The Baobab as a water bottle: pragmatic, social, and ceremonial uses of the Adansonia digitata
The JSTOR Plant Science team is fascinated not only by the plants we are lucky enough to peruse all day long, but also by the seemingly ancillary information attached to them as annotations, descriptive metadata, related determination slips, the contents of letters, or even handwritten notes on images or other text. All of this additional information provides context and context is critical to understanding the plant and how it sits within the larger realm of biodiversity.
Like all things, context is readily established with utility. To know how something is being used is to know how useful it is, how dependent humans are on it. The information provided by the extremely active Global Plants Initiative (GPI) partner organizations allows us to track a good deal of this utility. This can be done through the Use tab on Species pages.
Simply put, ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make of use of indigenous plants. This use can be for food, drink, or general consumption; it can also have spiritual, social, and ceremonial value to the peoples of a particular region. All of this use is encapsulated in ethnobotany.
Take the baobab, for instance (the subject of many of my Twitter, Flickr, and now blog posts; anything referred to as monkey-bread tree deserves my undivided attention). According to Burkill’s The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, a Hausa epithet for the wood, fanko, means ‘good for nothing’, in reference to the wood making poor firewood unless thoroughly dried out. It can be used to make wide and light canoes and wooden plates, trays, and floats for fishing-nets. In East Africa, the trunk may be hollowed out to provide shelters and form storage rooms. David Livingstone in his explorations in Mozambique recorded the baobab’s use as a dwelling. So, certainly some utility there.
But a tree is more than its wood. Continuing with Burkhill, wild animals are said to chew the wood perhaps to obtain the salt from the sap. The tree living in very dry situations with its enormous trunk of spongy wood carries a great quantity of water. A good tree may hold as much as 1,000 gallons and this is often sold to travelers (Porteous, 1928). Further, the hard fruit is used as a water bottle by some populations, another instance of Africa going ‘green’ before that was even a term.
Rather than paraphrase the ceremonial and spiritual uses of the baobab, I’ll let the expert Burkill do the talking:
The odd appearance of the tree has resulted in magical and superstitious uses. In Upper Volta (modern day Burkina Faso) it is left standing when clearing the bush as a fetish tree. Tribes of northern Nigeria reverence it by cutting symbols in the bark . The hollowed-out trunk has been recorded as used as tombs, and a place where a body denied burial may be suspended between earth and sky for mummification.
In places it is worshipped as a fertility symbol. Rock-art in the Limpopo Valley depicts women’s breasts as baobab pods. In Upper Volta children of the Ela born under the sign of this tree (kukulu, Lyela) are given the patronymic kukulu, boys, or ekulu, girls.
While these descriptions don’t completely counter the Hausa frustration with the baobab, they remind us that a tree is more than the sum of its wood. How people use the other bits is the domain of ethnobotany.