Monpa, memory, and change: an ethnobotanical study of plant use in Mêdog County, South-east Tibet, China

J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2020 Jan 30;16(1):5. doi: 10.1186/s13002-020-0355-7.


Background: Due to their relative isolation, the previous studies of Monpa plant use were only conducted in north-east India. In October 2013, Mêdog County was no longer remote, thanks to completion of a highway into the county. This study of plant species used by the Monpa had three research objectives. These were (i) to identify and record local names and uses of plants in Mêdog County, (ii) to assess which of these were uses of endemic or near-endemic species within this part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, and (iii) to assess how plant uses reflect socio-economic change in Mêdog County?

Methods: Field surveys were conducted in 12 villages of four townships in Mêdog County, Tibet, China. Two field visits were made. The first field trip was in November 2017 and the second field trip was in May 2018. We interviewed 64 key informants between 21 and 84 years old. Most of them were the village leaders and other local people who are knowledgeable about plants. After transect walks with knowledgeable local people, we used free listing, key informant interviews, and semi-structured interviews during the field work. Plants traditionally used by the Monpa were documented. Utilization frequency was used to assess the significance of each species, and the Cultural Importance index was used to estimate the cultural significance of the species in common. We also used the informant consensus factor (FIC) to determine the homogeneity of the informants' knowledge of medicinal plants.

Results: One hundred ninety-four plant species belonging to 82 families and 158 genera were recorded and collected. One hundred twenty-two species, primarily fruits, were food plants. Forty-five species were used as traditional medicines. This included highly valued species collected in alpine areas (Paris polyphylla) and brought to villages in Mêdog, which are at a lower altitude (between 728 and 1759 m a.s.l). Seven edible plant species were also used as herbal medicines. We also recorded 39 species used for other purposes in Monpa daily life. These included nine species that were used to make agricultural tools, five species for dyes and mordants, four species for timber, three species for fuelwood, four species for religious ritual use, three species for washing, two species for incense, two species for thatching, two species for fiber (rope and paper), two "calendar plants" were used to indicate seasons for agricultural purposes, two fish poison plant species, and one species were used as a tobacco substitute. Based on taxonomic insights and from studies elsewhere, we suggested that fiber species were under-reported (c. 14 species were used vs. one species reported used). Even though these plant species are rich and diverse, the use of endemic or near-endemic species was rarely recorded in previous studies. These species included Arenga micrantha (used for starch), Hornstedtia tibetica (fruits), Castanopsis clarkei (edible nuts) and Gnetum pendulum (edible nuts), Ophiorrhiza medogensis (vegetables), Derris scabricaulis (fish poison), Radermachera yunnanensis (agricultural tools), Litsea tibetana (seed oil), Dendrocalamus tibeticus (wine strainers and implements for administering medicine), Zanthoxylum motuoense (spices), Cinnamomum contractum (tobacco substitutes), Morus wittiorum (medicines), and Garcinia nujiangensis (funeral rituals). Despite the absence of roads until 2013 and the impression of "isolation," Monpa knowledge of plant use reflects three categories of change. Firstly, oral histories of plants used in Bhutan were also encountered by Monpa people after their migration from Bhutan to south-eastern Tibet. Secondly, a "slow change" through centuries of exchange of knowledge (for example of Chinese and Tibetan medical systems), seeds of introduced crops (finger millet (indigenous to Africa), maize (from Meso-America)), and experimentation and use of introduced medicinal plants (such as Datura stramonium, which originates from North America). Thirdly, "fast change" over the past decade. This is reflected in changes in traditional architecture and in rising commercial trade in selected plant resources such as Dendrobium orchid stems and Paris polyphylla rhizomes which are in demand in China's Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) markets).

Conclusions: Monpa people in the south-eastern Tibet have detailed knowledge of the diverse plant resources. But that traditional knowledge is now faced with a crisis because of the modern socio-economic change. In addition, Monpa knowledge of plants reflects slower changes in knowledge as well. For example, Monpa ethnomedicine has been influenced by traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine over a longer period in time. Overall, this study provides a deeper understanding of the Monpa peoples' knowledge on wild plants, including endemic and near-endemic species whose uses have not been previously recorded. Several of these narrowly distributed species, such as the fish poison Derris scabricaulis, could be the focus of further studies. Some wild edible plants may also have interesting dietary constituents which need in-depth studies. These detailed studies could enable the Monpa people to benefit from the use of their traditional plant-derived culture and therefore support the biodiversity conservation.

Keywords: Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot; Monpa; cultural change; endemic plants.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Culture
  • Ethnicity*
  • Ethnobotany* / methods
  • Fruit
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Medicine, Traditional / methods
  • Middle Aged
  • Plants, Medicinal
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tibet
  • Vegetables
  • Young Adult