Bedouin Ethnobotany

Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World

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A Bedouin asking a fellow tribesman about grazing conditions in other parts of the country says first simply, “Fih hayah?” or “Is there life?” A desert Arab’s knowledge of the sparse vegetation is tied directly to his life and livelihood.

Bedouin Ethnobotany offers the first detailed study of plant uses among the Najdi Arabic–speaking tribal peoples of eastern Saudi Arabia. It also makes a major contribution to the larger project of ethnobotany by describing aspects of a nomadic peoples’ conceptual relationships with the plants of their homeland.

The modern theoretical basis for studies of the folk classification and nomenclature of plants was developed from accounts of peoples who were small-scale agriculturists and, to a lesser extent, hunter-gatherers. This book fills a major gap by extending such study into the world of the nomadic pastoralist and exploring the extent to which these patterns are valid for another major subsistence type. James P. Mandaville, an Arabic speaker who lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, focuses first on the role of plants in Bedouin life, explaining their uses for livestock forage, firewood, medicinals, food, and dyestuffs, and examining other practical purposes. He then explicates the conceptual and linguistic aspects of his subject, applying the theory developed by Brent Berlin and others to a previously unstudied population. Mandaville also looks at the long history of Bedouin plant nomenclature, finding that very little has changed among the names and classifications in nearly eleven centuries.

This volume includes a CD-ROM featuring more than 340 color images of the people, the terrain, and nearly all of the plants mentioned in the text as well as an audio file of a traditional Bedouin song and its translation and analysis.

An essential volume for anyone interested in the interaction between human culture and plant life, Bedouin Ethnobotany will stand as a definitive source for years to come.

Supplementary materials, including “Companion Materials for Bedouin Ethnobotany,” “Plants of the Bedouin Lexicon Arranged by Botanical Family,” and  “Hanna Galbi,” available online at

"Mandaville writes clearly, unpompously, and with affectionate respect for the people he describes as 'consultants.' . . . He has patiently disentangled a highly evolved Bedouin ethnobotany."—Review of Middle East Studies

"This is by far the best and most thorough account of mainland Arabian ethnobotany. Mandaville’s work brings new sophistication to studies of Middle Eastern ethnoscience."—E.N. Anderson, co-author of Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community

"James P. Mandaville has integrated all of his experience and narrative brilliance in a volume that is much more than just another ethnobotanical inventory. It is a well balanced monograph touching on many aspects of a culture that is transforming with dramatic speed and in many directions."—Ethnobiology Letters
Bedouin Ethnobotany
352 Pages 6 x 9 x 1.3
Published: April 2019Paperback ISBN: 9780816539994
Published: June 2011Ebook ISBN: 9780816503438

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