Researchers have debated on the extent of universality of classification systems in ethnobiology, with little attention to the fundamental mechanisms that underpin aboriginal taxonomy. In a mechanistic approach we challenge previous notions that aboriginal taxonomy is based predominantly on one particular mechanism (e.g., universal taxonomy, utilitarian, morphological, ecological). We hypothesize that traditional knowledge has evolved to include multifarious mechanisms, which provide a robust systematic classification and diverse taxonomy for plants. Quantitative classification techniques using Bray-Curtis average linkage and Detrended Correspondence Analysis (DCA) were employed to classify 50 plant species using both traditional aboriginal and Linnaean characters. Our research indicates that the Irulas of Tamil Nadu are an example of a traditional culture that uses three primary taxonomic mechanisms to identify plants; morphology, ecology and experience (“utility” was a secondary mechanism). Our ordination analysis suggests that the Irulas classification is more robust than the Linnaean taxonomy for the same group of plants.
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