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One century later: the folk botanical knowledge of the last remaining Albanians of the upper Reka Valley, Mount Korab, Western Macedonia
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 9, Article number: 22 (2013)
Ethnobotanical surveys of the Western Balkans are important for the cross-cultural study of local plant knowledge and also for obtaining baseline data, which is crucial for fostering future rural development and eco-tourism initiatives in the region. The current ethnobotanical field study was conducted among the last remaining Albanians inhabiting the upper Reka Valley at the base of Mount Korab in the Mavrovo National Park of the Republic of Macedonia.
The aims of the study were threefold: 1) to document local knowledge pertaining to plants; 2) to compare these findings with those of an ethnographic account written one century ago and focused on the same territory; and 3) to compare these findings with those of similar field studies previously conducted in other areas of the Balkans.
Field research was conducted with all inhabitants of the last four inhabited villages of the upper Reka Valley (n=17). Semi-structured and open interviews were conducted regarding the perception and use of the local flora and cultivated plants.
Results and conclusion
The uses of ninety-two plant and fungal taxa were recorded; among the most uncommon uses, the contemporary use of young cooked potato (Solanum tuberosum) leaves and Rumex patientia as a filling for savory pies was documented. Comparison of the data with an ethnographic study conducted one century ago in the same area shows a remarkable resilience of original local plant knowledge, with the only exception of rye, which has today disappeared from the local foodscape. Medicinal plant use reports show important similarities with the ethnobotanical data collected in other Albanian areas, which are largely influenced by South-Slavic cultures.
Ethnobiological studies conducted in the Western Balkans in recent years have reported a rich biocultural diversity and a remarkable vitality of traditional knowledge (TK) concerning the local flora in this region [1–12]. Such studies have been postulated to represent crucial lynch-pins for the development of community-based management strategies for local natural resources, sustainable eco-tourism and high-quality niche food and herbal products .
On the other hand, the ethno-historical perspective in the European ethnobotanical literature may represent an important tool for exploring trajectories of changes in plant use, as a few recent works have shown [14–18]. However, the integration of original ethnographic data with historical reports can only take place in those areas in Europe where detailed reports on local uses of plants are available. The comparison of current ethnographic data on plant uses with that reported in ancient treatises on medicinal plants can be more complex and even problematic, as information regarding local plant perceptions cannot generally be traced back. Comparative analysis between the plant knowledge of historical medical schools and that of subaltern rural classes may, however, be useful for understanding eventual hybridisations of these diverse plant knowledge systems [19–21].
The upper Reka Valley in Western Macedonia represents one of the very few Albanian-speaking areas in South Eastern Europe where a very detailed ethnographic account – including important notes concerning local food and medicinal plant uses - was written in the first decade of the 20th Century. Bajazid Elmaz Doda (approx. 1888–1933) was the personal assistant and long-term partner of one of the most famous scholars in the field of Albanian studies: the Hungarian aristocrat and palaeontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877–1933). Doda finalised a manuscript in 1914, probably written in collaboration with his mentor/partner, which was focused on the daily mountain life of his village, Shtirovica, located in the upper Reka Valley (approx. 1400 m.a.s.l.). This manuscript remained unpublished until the Albanologist Robert Elsie found it in the Austrian National Library and edited it in 2007 . Doda apparently wrote this account to challenge the argument of the Serbian-Austrian historian and astronomer Spiridon Gopčević (1855–1928), who described the Albanians of the upper Reka Valley as “albanicised Slavs” .
Doda’s village of Shtirovica was completely destroyed in 1916 by the Bulgarian army . However, a few surrounding tiny Albanian villages still survive to this day, despite the fact that the local population has been dramatically eroded by recent migration waves, both to the main centres in Macedonia and also abroad.
The aim of this study was to record the traditional plant knowledge of the last remaining Albanians living in these villages of the upper Reka Valley and to compare this with the ethnobotanical notes found in Doda’s work in order to better understand trajectories of change in plant uses. Moreover, a further objective of the study was to compare this field data with that of other recent ethnobotanical surveys conducted in surrounding areas and countries in order to trace commonalities and similarities, and to address overlaps and divergences in Albanian and South-Slavic traditional plant knowledge and practice.
In-depth open and semi-structured interviews, as well as participant observation were conducted in August 2012 with members (n=17) of all remaining families of the last inhabited villages of the upper Reka Valley (Figure 1): Nistrovë, Bibaj, Niçpur, and Tanushaj, within the Mavrovo National Park. The same villages were inhabited a few decades ago by hundreds of locals, who mostly migrated to the nearby towns of Gostivar and Skopje, as well as abroad for work or (as in Tanushaj) as a consequence of a (minor) Macedonian portion of the last Yugoslavian Wars.
Locals are now exclusively Muslims, but Albanians of Christian Orthodox faith also lived in the villages until a few decades ago. For example, in Nistrovë, one side of the village (with a mosque) is inhabited by Muslims, while the other side was inhabited by Orthodox believers. The entire population of Orthodox Christians migrated to towns a few decades ago, but they return to their village homes sometimes during the summer. Most of the houses in this part of the village are however abandoned even though the Church has been recently restored. According to our (Albanian Muslim) informants, these migrated Orthodox Christian Albanians assimilated within the Macedonian culture and now prefer to be labelled as “Macedonians”, even if they are still able to fluently speak Albanian. Contact between these two subsets of the village communities, which were very intense and continuous in the past, no longer exists today.
All Albanian inhabitants of the upper Reka are – to different degrees depending on the age – bilingual in Macedonian. Participants were questioned about traditional uses of medicinal plants and wild food plants (in use until a few decades ago or still in use today). Specifically, data concerning the local name(s) of each quoted taxon, the plant part(s) used, in-depth details about its/their manipulation/preparation and medicinal or food use(s) were collected. Interviews were conducted in Albanian with the help of two simultaneous translators.
Prior informed consent was always obtained verbally before conducting interviews and researchers adhered to the new ethical guidelines of the American Anthropological Association . During interviews, informants were always asked to show the quoted plants. Voucher specimens of the most uncommon wild taxa, as well as digital pictures of the most quoted preparations were taken and are deposited at the University of Tetovo and at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, respectively. A short video documentation of the field study is available online .
Taxonomic identification was conducted by the first author and plant nomenclature follows Flora Europaea, the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III system  and The Plant List database . The collected data was compared with Bajazid Elmaz Doda’s ethnographic study, which was conducted one century ago in the village of Shtirovica (Figure 1), within the same study area of our survey , and with the most relevant recent Balkan ethnobotanical field studies [1, 8–10, 13, 29–33] and the other available South-Slavic linguistic and folkloric-botanical sources [22, 34–44].
Results and discussion
The current ethnobotanical knowledge of the upper Reka
Table 1 reports the plant uses recorded in the upper Reka Valley. Ninety-two taxa were reported to be known and in use by the last remaining inhabitants, who were all interviewed. The resilience of the local traditional knowledge concerning plants is especially remarkable when compared with the recordings of the local plant knowledge documented one century ago (see last column of the table ). A few of the plant uses (with the exception of rye) recorded one century ago are still actively practiced today in the upper Reka Valley.
This seems to contradict what Bajazid Elmaz Doda postulated in his ethnographic report about the possible disappearance of the Albanians and their cultural heritage in the upper Reka , where an important folk medical heritage, although dramatically eroded, is still occurring. Among the most uncommon plant uses, the most noteworthy is the continuation of the use of the young leaves of cultivated potatoes and of wild Rumex patientia as filling for home-made savory pies. To the best of our knowledge, the recording of a food use of aerial parts of potatoes is new in contemporary Europe and may be explained by the extreme poverty and scarcity of resources in this mountainous area, even in the context of the Western Balkans. A confirmation of this phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by the migration trends from the upper Reka to Romania and Istanbul (mainly of young men), beginning in the 19th Century . In another study conducted on the Albanian side of Mount Korab (unpublished data), elderly locals confirmed that the upper Reka villages on the (current day) Macedonian side of the mountain were well known to them even in the folk history for being extremely disadvantaged in terms of socio-economic conditions.
The linguistic features of the current ethnobotanical knowledge of the upper Reka Valley
In Table 1, the folk plant names that were recorded in the upper Reka Valley and which are also used by South Slavs are denoted by an asterisk. Approximately one-third of the recorded pythonyms are also used by the South Slavs, with some notable examples of Slavic etymology concerning culturally-important and very commonly used wild plants, such as Urtica dioica, Hypericum perforatum, and Primula veris, as well as most cultivated crops and some forest trees too.
Wild gentian vs. the white hellebore: a surprising cognitive “inversion”
In the study area, the linguistic labels of gentian (Gentiana lutea) and white hellebore (Veratrum album) are the same. Gentian is, in fact, locally named as wild (meaning here “looking-like”) white hellebore (shtarë). This contradicts what would be expected regarding the plant cognitive prototype, which generally is represented by the most culturally salient or mostly used folk species , which in the Balkans is surely gentian. Instead, here gentian has been largely gathered solely for trade in the past and partially today, however a local use of gentian is unknown. Vice-versa, the use of hellebore in local ethnoveterinary practices may be very ancient; it was used mainly as external/topical agent for treating lice in diverse animals and especially for healing horses (roots were inserted into the musculature of the horse breast). This perhaps suggests that the gathering of Veratrum album in the Albanian mountains preceded the gathering of gentian, which could have been introduced by “external” factors: other cultures, such as the contiguous Slav ones, where the folk uses of gentian are widespread [1, 4–7], or by the demands of urban markets.
Figure 2 shows that a relevant portion of the medicinal plant taxa recorded and used in the upper Reka Valley are also part of the folk medical heritage of surrounding Balkan regions, where other field ethnobotanical surveys have been recently conducted (Figure 3).
This is especially true in those areas where the Albanian population was historically in extensive contact with the South-Slavic cultures, such as the Gollak area in eastern Kosovo , the Pešter plateau in south-western Serbia  and the Sharr Mountain (Šar Planina in Macedonian) in western Macedonia  (Figure 3).
This may confirm the findings of both our linguistic analysis on the folk plant names carried out in Table 1 and also Franz Nopcsa’s ethnolinguistic analysis of the terms referring to the material culture in upper Reka , which showed very important loans from the Romanian and especially Slavic languages. It can thus be postulated that the upper Reka Albanians had been heavily influenced by the Slavic culture - and not vice-versa, as Spiridon Gopčević stated .
Study participants confirmed that over recent decades their most important markets and “exchange” centres have been the multi-ethnic (Macedonian, Albanian, and Turk) towns of Gostivar in Western Macedonia and Prizren, in Southern Kosovo. Moreover, it must also be noted that over the span of the last century, the Albanians of the upper Reka lived outside of the borders of the Albanian state (founded in 1912), and for the major part of this period within the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia, where the dominant culture and languages have been Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian. In other words, the remarkable “interference” of the Slavic cultures found within the domain of Albanian traditional plant knowledge of the upper Reka represents a unique phenomenon, which nowadays is not easy to trace back in detail. This could be due to the difficulty faced in establishing to which degree the Slavic culture influenced the traditional knowledge among Albanians in the upper Reka, considering the role that ancient “hybridisations” may have played, as both Gopčević and Nopcsa, although in a different way, have underlined in their respective works.
Moreover, as well analysed by Fredrick Barth more than four decades ago , cultural contacts and boundaries among ethnic groups may be very complex and subject to dynamic change, since they respond to very unique societal and historical circumstances. It could be interesting to follow the future development of local perceptions of nature among the last remaining Albanians of the upper Reka and the strategies that they will adopt through processes of further negotiation of their identities within the rest of the population in Western Macedonia and the whole country.
Other domestic remedies
Table 2 reports other domestic and medicinal remedies recorded in the area, which are not based on indigenous plants; a large portion of these remedies survives only in the memories of the interviewees.
The very few last remaining Albanians living on the Macedonian side of Mount Korab of the upper Reka still retain a remarkable level of local knowledge concerning botanicals; this knowledge is however eroded, especially in quantitative terms, due the very tiny population, who have decided to remain in the region despite the influence of economic hardships. The hybrid “Albanian-Slav” cultural features of the local inhabitants, which have been largely discussed and disputed in Balkanological studies, could be confirmed in our ethnobotanical surveys, since both local plant names and especially a significant portion of the recorded plant uses share common features with other Slavic and culturally mixed areas of the Western Balkans. The multi-faceted knowledge recorded here could represent a crucial added value for the local managers of the Mavrovo National Park and also for further fostering new forms of eco-tourism, which must be sensitive not only to local biodiversity, but also to the multi-cultural dimension of a historically complex area like the upper Reka.
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Special thanks are due to all of the inhabitants of the upper Reka, and especially to the Elvir Bilalli and his family (Nistrovë) for their wonderful field assistance, generosity and friendship; to Alessandro Scalerandi for the video documentation of the field study; to Ludovico Roccatello and Alessando di Tizio for the logistic assistance in the field; to the reviewers, for their precious comments; to the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo, Italy, for having funded the field study.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Professor Sulejman Redzic, University of Sarajevo, plant ecologist and ethnobotanist, unforgettable, passionate colleague, who passed away in January 2013.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
AP designed the research and conducted the historical and field studies; BR assisted in the field study; AN, VK, and HA contributed to the ethnolinguistic and cross-cultural comparative analysis of the data; AN, HA, BM, and KC analysed the botanical taxonomic part of the data; AP and CLQ drafted the overall scientific discussion. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.