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The human health and conservation relevance of food taboos in northeastern Madagascar

Christopher D. Golden, Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health; Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife Health and Health Policy, HEAL (Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) Program
Jean Comaroff, Harvard University, Departments of African and African American Studies and Anthropology


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Anthropologists and ecologists investigating the dialectical relationship between human environments and the cultural practices that shape and are shaped by them have been talking past each other for too long: the one looking purely at metaphor and the other purely at function. Our mixed-method data analysis set out to explore whether it was possible to determine empirically the human health and conservation value of the local Malagasy taboo system. This involved qualitative examination of the content of taboo origin stories collected through ethnographic approaches, when the story was remembered. The ethnographic substance of these stories included historicizing events, accounts of symptoms associated with breaching taboos, and incentives for abiding by taboos. We then used quantitative comparisons in an effort to understand the motivation for adhering to taboos. We provide evidence that the conservation value of taboos may be limited but that the social value of taboos may be rooted in concerted attempts to preserve a physical, spiritual, moral, and cultural immunity. Furthermore, we found that there was a sophisticated traditional etiological knowledge, based in nuanced understandings of ecology and epidemiology, which likely protects local people from zoonotic disease, allergies, and toxins. We suggest that the prohibitions mandated by the traditional taboo system against consuming particular wildlife species is a moral framework, which is driven to a significant degree by personal security and health-related incentives.

Key words

allergies; Betsimisaraka; bushmeat; hunting; traditional epidemiological knowledge; traditional etiological knowledge; Tsimihety; wildlife; zoonotic disease

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087