Loss of Traditional Medicinal and Environmental Knowledge through the Loss of Indigenous Languages

by Matthias Steiert and Afaf Steiert

Loss of Indigenous Languages

The loss of an indigenous language undermines a people’s sense of identity and belonging, which uproots the entire community losing their cultural identity, heritage, and shared knowledge. Along with losing their language, the community loses their ways of expressing a connection to nature for lack of equivalent meanings in the new dominant language, resulting in further disconnection from the natural world. This includes the loss of invaluable traditional medicinal knowledge, which is closely tied to the natural environment, namely plants and other natural resources.

Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge, including herbal medicinal and traditional healing practices, are under threat around the world. The disappearance of these languages and knowledge systems is caused by a variety of factors, including colonialism, forced assimilation, and economic development. These factors have disrupted the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another and have led to the erosion of traditional knowledge systems. The adoption of Western medicine and the lack of recognition of traditional healing practices by mainstream institutions have contributed to the marginalization of indigenous healing practices and the loss of medicinal knowledge.

Language groups and indigenous languages of Southern Mexico and Central America (Source: WikiCommons/Flickr).

Language groups and indigenous languages of Southern Mexico and Central America (Source: WikiCommons/Flickr).

When indigenous languages disappear, so does traditional ecological knowledge, such as the names and uses of plants for medicine. This loss can have serious consequences for both the health and wellbeing of indigenous communities as well as the preservation of biodiversity.

Box 1: The impact of traditional medicinal knowledge on pharmaceutical research

Traditional medicinal knowledge can have a significant effect on pharmaceutical research. Many modern drugs are derived from natural products, and traditional medicinal knowledge can provide important clues and leads for identifying new drug candidates. For example, traditional healers may have identified plants or other natural products that have medicinal properties, and scientific research can be conducted to isolate and identify the active compounds in these natural products.

Additionally, traditional medicinal knowledge can provide insights into the mechanisms of action of these natural products and how they are used in combination with other plants or therapies. This information can be used to guide the development of new drugs or to optimize existing treatments.
Moreover, collaboration with indigenous communities can also promote the ethical and sustainable use of natural resources and ensure that traditional knowledge be recognized and valued. However, it is essential to recognize and respect the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities and to engage in ethical and equitable partnerships that prioritize the interests and needs of these communities.

A few examples of well-known pharmaceuticals derived from indigenous communities and their traditional medicinal knowledge are:

  • Aspirin is a widely used pain reliever and anti-inflammatory drug derived from salicylic acid, which is found in the bark of willow trees. Indigenous communities in North America used willow bark for medicinal purposes for centuries before the active ingredient was isolated and synthesized in the late 19th century.
  • Curare is a muscle relaxant that is used in modern anesthesia and is derived from the bark and roots of certain South American plants. Indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest used curare for hunting, as it paralyzes the muscles of animals, and it was later discovered to have medicinal properties.
  • Quinine is a drug that is used to treat malaria and is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which is native to South America. Indigenous communities in Peru and Ecuador used cinchona bark to treat fever and other ailments, and the active ingredient quinine was later isolated and synthesized.
  • Taxol is a chemotherapy drug that is used to treat various types of cancer and is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, which is native to North America. Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest used the bark of the yew tree for medicinal purposes, and the active ingredient Taxol was later isolated and synthesized.
Box 2: The global disappearance of indigenous languages

The disappearance of indigenous languages around the world is ongoing and accelerating, Here are some examples:

North America: Prior to European colonization, there were over 300 indigenous languages spoken in what is now the United States and Canada. Today, only around 150 of these languages remain, and many are endangered or critically endangered. Nowadays, the most widely spoken indigenous languages are Navajo and Cree.

Central and South America: There are over 1,500 indigenous languages spoken in Central and South America, representing around 13% of the world’s languages. However, many of these languages are at risk of disappearing due to a variety of factors such as globalization, urbanization, and discrimination. For example, in Brazil, there are over 200 indigenous languages, but many of these are spoken by only a few hundred people, and some are already extinct.

Africa: Africa is home to over 2,000 indigenous languages, but many of these are endangered or have already disappeared. Some factors contributing to language loss in Africa include political instability, economic marginalization, and the promotion of official languages at the expense of indigenous languages.

Asia and the Pacific: Indigenous languages in Asia and the Pacific are also at risk of disappearing due to factors such as urbanization, globalization, and the imposition of dominant languages. For example, in Australia, there were over 250 indigenous languages spoken before European colonization, but only around 13 of these languages are still widely spoken today.

Efforts to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages and traditional knowledge are ongoing. These include language revitalization programs, cultural preservation initiatives, and the documentation of traditional ecological knowledge. However, much more needs to be done to ensure the survival of this valuable cultural heritage.

The loss of traditional botanical knowledge and the disappearance of plant species has significant ecological and cultural impacts. Traditional ecological knowledge is an important resource to understand and manage ecosystems, and it is often passed down through the generations within indigenous and local communities. When traditional cultures and languages disappear, so does the knowledge associated with them, including botanical knowledge.

Meanwhile, in the Western world, the lack of instruction on plants results in continued disconnection from the natural world. If we no longer understand plants and their role in the natural environment around us, we no longer have the expertise to understand when ecosystems are on the brink of irreparable loss and damage. Up to a million species may go extinct due to human activity according to a 2019 UN report. We all know about at least a couple of endangered mammals (polar bears and giant pandas come to mind) but how many of us could name a single endangered plant species?

The loss of plant species can also have a ripple effect throughout an ecosystem. Plants play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem health, providing food and habitat for other species, regulating water and nutrient cycles, and helping to prevent soil erosion. The loss of even a single plant species can have a cascading effect throughout an ecosystem and potentially lead to the decline or extinction of other species.

Efforts to preserve traditional botanical knowledge and plant species include cultural preservation initiatives, botanical gardens, and conservation programs. However, much more needs to be done to ensure the survival of these vital resources. It is important to raise awareness about traditional ecological knowledge and plant conservation, and to support the indigenous communities who hold this knowledge – knowledge that will be more easily lost without their language.

The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions are also areas in which large concentrations of indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities reside.

Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and the development pathways they desire for their future. Recognition of the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of indigenous peoples and local communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration, and sustainable use. Their positive contributions to sustainability can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access, and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities.

Reviving botanical education would be a powerful tool in combating the challenges of the 21st century. Currently, there is a growing skills gap, with a looming shortage of professionals capable of effectively managing environmental projects. Well-meaning but careless management is not just ineffective, it can add to environmental degradation. For example, planting thirsty tree species in the name of capturing carbon from the air can deprive precious bog plants of much needed water. Recklessly cutting and trimming grasslands can wipe out populations of rare orchids. Restoring flood meadows and riverside habitats can reduce flooding from the extreme downpours which are becoming more common in some regions as the Earth warms. Harnessed properly, there is no doubt that plants and the benefits they provide can help fight the impending climate and ecological crises.

Understanding our origins and preserving the knowledge of endangered communities is vital to safeguarding both the languages and the knowledge about plants, herbal medicine, medical practices, the environment, and so much more.

This article is a pledge to upkeep all indigenous languages and knowledge about nature and our environment – the one we all share.


  1. UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Blog May 2019.
  2. Traditional Indigenous Medicine in North America: A scoping review. Nicole Redvers, Be’sha Blondin. PloS One, 2020 Aug 13;15(8):e0237531