African Ethnobotany in the Americas

pp 395-416


Ethnobotany of Brazil’s African Diaspora: The Role of Floristic Homogenization

  • Robert VoeksAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, California State University—Fullerton Email author 

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Nearly five million enslaved Africans were transported to the shores of Brazil over the course of the Atlantic slave trade. During the latter stages, from the 1780s to 1851, the majority hailed from the Bight of Benin, representing especially the Yoruba, Ewe, and Fon peoples. The belief systems introduced by these sub-Saharan peoples were reassembled in Brazil under the generic name of Candomblé. Among the noteworthy features of this religion is a profound spiritual association between a pantheon of deities (the orixás) and a host of edible and medicinal plant species. This chapter demonstrates that Brazil’s African diaspora capitalized on a cornucopia of esculent and medicinal plants that had diffused back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Columbian Exchange. Centuries before the kidnapping and transport of most African slaves, the anthropogenic habitats of South America and West Africa—the second-growth forests, swiddens, plantations, trails, and kitchen gardens—exhibited significant floristic similarity. This early transatlantic botanical homogenization greatly enhanced the ability of newly arrived Africans and their descendants to reassemble their ethnobotanical traditions in what was otherwise an alien floristic landscape.


Ethnobotany Brazil African diaspora Slave trade Candomblé Spiritual Traditional knowledge Invasive species Cultural diffusion