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Progress in Botany 57 by Heinrich Behnke
Such recognition is suggested by the fact that worship of the Sun was often combined with the worship of plants by early tribes and civilizations. Earliest humans, like the other anthropoid mammals e. The behaviour of pre-Stone Age humans can be inferred by studying the botany of aboriginal peoples in various parts of the world. Isolated tribal groups in South America , Africa, and New Guinea , for example, have extensive knowledge about plants and distinguish hundreds of kinds according to their utility, as edible, poisonous, or otherwise important in their culture.
They have developed sophisticated systems of nomenclature and classification , which approximate the binomial system i. The urge to recognize different kinds of plants and to give them names thus seems to be as old as the human race. In time plants were not only collected but also grown by humans. This domestication resulted not only in the development of agriculture but also in a greater stability of human populations that had previously been nomadic. From the settling down of agricultural peoples in places where they could depend upon adequate food supplies came the first villages and the earliest civilizations.
Because of the long preoccupation of humans with plants, a large body of folklore, general information, and actual scientific data has accumulated, which has become the basis for the science of botany. Theophrastus , a Greek philosopher who first studied with Plato and then became a disciple of Aristotle , is credited with founding botany.
Only two of an estimated botanical treatises written by him are known to science: originally written in Greek about bce , they have survived in the form of Latin manuscripts, De causis plantarum and De historia plantarum. Pedanius Dioscorides , a Greek botanist of the 1st century ce , was the most important botanical writer after Theophrastus. In his major work, an herbal in Greek, he described some kinds of plants, with comments on their habit of growth and form as well as on their medicinal properties.
Unlike Theophrastus, who classified plants as trees, shrubs, and herbs, Dioscorides grouped his plants under three headings: as aromatic, culinary, and medicinal. His herbal, unique in that it was the first treatment of medicinal plants to be illustrated, remained for about 15 centuries the last word on medical botany in Europe. From the 2nd century bce to the 1st century ce , a succession of Roman writers— Cato the Elder , Varro , Virgil , and Columella —prepared Latin manuscripts on farming, gardening , and fruit growing but showed little evidence of the spirit of scientific inquiry for its own sake that was so characteristic of Theophrastus.
In the 1st century ce , Pliny the Elder , though no more original than his Roman predecessors, seemed more industrious as a compiler. His Historia naturalis —an encyclopaedia of 37 volumes, compiled from some 2, works representing Roman and Greek authors—has 16 volumes devoted to plants. Although uncritical and containing much misinformation, this work contains much information otherwise unavailable, since most of the volumes to which he referred have been destroyed.
The printing press revolutionized the availability of all types of literature, including that of plants.
Progress in Botany Vol. 79
In the 15th and 16th centuries, many herbals were published with the purpose of describing plants useful in medicine. Written by physicians and medically oriented botanists, the earliest herbals were based largely on the work of Dioscorides and to a lesser extent on Theophrastus, but gradually they became the product of original observation. The increasing objectivity and originality of herbals through the decades is clearly reflected in the improved quality of the woodcuts prepared to illustrate these books.
In an illustrated manuscript on Mexican plants, written in Aztec, was translated into Latin by Badianus; other similar manuscripts known to have existed seem to have disappeared. Whereas herbals in China date back much further than those in Europe, they have become known only recently and so have contributed little to the progress of Western botany. The invention of the optical lens during the 16th century and the development of the compound microscope about opened an era of rich discovery about plants; prior to that time, all observations by necessity had been made with the unaided eye.