August 25, 2010

The value of indigenous knowledge

Last of Their Kind:  What Is Lost When Cultures Die?

The world's cultures have been disappearing, taking valuable knowledge with them, but there is reason to hope

By Wade Davis
People often ask why it matters if these exotic cultures and their belief systems and rituals disappear. What does a family in New York care if some distant tribe in Africa is extinguished? In truth it probably matters little, no more than the loss of New York would directly affect a tribe in Africa. I would argue that the loss of either way of life does matter to humanity as a whole.

Consider the achievements of the Polynesians. Ten centuries before Christ—at a time when European sailors, incapable of measuring longitude and fearful of the open ocean, hugged the shores of continents—the Polynesians set sail across the Pacific, a diaspora that would eventually bring them to every island from Hawaii to Rapa Nui, the Marquesas to New Zealand. They had no written word. They only knew where they were by remembering how they had got there. Over the length of a long voyage the navigator had to remember every shift of wind, every change of current and speed, every impression from sea, sky and cloud. Even today Polynesian sailors, with whom I have voyaged, readily name 250 stars in the night sky. Their navigators can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of their vessels, knowing that every island group had its own reflective pattern that can be read with the ease with which a forensic scientist reads a fingerprint. In the darkness they can discern five distinct ocean swells, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances from the deep currents that pulsate across the Pacific and can be followed as readily as a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea.

There are many such examples of ancient wisdom. Among the Barasana people of the northwest Amazon in Colombia, for whom all the elements of the natural world are inextricably linked, complex mythologies about the land and its plants and animals have given rise to highly effective land-management practices that serve as a model for how humans can live in the Amazon basin without destroying its forests.
Comments from the peanut gallery

Some comments on this article:Zi at 09:44 AM on 08/23/10

All of human history and nature to this point say that for new and better things to come into being old ones have to die. It is true that language, architecture, and much more is part of the human legacy. I and most others will not, however, return to living in log cabins without plumbing, use Latin as a mother tongue, sail to China to do business, and on and on and on. The death of old ways, languages, and views is not an end. It is a new beginning. Nothing lasts forever...the hope is that what replaces it is better.

SDahal at 12:09 PM on 08/23/10

I am not sure whether "old ones [always] have to die" for the birth of "new" things. Don't we always build on the old to get across or to arrive at the new? To pick on your example, we may not return to caves or log cabins, but they were a bridge to the today's air-conditioned houses. In this particular case, the basic idea (or, in certain sense Plato's notion of Idea) of survival under a harsh weather condition remains the same in a modified, technologized version. What we call new things today will become "old" tomorrow. Sure everything has a life span, but there are certain old things, if not all, worthy of preserving and retrieving. Some of the old things can find new usage. Not everything new is necessarily better, so after certain experimentation we may have to return to old ways on some occasions. Return to or retrieval of the original or first form or any earlier stage as it is may not be possible, but reconfiguration of the past to suit and perfect the present is what we do. Neither can we terminate everything old to start anew from scratch nor is it necessary to do so.

Most importantly, everything new may not solve all the problems that we confront today. Some of the old ways are better equipped to tackle today's problems. Take for instance, analog computation. Should we terminate it in the name of digital computation? That would be a loss. An old language as a program may decode something that a new may not be able to. Past is the evolutionary milestone that we build our future upon. It is better to add something new to the old without destroying the old. This is where the example of the Barasana people makes sense: Their cultural practice of interconnection with nature has reduced the adverse human impact on the environment in the Northwest Amazon of Colombia.

Zi at 03:01 PM on 08/23/10

Get a grip & don't read things into simple statements that aren't there SDahal. No implications that babies should be thrown out with the bathwater were there. Simply put there is a growth process regarding human beings that continually matures the medium in which we exist and we must mature to exist in that medium as well. We can't 'packrat' everything into the future whether we like it or not. Get use to it.

outsidethebox at 05:57 PM on 08/23/10

Ask yourself why these cultures died. They were failures at surviving. That is also true of far more advanced ones (think the Soviet Union). Let's stop being romantic about failure.

frgough at 06:47 PM on 08/23/10

This is nothing more than a conclusion based on the flawed premise that all cultures are equally valuable. Superior cultures will dominate and eliminate inferior cultures, after assimilating the better elements. Get over it.

Kneeslapper at 08:35 PM on 08/23/10

Superior cultures?? I'm not calling u a racist frgough but that idea is very ignorant in itself. To think that ur culture is better than someone else's is pretty close minded. Look up culture relativism. N yes i do understand that western societies r more developed but our culture (as in American culture) has led to the demise of many things, our environment being one of them. So just because we live in air conditioned houses n not in huts doesn't make us any better than our fellow world citizens because every culture has it's good n bad.

tichead at 12:21 AM on 08/24/10

To all who may deny the value of ancient cultures: throw the main circuit breaker on your house to the OFF position. Live on your wits within your defined 'owned' space for a week. Let me know how that works out.

That any seemingly 'primitive' cultures survived the advent of modern contact is a testament to their resilience. And, that some didn't, does not diminish their culture. Could any of us digital communicators survive in the places that those people lived in for hundreds, maybe even thousands of generations, and do so without destroying the source of our sustenance?

Their science is/was their religion. The shaman, the keeper of the knowledge, was the priest, physicist, doctor, record keeper, artist, musician, grocer, and etc. I would not hesitate to hypothesize that we need their knowledge more than they need ours.
Rob weighs in

The Barasana's knowledge has proved its worth. I imagine the Polynesian knowledge could contribute to oceanographic research, meteorology, navigation, and related fields.

A few comments on the comments:

Zi says old things "have to die." But when SDahal challenges him on this, Zi backtracks and says babies shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater. In other words, old things must go unless they're valuable, in which case they can stay. So Zi foolishly misspoke and SDahal rightly corrected him on it.

We can't "packrat" everything into the future? Hasn't Zi heard of libraries and databases? With lour terabytes of data storage nowadays, we certainly can packrat everything. It's idiocy to suggest that we can't or shouldn't study the past and preserve the results. "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Outsidethebox's comment about cultures--"They were failures at surviving"--may be the stupidest thing here. Does that also apply to the 9/11 victims? They didn't protect themselves from a murderous attack, so they were failures. Survival of the fittest means Al Qaeda, not the losers in their ivory Twin Towers.

If "surviving" is your criterion, the civilizations of Egypt, China, and India have survived the longest. Unless you count the indigenous cultures that have survived for 10,000 years or more. They've all survived much longer than the United States, which is an infant among nations.

Moreover, the US couldn't defeat Vietnam, was terrorized on 9/11, and is failing in Afghanistan. Maybe we should switch to an Egyptian or indigenous model pronto since the evidence of our failures is all around us.

Frgough's "superior cultures will dominate and eliminate inferior cultures" is equally stupid. So the Nazis dominated and eliminated the Jews because the Jews were inferior? Great, let's all become Nazis. We can toss the Constitution and enshrine "might makes right" as our guiding principle.

For more on the subject, see Victor or Victim:  Our New National Anthem?, The Myth of Western Superiority, and Multicultural Origins of Civilization.

Below:  "Barasana people of the Northwest Amazon of Colombia believe that man and nature are one. Their philosophy of interconnectedness has given rise to land management practices that minimize the impact of the Barasana on the environment. In 1991 the Colombian government granted the Indian peoples of the Northwest Amazon legal land rights to an area the size of the U.K. Thanks to that decision, the once endangered Barasana are experiencing a powerful rebirth. They are among the rare lucky ones." (Wade Davis)

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