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Figs as a global spiritual and material resource for humans

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 22:37 authored by Wilson, D, Wilson, A

The figs (Ficus: Moraceae) contain about 750 species spread throughout the tropics and subtropics worldwide, with approximately 500 of these in the Asian-Australasian area, 130 in the Neotropics and 110 in Africa (Berg 1989; Janzen 1979). Ecological scientists have long been fascinated by the diversity of this genus (Janzen 1979), recognizing the interplay between figs and animals as a dynamic mutualism. This perspective has been driven by the remarkable reproductive strategy of figs, whose fruit (syconium) is the site of an obligate mutualism with pollinating fig wasps of the family Agaonidae (Herre et al. 2008). Due to this mutualism, figs have evolved to produce very large crops of fruit at short intervals that favor the continuous development of their wasp mutualists (Janzen 1979). This combination of large fruit crops and regular fruiting makes fig trees important resources for many frugivores (Shanahan et al. 2001; Terborgh 1986), and it has been suggested that figs are an ecological keystone resource at a continental scale (Herre et al. 2008).

Although the role of figs as a vital resource is well established, humans are remarkably absent from these discussions. In a global review of figs and their vertebrate frugivores covering 260 fig species and over 1280 species of vertebrates, the only mention of humans is a note that ‘wild figs were eaten by humans in Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Africa,’ (Shanahan et al. 2001: 548). In the most comprehensive and recent ecological review of figs and their associates (Herre et al. 2008), humans are not mentioned even once. Given that humans are acknowledged as an important part of ecosystems (e.g., McDonnell and Picket 1993) the omission of humans from this discussion appears a particular oversight.

In this paper we demonstrate that figs are a keystone resource for humans throughout the area in which they cooccur. As with other vertebrate frugivores (Shanahan et al. 2001), figs are a vital food source to humans; however figs are also used by humans in a variety of other ways.We show that for humans, some fig species are considered sacred, provide fodder for domestic animals, are used as an ethnomedicine or are fashioned into useful objects. This paper is not intended as a thorough review of all the ways in which humans use figs. Rather, through examples, we seek to highlight the importance of figs to humans worldwide. The uses we highlight occur repeatedly throughout the world, and each use can involve different fig species and human cultures in different areas of the world. We hope to emphasize the global nature of the relationship that exists between humans and figs, and stimulate further research into the relationship.


Publication title

Human Ecology








School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publ

Place of publication

233 Spring St, New York, USA, Ny, 10013

Rights statement

Copyright 2013 Springer

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Other culture and society not elsewhere classified

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