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

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.

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