Mother knows best: Plant knowledge key to childhood health in remote Amazon

Mar 22, 2007

In a remote area of the Amazon, globalization is threatening the time-honored transmission of plant knowledge from generation to generation, with adverse effects on childhood health and nutrition. In a novel study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that parents, and especially mothers, who know more about plants and how to use them, have healthier children, independent of other factors such as education, market participation or acculturation.

The researchers, from the universities of Brandeis, Northwestern, Georgia (Athens), and Autonomous University of Barcelona, studied the Tsimane', an indigenous horticulturalist and foraging society in the lowlands of Bolivia who use local plants daily for medicine, firewood, construction and food. The Tsimane' rely on wild and domesticated plants for more than half of their household consumption, while purchased goods account for a tiny fraction of consumption.

"Like other remote rural populations around the world, the Tsimane' must rely on their ability to exploit natural resources to maintain the health of their children," said Victoria Reyes-García, PhD, coauthor and visiting researcher at Brandeis University. "However, many Tsimane' are pursuing new economic opportunities that undermine this aspect of their culture. It seems to be one of the many unintended consequences of globalization."

The study evaluated the health of 330 Tsimane' two-to-ten year-olds and interviewed their mothers and fathers to assess their ethnobotanical skills and knowledge. Researchers looked at three measures of child health: their immune function, as measured in C-reactive protein levels; skinfold thickness, to estimate fat stores, and height-for-age, to assess stunted growth.

Reyes-García explained that mothers who had knowledge of local plants well above the average were more likely to have children with better health, whereas mothers who had less than the average knowledge were more likely to have children with worse indicators of health and nutrition. For example, in families with mothers with low local plant knowledge, the researchers determined there is a likelihood of nearly one in five children being severely stunted, while families in which mothers possess high levels of plant knowledge have fewer than one in ten children with severe stunting. The other two measures found similar results, with knowledge of local plants significantly correlated with childhood health and nutrition.

To a great extent, Tsimane survival and well being is dependent on their knowledge of local plants, in everything from managing their environment to getting food and preventing and curing disease, explained Reyes-García. "However, globalization threatens this knowledge to the extent that formal schooling and jobs in emerging markets devalue folk knowledge and provide access to products not made from local resources, but without providing adequate medical treatment substitutes," said Reyes-García. "In a situation where local medicinal knowledge is not adequately substituted by access to medical facilities, the consequences of this lost knowledge can translate into poorer childhood health."

Source: Brandeis University

Explore further: Mexican boy who had massive tumor recovering

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Riding a food fad to an opportunity

Nov 18, 2014

Until a couple years ago, Shaun Paul's knowledge of chia was limited to the kitschy terracotta Chia Pet figurines. But recently, chia seeds, promoted as a nutritional powerhouse, have earned a growing consumer ...

We shouldn't fear the big, bad wolf spider

Oct 29, 2014

Longtime University of Cincinnati professor George Uetz studies how the environment influences the evolution of behavior through researching animal behavior and ecology. Uetz's research focuses on spiders, ...

Recommended for you

Doctor behind 'free radical' aging theory dies

17 hours ago

Dr. Denham Harman, a renowned scientist who developed the most widely accepted theory on aging that's now used to study cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, has died in Nebraska at age 98.

Mexican boy who had massive tumor recovering

Nov 25, 2014

An 11-year-old Mexican boy who had pieces of a massive tumor removed and who drew international attention after U.S. officials helped him get treatment in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico is still recovering after ...

New medical device to make the mines safer

Nov 21, 2014

Dehydration can be a serious health issue for Australia's mining industry, but a new product to be developed with input from Flinders University's Medical Device Partnering Program (MDPP) is set to more effectively ...

US family gets $6.75 million in Botox case

Nov 20, 2014

A New York couple who said Botox treatment of their son's cerebral palsy left him with life-threatening complications and sued its manufacturer won a $6.75 million verdict from a federal jury on Thursday.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.