COLIN BARRAS

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

Focus-Science and Technology - - WELCOME - WORDS: DR COLIN BARRAS

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.

SCI­ENCE STO­RIES

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

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