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Ethno-taxonomy among Bakhtiari nomads of Iran

Monday 12 November 2018
Descriptive and Anthropological Linguistics Discussion Group
P.J. Veth
Nonnensteeg 1-3
2311 VJ Leiden


The aim of this talk is to present the ways in which Bakhtiari nomads see, perceive and categorize their natural surroundings. This area of research, known as Ethnobiology, is relatively new and the first cognitively oriented works on the subject dates back to 1950s. The pioneer figure who tried to conceptualize all the research done in the field is Brent Berlin (1972, 1973, 1976 and 1992), see also Berlin, Dennis E. Breedlove and Peter H. Raven (1973, 1974).

These works were exploring the fundamental similarities between the seemingly diverse folk biosystematics. By formalizing the possible principles that underlie folk taxonomies, scholars strive to understand the conceptual basis of these classifications in the human mind. Berlin et al (1973: 214-216) present nine principles that they believe were proven by the data that have been gathered in what was admittedly a small number of societies.

This taxonomic topic has received only scant attention in Iranian linguistic and anthropological studies. In a study, the above mentioned principles were used in the analysis of the Bakhtiari terminology of flora and fauna (around a thousand terms, including 416 especially for fauna and 664 flora words and expressions). As will be explained, the Bakhtiari data do not always match the proposed principles.

Two main criteria can be found in the literature to propose an answer to the above enquiries: an intellectual and a utilitarian one. As for the Bakhtiari data, there exists certain categorical and nomenclatural behavior that, as I will argue, does not support either the intellectualistic or the utilitarian approach to ethnobiology as it is represented in the literature. This lack of conformity may be interpreted as a result of ignoring the systematics of ancient taxonomies such as the Iranian one (Schmidt 1980: 211).

Another important factor that seems to be overlooked in the process of formulation of the existing taxonomical theories is the role and importance of religious beliefs in shaping peoples’ world view and the way they classify its natural and physical beings. The Bakhtiari classification, especially the categorization of fauna, as will be explained, seems to have roots in pre-Islamic, or more specifically, in Zoroastrian beliefs as presented in some Avestan and Middle Persian sources.

The presented data is the result of more than two decades of doing research on Bakhtiari, however, to be able to understand and to explore this folk-taxonomy needs many more years of work and brain-storming with other scholars interested in the field or even from other fields of study.

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