In January I traveled to South Africa on a research trip with my dad, William Beinart, following the story of a wild yam. William is South African and as a historian he has been writing about the social and environmental history of the area for 40 years. Traveling with him is like having a living encyclopedia by your side. He reads narratives behind street names, sees complexity in an apparently vast and empty veld, makes unexpected links between people, plants and animals. Everywhere is a storied landscape. I was lucky to be able to make this trip with him – both for the experience and curiosity he brings to research, and for the opportunity to spend time with him in this complicated, intense, scarred and beautiful land he knows so well.
Through this trip we are learning more about Dioscorea sylvatica, a wild yam known as 'Elephant's Foot' or 'ingwevu' in Zulu, that was heavily exploited by the British firm Boots for the production of cortisone in the 1950s – a story I've been digging into for over a year. The journey started with a substance produced in Nottingham, but tracing its origins has taken me into unfamiliar environments and knowledge systems. We visit muthi markets, archives, herbariums and nature reserves, and have fascinating conversations with traders, healers, scholars and conservationists. As we try to make sense of our research on this plant's story and its multiple tendrils, I notice the differences between our approaches. William is specific and evidence-based. I have gut feelings about things, and want to make claims that are not always substantiated by what we've found out so far, but that I think are politically important. But he also acts on hunches. Often these turn out to be well founded, but occasionally they lead us off on diversions – like a trip to a dilapidated agricultural research centre breeding GM pigs, with no yams in sight.
We talk a lot about ethics, and the power and responsibility of research – particularly when you are referring to indigenous knowledge that has been or could be exploited. In Reinventing Hoodia Laura A Foster problematises the term 'Indigenous Knowledge' and discusses the ways that many indigenous peoples have started to reclaim this language in powerful ways . Through the trip and conversations with William and the people we met, I deepened my thinking about knowledge, value, and ownership, and I want to reflect on these questions.
In the 1940s, and early 1950s, following on from the discovery of saponin-rich plants as a starting point for the production of steroids and hormones, there was a global plant rush focusing on Dioscorea and other species. Pharmaceutical companies put a premium on analysing plant’s chemical composition to find out which ones were suitable for the complex chemical processes needed to produce steroid drugs. Our research in South Africa didn't suggest a direct link between the use of this plant in traditional medicine and its subsequent use by the pharmaceutical industry. Russell Marker’s work on the wild Mexican yam in the 1940s led to a Mexican industry that became the main supplier of raw materials for the manufacture of the contraceptive pill  and by the early 1950s British pharmaceutical companies were looking for ‘non-dollar’ sources for steroid production. Although the use of Elephant’s Foot yam was not a direct case of biopiracy – in the sense of an obvious and deliberate theft of indigenous knowledge for profit – the exploitation of this plant takes place against the backdrop of a long history of plant collection from South Africa, centuries of European occupation, and the violence of apartheid. Herbalist and writer Jason Irving shows how historically the search for new medicines during European colonialism was both a motivation for exploration and a tool to facilitate expansion: ‘Traditional knowledge of medicinal plants was both valued as a source for ‘new’ medicines, and devalued as only scientific explanation by scientists gave it true rational value.' 
The conversations we had with traditional healers in muthi markets in Johannesburg and in the rural area of Mpumalanga brought up important questions on knowledge, ownership, plant exploitation, systems of thinking about disease and healing, and conservation. William tells me that interviewing ten people doesn't count as thorough research, so we need to be careful about extrapolating from these conversations. But for me, working with translator Thuso Mohlala, and sitting down in Acornhoek yards to speak with elderly sangomas and herbalists was a rare and profoundly affecting experience. These conversations brought up the limits of my understanding, both of language (Zulu and Sepedi – in translation) and the ideas that people were expressing about healing and the role of this plant in a wider system of knowledge. Sangomas use divining, consult the ancestors, and perform rituals as part of their healing practice, as well as using plant and animal-based medicines. We also met herbalists who sometimes refer their patients to sangomas for diagnosis, but focus mostly on collecting and preparing plant medicines. The concept of medicine (muthi) is very different to the dominant pharmaceutical paradigm – rather than a single drug to 'cure' a single disease, ill-health and treatment are understood in a more holistic way. Sangoma and scholar Nolwazi Mbongwa explained that her diagnosis process is not just physical but also spiritual, emotional and psychological – ‘when I'm looking at a person I'm looking at more than just a headache.’
When we went to meet healers, we took along a piece of the yam bought from a muthi market in Johannesburg, and the 1950s Boots advert that had started me off on this research. Thuso explained why we were interested in the plant, and most of the older healers we met were familiar with it, despite the species being massively depleted by pharmaceutical use in the 1950s. The people we interviewed described the yam as a powerful plant and told us it had both topical and ritualistic uses for cleansing and protection. The wild yam's name in different languages connects to its appearance – its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell and is sometimes described as an armour – and also connect to its use for strength and protection. In English it's called 'Elephants Foot', in Zulu 'ingwevu' meaning grey/old or 'ifudu' meaning tortoise, and in Sepedi the name is 'Kgato' – to stamp. Several healers told us that caution needed to be exercised when cutting or collecting the plant, and depending who you are this could be dangerous. Two people spoke of the plant having a spirit that was akin to an animal.
The local knowledge that led to an interest in the plant from botanists and scientists is rarely recorded in any detail in archives, but this is the link I am interested in. How did Boots in Nottingham come across a wild South African yam as a starting point for the manufacture of cortisone? From our conversations with traditional healers and looking at botanical records , it is clear that medicinal yams were known and used across many different South African communities well before the steroid industry took an interest. A South African botanist recorded in the 1910s that the plant was used by African people for its saponins and a wider range of uses were mentioned in The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern Africa, first published in 1932. In a 1950s report on their collection for Boots' South African collaborators Biochemico, there is a brief reference to local knowledge: ‘the actual digging was done by locals who need no more training than to be shown an “ingwevu” plant (which the vast majority in that area know in any case) and the size of the tuber required.’  The digging referred to here is the extraction of about 6,000 tonnes of wild yams, that was only curtailed when the plant population became endangered and South African government conservationists stopped exploitation.
Whilst records made by botanists and later writers provide a valuable reference of plant use, medical historian Karen Flint argues that ‘once disseminated through scholarly journals, museum annals, and books, this transference became part of the public domain. This made it easier for later bioprospectors, seeking to “discover” new remedies, to extract, isolate, innovate and test various compounds derived from these plants.’ 
William cautions me for constructing an oversimplified binary between 'tradition' and 'science' – especially in contemporary South Africa, where he argues that knowledge is hybrid. He discusses this in a new book on scientific innovation in South Africa, and reminds me of two texts we keep referring back to – The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern Africa (1932) and People's Plant's (1997). Of the second, William writes that the text 'is a celebratory approach as part of the transition to a post-apartheid South Africa. It represented an acceptance of more relativist approaches to knowledge, aimed to salvage information “before it is irretrievably lost to future generations”, and to “raise awareness of the role plants play in people’s daily lives”.' 
Knowledge doesn't always follow directly traceable lines, and of course it is complex and hybrid. Indigenous knowledge is not static and unchanging, and 'scientific' knowledge is not always original and innovative. This point is explored in Uriel Orlow's film The Crown Against Mafavke based on a bizarre 1940s trial in apartheid South Africa, in which a traditional healer is accused of ‘untraditional behaviour’. Jason Irving points out 'the trial centres on colonial hierarchies of knowledge and relations of power, constructed around the dichotomy of frozen tradition versus progressive objective science.' 
In contemporary South Africa, healers seem to be well aware of their position – carriers of traditional knowledge that could be lost, but also protectors of knowledge they fear will be exploited for profit with no benefit for them or their communities. Some have worked with campaigners and legal teams to test and record the efficacy of traditional plant medicines, and to prove existing knowledge – in order to gain recognition that could lead to greater government protection.  A landmark case in 2003 saw the South African San Council sign a benefit sharing agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for the use of Hoodia. This succulent plant was used for centuries as a survival food by Khoi and San people, but in the 1990s the CSIR and pharmaceutical company Phytopharm attempted to patent Hoodia as an appetite suppressant and diet drug. The legal struggle led by the San Council was eventually successful and influenced subsequent legislation on indigenous knowledge and benefit sharing. 
For the Elephant's Foot yam it may be 70 years too late. But it still has a lot of stories to tell.
Thank you to William Beinart, Andile Magengelele, he South African National Biodiversity Institute, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife archive, Boots Archive, Thuso Mohlala, Pegi Phale, Eveline, Mr Thabane, Safina, Magumede, Nolwazi Mbongwa and Vivienne Williams for the conversations that informed this blog.
 'The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues encourages a flexible, working definition of the term to account for those who self-identify as indigenous, are a nondominant sector of society, and seek to preserve their cultural heritage and ancestral lands.' – Laura A Foster, Reinventing Hoodia, Wits University Press, 2018
 Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill, Duke University Press, 2009
 Jason Irving, Decentering European Medicine: The Colonial Context of the Early History of Botany and Medicinal Plants – In Theatrum Botanicum, ed. Shela Sheikh & Uriel Orlow, Sternberg Press, 2018
 In 1952, I.H. Burkill (international yam expert) published an overview of the location of three key southern African species in the South African Journal of Botany. Burkill scoured the historical literature and also looked at herbarium specimens to construct a map of their incidence.
 Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife archive
 Karen Flint, Compounding Traditions: from 'untraditional healers to modern bioprospectors of South Africa's medicinal plants. In Theatrum Botanicum, ed. Shela Sheikh & Uriel Orlow, Sternberg Press, 2018
 William Beinart & Saul Dubow – forthcoming book: The Scientific Imagination in South Africa
 Jason Irving – Decentering European Medicine (In Theatrum Botanicum, ed Shela Sheikh & Uriel Orlow)
 In 2013 the National Indigenous Knowledge Management System (NIKMAS) was set up with the initial aim of recording African Traditional Medicine and Indigenous Knowledge because ‘these two themes are most at risk in terms of Intellectual Property exploitation and bio-piracy'.
 Laura A Foster, Reinventing Hoodia, Wits University Press, 2018