Chalking one up for indigenous ethnobiological knowledge

A couple of months ago an announcement by a group biologists led by a team working out of the Universidade Federal do Minais Gerais, cleared up a small mystery that has been nagging me for about ten years now, and the resolution to this mystery nicely illustrates how the ethnobiological knowledge of the peoples that field linguists work with can outstrip that of biological experts we often rely upon.

This mystery first raised its head when I was working in Peruvian Amazonia, collaborating with several  speakers of Iquito to document the ethnobiological terminology of their language, as part of a broader effort to develop an Iquito dictionary (see here for a draft). Although we eventually got into more challenging domains like birds, fish, and plants, we began with the easiest domain: mammals (1). Our work on mammal terminology went quickly and smoothly, but for one thing: the men I was working with — principally Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa and Jaime Pacaya Inuma — provided two Iquito terms corresponding to the local Spanish term for tapir (sachavaca): pɨsɨkɨ and ariyuukʷaaha. The first was clearly Tapirus terrestris, the lowland tapir found all over the Amazon Basin, but I was perplexed by the second term, ariyuukʷaaha, which Hermenegildo and Jaime explained denoted a smaller variety than the one denoted by pɨsɨkɨ. I probed to see if perhaps the two terms referred to different life stages of the same species or the like or simply morphological variants (2), but the Iquito speakers were positive that there were in fact two distinct species of tapir, and described the physical characteristics that distinguished them. Mammologists, however, recognized only a single species of tapir in Amazonia: Tapirus terrestris.

 Twelve Iquito speakers at lunch in their honor (2004); Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa is in the back row, far left, and Jaime Pacaya Inuma, far right.
Twelve Iquito speakers at lunch in their honor (2004); Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa is in the back row, far left, and Jaime Pacaya Inuma, far right.

I was stumped by this state of affairs, and in the Iquito dictionary I just decided to indicate that pɨsɨkɨ was Tapirus terrestris, and that ariyuukʷaaha denoted a smaller variety of tapir which speakers identified as a distinct species. I was never fully satisfied by the this, however. How could biologists miss a wholly distinct species of mammal as large as a tapir? But on the other hand, how could a people who hunted tapirs regularly be wrong about a species distinction like this?

I expected this to be one of those numerous mysteries that crop up in fieldwork that are never resolved, and was thus very excited when I read about the discovery of a new species of tapir, Tapirus kabomani, which, crucially, is smaller than Tapirus terrestris. The original Cozzuol et al. BioOne article which announces the discovery can be found here. Interestingly, evidence for this species has been found in various locations in the lowland South America, including one location a mere 240 miles northeast of Iquito territory, suggesting that the Iquito ariyuukʷaaha is Tapirus kabomani.

Although the potential solution to the ariyuukʷaaha mystery is quite satisfying, it is worth pointing out that the ‘discovery’ in question is of course a curious one, in that the existence of this second species of tapir is no news to several Amazonian peoples, as Cozzuol et al. themselves point out. Although reports by indigenous peoples of this species to Western scientists date at least to an early 19th century mention of this species to Carl Friedrich Philip von Martius (see here), biologists never pursued this lead systematically, and thereby managed to miss identifying a quite massive mammal. Whatever the lesson for biologists in this story, as a field linguist who spends a reasonable amount of time concerned with ethnobiological matters as part of lexical work, this experience has left me with a renewed appreciation for how seriously we should take indigenous ethnobiological knowledge.


(1) In my experience, mammalian ethnobiological terminology is ‘easy’ in the sense that either there are few similar-looking species within a given genus in any given area, making species identification comparatively easy (e.g. within the genus Ateles), or there are a large number of similar-looking species, but there is a single ethnobiological term employed for the entire genus, or sometimes only two terms for an entire order, like bats (Chiroptera; the peoples I have worked with in the Amazon Basin make a two way terminological distinction: vampire bats  vs. any other member of the order).

(2) I’ve run across one pervasive terminological distinction in Peruvian Amazonian languages (and local Spanish) that does not correspond to a species distinction, although speakers of these languages believe that it does: the adult and juvenile phases of Bothrop atrox. In local Spanish, for example, the adult phase is referred to as a gergón, and the juvenile phase as a cascabel, and it is believed that they are distinct species.