Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A taste of traditional Italian medicine

Medical Ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy.

By Carol Clark

“Ethnobotany is the science of survival,” Cassandra Quave told a group of Emory students when they visited her field research site in southern Italy recently.

Quave, a medical ethnobotantist with Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, is documenting the traditional ways that people use plants in the Vulture-Alto Bradano region of Basilicata province, a landscape of rolling hillsides dominated by the dormant volcano Monte Vulture. She is also collecting specimens of medicinal plants that she will take back to her Emory lab for her drug discovery research projects.

The students were in Italy this June as part of the “Italian and Medical Humanities” course, a collaboration of Emory’s Italian Studies Program, the School of Medicine, the Center for Ethics and the Center for the Study of Human Health.

Their itinerary included a day with Quave, who immersed the students in the local life of the village of Ginestra. She took them on a walk through the surrounding countryside, identifying the traditional medicinal uses of plants they encountered along the way. A fourth-generation shepherd told the students about pastoral life, and truffle hunters demonstrated how they use dogs to hunt these gourmet delicacies.

Cassandra Quave takes students off the beaten track, to learn about agrarian life.

“The students got to see first-hand how important traditional knowledge of environmental resources can be to a community,” Quave says. “It would be very difficult for these people to survive without it.”

During a visit to a vineyard, Quave made a point of having the students pick and eat ripe mulberries off a tree. “Today, especially in the U.S., people are very disconnected from their environment and food sources,” she says. “For many of the students, this was the first time that they had ever eaten anything that they had harvested themselves.”

Basilicata is home to the Arbereshe ethnic minority in Italy, the descendants of Albanians who fled the Ottoman invasion of Albania five centuries ago. “They have maintained their language, which is very different from modern-day Albanian, and adapted to a new environment, while still keeping some of their homeland traditions alive,” Quave says. “Unfortunately, many of these practices are in a state of rapid decline. The Arbereshe language is listed as an endangered language and as the language disappears, so does much of the culture.”

Quave currently has a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue her research into how an extract from the elm leaf blackberry, a tree common in forests across Europe, might help fight antibiotic-resistant staph. Click here to read more about her research.

Here are more photos of the students in Basilicata. 

Photos courtesy of Cassandra Quave.

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