How to approach indigenous knowledge

Be open-minded

To study indigenous societies and their knowledge is to understand how many possible ways there are of viewing the world, and our place within it. Whilst it might make sense to us to build up a body of knowledge based on a combination of rational and empirical evidence that we accept via an application of the scientific method, this is by no means the ‘right’ way of acquiring knowledge, merely one way of many.

The words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet should always be in the back of TOK students’ minds, particularly when studying this optional theme (and, indeed, all aspects of the course):

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

As Wade Davis says: “The world in which we live in does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality, the consequence of just one set of adaptive choices that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.

We can learn a great deal from indigenous societies, and use many of the ideas produced by them on both a personal and societal level. Whilst we might be inclined to think of ‘modern’ knowledge as being able to provide the best answers to the important issues of life, this assumption becomes questionable when one starts to take a more culturally comparative approach to knowledge. If we pick out certain aspects of all societies, we’ll be able to see the value of viewing issues from a different point of view.

K. David Harrison adds to this: “What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know – which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may some day save us.

It’s common to view indigenous knowledge as somehow outdated, static, and ill-adapted for the modern world. However, our judgement in this area is based on equating the modern world with the western world, so when we assert that indigenous societies are not well adapted for the modern world, what we’re really saying is that they’re not well-adapted to the western world.

This may be true, but it does not follow logically from this to say that they are not very good at adapting to change, or to the everyday challenges that face them. Instead, we should judge indigenous knowledge principally in terms of the extent to which it has allowed a society to operate effectively within the environment in which it is based. By that measure, we quickly begin to see that indigenous societies are very well adapted.

There are many examples of extraordinary achievements amongst indigenous peoples, although these achievements are very unlike those in western society in that they are generally uncelebrated, and just form part of day-to-day existence. They include the way in which Inuit maps made from memory were almost exactly the same as ones that were made using up-to-date surveying technology; how Polynesian sailors, who can name hundreds of stars in the night sky, are able to:

…sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberations of waves across the hull of their vessels”; the fact that Buddhists who shut themselves away from all human contact, and meditate on their own for decades end up not insane as we might image, but “more clear than a pool of water in a mountain stream”; how the San people of Southern Africa have been using an appetite suppressant taken from the cactus Hoodia gordonii, which was taken (initially without consulting the San) by a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company in the 1990s, and sold to Pfizer for $30 million. Such achievements led Franz Boas, one of the founding fathers of anthropology to declare in 1927: “There is no such thing as a primitive mentality.” See Wade Davis’s 2008 TED talk

Linking indigenous knowledge to the natural sciences

One other extraordinary example of plant usage that is worth considering in detail is the psychotropic drug Ayahuasca, used by peoples of the Amazon jungle for many centuries. This is drunk as an infusion primarily by the shaman of the tribes in the forest and, increasingly, by tourists venturing into the jungle for life changing experiences. Those who have taken Ayahuasca talk about gaining truths about the universe, and spiritual revelations that provide them with insights on how to lead their lives.

From a Western perspective, what’s most interesting is about the way in which Ayahuasca is made, and how it was discovered in the first place. The hallucinogenic chemical in Ayahuasca is called Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), found within certain plants in the Amazon rainforest. When taken on its own, DMT has very little effect, as its enzymes are denatured by a chemical in the stomach called monoamine oxidase (MAOI).

If, however, you take it in conjunction with a MAOI inhibitor – such as that found in Banisteriopsis caapi (which is also known as Ayahuasca), the effects are literally mind-blowing. The big question, of course, is that within a jungle containing 8000 different species of plants and flowers, how did the indigenous people find out how to extract exactly the right ingredients from the very distinct plants in order to produce Ayahuasca? Whilst western scientists might set about unravelling the secret by an extensive series of trials and errors (even assuming they knew that an answer was possible), the Cofán people, who can distinguish 17 different types of Ayahuasca which to the untrained eye look identical, say that they gain this knowledge because the plants talk to them on nights when there is a full moon.

Whilst we might be very sceptical of this explanation, the result of their knowledge claim cannot be refuted, forcing us to question the extent to which there is only one way of acquiring knowledge.

History and indigenous societies – written sources

Even if a society does not possess a written tradition, we can often find out about it by looking at descriptions of first contact that were made by literary societies. Most of these were created by non-scientists, so their major drawback is that they do not often focus on particularly wide aspects of life, or the knowledge systems that belonged to these societies. Instead, they tend to focus on narrow aspects of the society that they were intent on exploiting – the best example being Spanish accounts of the natural resources possessed by the indigenous peoples of South America, which was the only aspect of society that they were genuinely interested in.

Having said that, it can also be the lack of training that makes these accounts interesting for us. One such example is that of Sabine Kuegler, the daughter of German missionaries working and living with Fayu nomads in Indonesia in the 1980s. The Kueglers were the first Europeans to live among the Fayu, and Sabine Kuegler grew up in their society from ages 7 to 17. Although Kuegler’s book (Dschungelkind, or Jungle Child) lacks an academic approach, such as being based around a hypothesis, offering data tables, considering the state of current anthropological thought on her subject, what it does contain is in some ways even more valuable. As Diamond writes:

Because Sabine’s playmates were Fayu children and she grew up partly as a Fayu herself, her book approximates an autobiography of a Fayu, but one endowed with a dual perspective as a Fayu and a Westerner. Sabine was thus able to notice Fayu characteristics – such as their sense of time, physical difficulties of Fayu life, and the psychology of being a Fayu – that a Fayu would take for granted and not bother to mention.

As Diamond also mentions, what is interesting about the book concerns Kuegler’s return to Europe, which she then viewed and assessed through Fayu eyes.

History and indigenous societies – oral sources

In order to gain information about indigenous knowledge systems that has not been ‘tainted’ by contact by people intent on either subduing or studying them, we need to find out about the way their societies operated before contact occurred. One way to do this is to carry out interviews with current members of indigenous societies, and ask questions about their past.

This method of study can have some remarkable results, as seen in the work of Polly Weissner and Akii Tuma on the Enga people of Papua New Guinea, mentioned by Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday. Weissner and Tuma interviewed elders in no less than 110 different tribes, cross-checking their accounts with dateable events, and weighing up different accounts to allow for biases. On the other hand, there are many peoples for whom this method does not work, such as those who approach empirical knowledge in even more of an extreme way than we have already mentioned. Diamond quotes the example of the linguist Daniel Everett in the late 1990s:

Everett found that Brazil’s Piraha Indians refused to discuss anything that they had not seen with their own eyes, and hence were scornful of Everett’s efforts to tell them about the life of Jesus: “Did you see him yourself? If not, how can you believe it?

History and indigenous societies – archaeology

Another way of finding out about indigenous societies’ past is by using archaeological methods. The great advantage of this method over other ones is that it allows us to understand societies that are up to tens of thousands of years old, and that were never touched by the industrialized world.

The disadvantage, of course, is that despite archaeological methods being so impressive, so much detail about life amongst these societies – the names of individual members of society, what motivated them to behave in the way they did, the relationships they enjoyed with each other, the way in which they spoke – is lost that there it’s very hard to get a handle on their outlooks on life. It takes, therefore, an archaeologist several years to build up the same amount of information that would take an ethnographer a single day to acquire.

Be prepared to take action

Wade Davis takes about a human ‘ethnosphere’, which is the sum total of human culture: all the thoughts, dreams, myths, inspirations, and intuitions that we have had since the dawn of consciousness. He argues that this is equally important to the world’s well-being as biological life (which we know as the ‘biosphere’). Whilst both face threats, however, Davis points out that not even the most pessimistic biologist would claim that half the biosphere is facing extinction – yet that is exactly the figure that applies when we are talking about the ethnosphere. The key indicator of a culture’s health is its language. As Dr Renée Grounds, the lead language instructor and youngest fluent speaker of the Euchee tribe, says:

Our heritage languages, our original languages are probably the most critical markers of the health of our communities in terms of our cultural well-being. And that relates to understanding who we are, that relates to understanding what our place is in the world, how we are to conduct ourselves; the special things that have been given to us by the Creator is all carried in the language.

Judged along these lines, traditional societies are under serious threat. Roughly one language dies out every 3 months, which means that by the end of this century, if nothing is done to halt the decline, over 3000 languages will have died out. In the short term, it is estimated that of the world’s current languages, around 450 are spoken by fewer than 10 people. These are the ones on the front line of extinction.

The plight of indigenous peoples can be ignored on two levels. First, we can ignore the very fact of their existence, and go about our lives without considering what they are going through. As TOK students who are trained to think in a critical and inquisitive way about the world, this is clearly not a viable option. The second way is to accept that their numbers are declining, and their ways of life being threatened, but view that decline as the inevitable result of their cultures’ flaws and deficiencies in the modern world.

This viewpoint is more likely to be how we see their situation, but how valid is it? Are the challenges they face the same ones that face all societies? Or are there extra pressures on indigenous peoples that would pose a test to any society in the world? Hopefully after reading this section of the website, and learning about how vibrant, dynamic, and incredibly sophisticated indigenous societies often are, you’ll be better equipped to challenge that view, and accept that it is everyone’s responsibility to learn about indigenous societies, and help promote the interests of them.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. How to approach indigenous knowledge. (13th June 2022).


Use this content in lesson-ready lessons, receive monthly newsletters for older and younger students, share mini-lessons with your DP faculty, and gain access to the DP Integration Tool, Investigating Issues, Knowledge Heroes, and loads more resources by joining us!