work, Turner combines ethnobotany, comparative linguistics, and anthropology to create a compelling account of the interchange not only of different indigenous groups in their horticultural practices, but also in their linguistic and belief structures, to reveal the complexities of these societies in their ecological relations." Publishers Weekly

"Nancy Turner’s books are vital repositories of botanical and cultural lore, but more essentially they are road maps to wonder. Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge is clearly her opus, the culmination of more than five decades of research and insight. It is a book that will live on to fire the hearts of generations of scholars and explorers.” Wade Davis, author of Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures

"Written from a deep love and respect for both people and plants, and an obvious desire for global human cooperation in the face of environmental planetary peril, Turner’s message, through over 1000 pages, is simple: “We have to find ways to look after each other." Amy Reiswig, FOCUS

"Turner's two volumes are, in my opinion, a true magnum opus, not only illustrating the strength of a multidisciplinary approach to ethnobiological data, but also through providing a new and more nuanced understanding of the natural and cultural worlds of Northwest Coast peoples. The author’s botanical training and years of experience have allowed her to develop in-depth data of a very special kind. The narrative, which privileges Indigenous voices beautifully, illustrates the knowledge and principles that are its foci, and makes for very enjoyable reading. The ample illustrations provide a clear sense of the people, the region, and the work’s context. Turner’s control and use of the broader literature is amazing. The data compilations alone are of tremendous value, and, coupled with her approach and insights, should make this work stand for decades and beyond as a monumental work in ethnobiology, ethnoecology, and anthropology." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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