For hundreds of years, indigenous knowledge has been pushed aside. But modern science is now listening to this traditional wisdom, as it could help improve our understanding of the planet and the stars
Western science has a lot to learn from indigenous people. Science journalist and palaeobiologist Colin uncovers what we’re learning.
“If indigenous people had this knowledge first, why shouldn’t we include that in the history of science?”
Back in 1977, scientists made an alarming discovery: the bowhead whale population in the Beaufort Sea to the north of Alaska had collapsed to around 1,000 individuals. It was enough to justify a local ban on whaling. But Alaska’s indigenous whale hunters were baffled – by their own estimates the bowhead population numbered at least 7,000.
The scientists had counted the number of bowheads passing through open water near the coast, assuming that the whales could not swim further offshore beneath the ice. The indigenous hunters insisted that whales routinely swam beneath that ice, breaking it with their heads when they needed air. Bowheads that behaved in this way were not figuring in the scientists’ count, according to the hunters.
Within a few years scientists had confirmed that the hunters’ claims were correct and whaling had resumed on a small scale. A 1991 survey put the whale population at 8,000. It was further evidence that the local hunters had been right to dispute the results of the 1977 survey, even though it had been conducted by highly trained scientists.
What we might label ‘modern science’ emerged in Europe about 450 years ago, and has since spread throughout the world. It is undoubtedly a powerful tool to better understand life, the Universe and everything – but as Alaska’s indigenous hunters realised, modern scientists can reach the wrong conclusions where there are gaps in their knowledge.
Researchers are now recognising that some of those gaps can be filled with information embedded in indigenous knowledge systems. “We’re seeing how weaving Western and indigenous scientific approaches together can advance modern science as a whole,” says Dr Jesse Popp, an ecologist at Laurentian University and a member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in Ontario, Canada.
By embracing that indigenous knowledge, modern scientists are beginning to appreciate something that members of indigenous communities have long known – namely that their ancestors were scientists.
It is perhaps easy to understand why indigenous knowledge was ignored. With the arrival of European settlers in the Americas, Africa and Australasia, indigenous communities were often forced from their lands and pushed to the margins of society, their knowledge systems trivialised. “It makes it easier to colonise a people if they are in that degraded position,” explains Karlie Noon, an astronomer at the Australian National University in Canberra and a member of the Kamilaroi group of indigenous Australians.
RIGHT: Bowhead whales have large heads with thick skulls that allow them to break through sea ice. Indigenous hunters’ reports of this behaviour helped confirm population numbers of the bowhead whaleBELOW RIGHT: Astronomer Karlie Noon is interested in making links between modern science and stories from indigenous Australians