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Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use


Human life depends on plant biodiversity and the ways in which plants are used are culturally determined. Whilst anthropologists have used phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) to gain an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the evolution of political, religious, social and material culture, plant use has been almost entirely neglected. Medicinal plants are of special interest because of their role in maintaining people’s health across the world. PCMs in particular, and cultural evolutionary theory in general, provide a framework in which to study the diversity of medicinal plant applications cross-culturally, and to infer changes in plant use over time. These methods can be applied to single medicinal plants as well as the entire set of plants used by a culture for medicine, and they account for the non-independence of data when testing for floristic, cultural or other drivers of plant use. With cultural, biological and linguistic diversity under threat, gaining a deeper and broader understanding of the variation of medicinal plant use through time and space is pressing.

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Fig. 1: The medicinal use of a plant species by several linguistically related societies.


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We would like to thank Anneleen Kool for helpful discussions during the preparation of this manuscript. I.T.-T. and J.A.H received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under the Grant agreement no. 606895. F.M.J was supported by the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Starting Grant no. 639291.

Author’s contributions

I.T.-T., F.M.J and J.A.H conceived the ideas. J.A.H. led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to writing and gave their final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Julie A. Hawkins.

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Teixidor-Toneu, I., Jordan, F.M. & Hawkins, J.A. Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use. Nature Plants 4, 754–761 (2018).

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