“Every time a language disappears, a speaking voice also disappears, a way to make sense of reality disappears, a way to interact with nature disappears, a way to describe and name animals and plants disappears,” says Jordi Bascompte, researcher in the Department of Evolutional Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich.
The project Ethnologue concluded that 42% of the world’s more than 7,000 existing languages are endangered. Of the 1,000 indigenous languages spoken in Brazil prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, only about 160 are still alive, according to language research non-profit SIL International.
In a recent study, Bascompte and biodiversity specialist Rodrigo Cámara-Leret warn that the extinction of indigenous languages equates to a loss of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants, which could reduce chances for the discovery of future medicines.
Many of today’s mass-market medications are derived from medicinal plants. They range from acetylsalicylic acid—commonly known as aspirin, whose active ingredient is extracted from white willow (Salix alba L.)—to morphine, which is extracted from poppies (Papaver somniferum).
As indigenous groups traditionally rely on the spoken word for intergenerational knowledge transfer, the disappearance of these languages will take with it a universe of information.
Double the challenge
The study’s scientists analyzed 3,597 vegetal species with 12,495 medicinal uses and linked this data with 236 indigenous languages from three biologically and culturally diverse regions—the northwestern Amazon, New Guinea and North America. From this, they concluded that in these regions, 75% of the medicinal uses for medicinal plants are known in only one language.
“We found that those languages with unique knowledge are the ones at a higher risk of extinction,” says Bascompte. “There is a sort of a double-problem in terms of how knowledge will disappear.”
The Americas stood out in the study as a hotspot for indigenous knowledge in which most of the medicinal knowledge is linked to endangered languages, and the northwestern Amazon particularly proved to be a prime example of the double-problem mentioned by Bascompte. The study evaluated 645 plant species and their medicinal uses according to oral tradition in 37 languages and found that 91% of this knowledge exists in a single language only. Therefore if a language is extinguished, as could happen with many in the Amazon in coming years, the medicinal knowledge therein will also die.
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