The adaptability and innovation of indigenous societies


It’s common to view indigenous societies as somehow outdated, static, and ill-adapted for the modern world.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.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. The adaptability and innovation of indigenous knowledge. (10th June 2022).


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