The Trade in African Medicinal Plants in Matonge-Ixelles, Brussels (Belgium)
How did the forced migration of nearly 11 million enslaved Africans to the Americas influence their knowledge of plants? Vernacular plant names give insight into the process of species recognition, acquisition of new knowledge, and replacement of African species with American ones. This study traces the origin of 2,350 Afro-Surinamese (Sranantongo and Maroon) plant names to those plant names used by local Amerindians, Europeans, and related groups in West and Central Africa. We compared vernacular names from herbarium collections, literature, and recent ethnobotanical fieldwork in Suriname, Ghana, Benin, and Gabon. A strong correspondence in sound, structure, and meaning among Afro-Surinamese vernaculars and their equivalents in other languages for botanically related taxa was considered as evidence for a shared origin. Although 65% of the Afro-Surinamese plant names contained European lexical items, enslaved Africans have recognized a substantial part of the neotropical flora. Twenty percent of the Sranantongo and 43% of the Maroon plant names strongly resemble names currently used in diverse African languages for related taxa, represent translations of African ones, or directly refer to an Old World origin. The acquisition of new ethnobotanical knowledge is captured in vernaculars derived from Amerindian languages and the invention of new names for neotropical plants from African lexical terms. Plant names that combine African, Amerindian, and European words reflect a creolization process that merged ethnobotanical skills from diverse geographical and cultural sources into new Afro-American knowledge systems. Our study confirms the role of Africans as significant agents of environmental knowledge in the New World.