Indigenous science

Characteristics of western and indigenous worldviews

Western worldview Indigenous worldview
Explains mystery
Time is linear
Seeks power over nature and people
Celebrates mystery
Time is circular

Seeks to coexist with nature and people

Western science: Knowledge production for the sake of it, to progress society

Indigenous knowledge: Knowledge production for specific cultural outcomes, to maintain society

A summary of Indigenous peoples’ understandings of the world (worldview) (from Fleer, 1999)

Holistic versus a reductionist approach

Indigenous people examine elements of their surroundings in terms of how they relate to each other.

For example, the notion of the seasons only makes sense when considered with the movement of the animals, growth of plants, movement of water. There is a relation between each element. An Indigenous view moves beyond simple examining the wind, clouds and temperature.

Ecologically based approach

People are part of the environment. Their actions directly impact on the flora and fauna. People are in and not external to their environment. There is a connectedness with nature and each other rather than the view that nature can be controlled.

The gathering of food or hunting of animals is based on present needs of its people, within the context of ensuring scarce resources will be available in the future. For example, a waterhole is imported and must be cared for and not depleted.

Inclusive versus specialisation of knowledge

Everybody understands and uses technology (but with certain members of the community claiming knowledge of it) as opposed to specialist knowledge held by a limited few.

An understanding of where to find water is traditionally held by all members of traditionally orientated communities. Similarly, the hunting for kangaroos (tracking, signing to indicate direction) is known to all, although aspects of this task may be performed by only some.

Knowledge is spiritually framed

Art, dance, music and dreamtime stories link knowledge with the land and its people.

For example, an understanding of day and night may be closely linked with the dreamtime. Stories link people and nature together, and provide a vehicle for passing on cultural knowledge from adults to children.

Contextualised versus decontextualised science

Knowledge is developed and used in context. Scientific enquiry takes place in the everyday situation and not in an environment external to the context in which it will be applied (laboratory).

For example, knowledge of fire lighting is developed as a result of materials available, e.g. rubbing sticks over dried grass; using pandanus leaves to make string.

From Fleer, Marilyn. (1999). Children’s alternative views: Alternative to what? International Journal of Science Education, 21(2), 119-135.

Science and Traditional Knowledge

Extracts from the report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge (March 2002)


In this paper, we will use the term “Traditional Knowledge” in the following sense, which is in accordance with common usage of the term in the literature. Traditional knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview (see, e.g., contributions by B. and E.A. Berlin, M. Langton, R. Mathew, K. Ruddle, L. Séhuéto and commentary by D. Nakashima, Session on “Science and other systems of knowledge”, in World Conference on Science. Science for the Twenty-First Century: A New Commitment, A.M. Cetto, ed. Paris : UNESCO, 2000, pp. 432-44). Traditional knowledge provides the basis for local-level decision-making about many fundamental aspects of day-to-day life: hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture and husbandry; preparation, conservation and distribution of food; location, collection and storage of water; struggles against disease and injury; interpretation of meteorological and climatic phenomena; confection of clothing and tools; construction and maintenance of shelter; orientation and navigation on land and sea; management of ecological relations of society and nature; adaptation to environmental/social change; and so on and so forth.

While the present document focuses upon the term ‘traditional knowledge’, it is important to realize that this designation is only one of several currently employed by practitioners in the field. A variety of scientific, social and political considerations make it all but impossible for a single term to suit all settings – each one has its shortcomings (see D. Nakashima and M. Roué, 2002: Indigenous Knowledge, Peoples and Sustainable Practice, in Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, P. Timmerman ed. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons). The term ‘traditional knowledge’ or ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ (TEK), for example, may be misleading as it underscores knowledge accumulation and transmission through past generations, but obscures their dynamism and capacity to adapt and change. Another widely used term, ‘indigenous knowledge’ (IK), emphasizes attachment to place and establishes a link with indigenous peoples. For some, however, this connection narrows the term’s application and excludes certain populations who are not officially recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’, but nevertheless possess sophisticated sets of knowledge about their natural environments. In contrast, terms such as ‘local knowledge’ are easily applied to a variety of contexts, but suffer somewhat from their lack of specificity. Yet other terms that are encountered are ‘indigenous science’, ‘farmers’ knowledge’, ‘fishers’ knowledge’ and ‘folk knowledge’.

It is obvious that TK, like any other form of knowledge has been developed within specific cultural groups over a specific period of time and within specific environmental and social settings. At the same time, history has demonstrated how knowledge has been actively shared and exchanged among societies, and in this matter, holders of traditional knowledge do not differ. They acknowledge, accept and adopt elements from other knowledge systems, just as other societies adopt elements of traditional knowledge. As any other system of knowledge, TK is embedded within specific worldviews. In this respect modern science is not different, it is also anchored in a specific worldview and, more to the point, a specific view about man’s relation to nature that is strongly instrumental (see , e.g., Keith Thomas, 1983: Man and the Natural World. Oxford UP). In contrast, the worldview embraced by TK holders typically emphasizes the symbiotic nature of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Rather than opposing man and nature as in Occidental thought, traditional knowledge holders tend to view people, animals, plants and other elements of the universe as interconnected by a network of social relations and obligations (see, e.g., Ann Fienup-Riordan, 1990: Original Ecologists? The Relationship between Yup’ik Eskimos and Animals, in Eskimo Essays, A. Fienup-Riordan, ed. London : Rutgers UP).

Holistic cosmologies that intertwine elements that are ecological and social, as well as empirical and spiritual, have confounded scientists who may seek to separate ‘fact’ from ‘superstition’. Such a dualistic approach, however, contains certain dangers. Practices that appear in the first instance as superstitious to the outside observer may, once additional knowledge about the environment and culture is acquired, prove to be appropriate and empirically sound ways of coping with environmental problems. Furthermore, practices may have latent meanings that may only be revealed through a fuller understanding of the culture as a whole. In general, by isolating elements from a worldview that interweaves empirical, spiritual, social and other components, as TK does, one tends to misrepresent both the elements and the whole.


While it is possible to indicate, as we have done in general terms, a loose set of properties that are appropriately ascribed to traditional knowledge, such characteristics must be viewed as provisional and sensitizing rather than definitive and mutually exclusive. Traditional knowledge is a broad umbrella, encompassing configurations as diverse as decision-making strategies among shepherds (Agrawal 1993), multiple tree cropping systems of small-holders (Thrupp 1989), techniques for domestication of crops (Reed 1977; Rhoades 1989), and plant classification systems (Brush 1980).

What bears emphasis is that traditional knowledge has often played a role in the development of modern science and will continue to do so in the future. This can be seen in the development of hypotheses, research designs, methods, and interpretations employed by scientists, as shown by contemporary historians of science. It is evident in Linneaus' use of folk taxonomies in his development of biological classification systems, and the physics of Galileo, who used knowledge of ballistics developed by craftsmen at the arsenal in Venice .

Examination of these cases aids in understanding the historical relationships between knowledge embedded in a traditional context and the development of modern science. The experience of the past half century reveals a variety of relationships between science and traditional knowledge, in which the general trend has been from mutual disapproval towards mutual appreciation.

"Ethnoscience" is a scientific approach to traditional knowledge, based on the work of Harold Conklin among the Hanunoo of the Philippines in the 1950's. Through elicitation of responses to both natural objects such as plants, diseases, soils, and animals, and human activities such as agriculture, scientists developed an appreciation of the coherence of indigenous knowledge systems, their empirical precision, and their attunement to local environmental contexts. Ethnobotanists discovered cases in which the number of plant species recognized by local communities was greater than the number of scientific species recognized in an area. The general realization was that traditional peoples were a potential source of knowledge for science in areas such as biodiversity (Zent 2000). Such realization has not been limited to academic scientists, but extended to pharmaceutical and agricultural companies in the 1980s and 1990s and led to concerns about bioprospecting and indigenous property rights.

As ethnobotany grew during the 1970s and 1980s, scientific interest increased as well, with contributions not only from anthropology but also from biological systematics, structural linguistics, cognitive psychology, and logic. It should be noted that the debates continue on the extent of universality of classification systems (Berlin 1992, Ellen 1998, Atran 1991).

While most of this work has been academic in nature, examining traditional knowledge for its own sake, utilizing it for enhanced scientific understanding, and analyzing the relationship between knowledge systems, another approach to local knowledge originated with scientists in nonacademic contexts. During the 1980s, researchers in multilateral and bilateral development agencies began to recognize the significance of indigenous knowledge for sustainable development, both for environmental conservation and technologies for agricultural productivity. For example, scientists in the international CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) system began to value participatory technology development, using the traditional practices and indigenous knowledge of local populations as a starting point. As ecological concerns gained currency in the late 1980s, these approaches were extended to the management of natural resources, utilizing participatory rural appraisals, conservation strategies, and interdisciplinary collaborations that relied heavily on local knowledge. In practical terms, scientists began to work closely with indigenous communities to promote their mutual interest in sustainable agriculture and ecological practice. Such work is likely to increase in importance during this century, both because of the recognition that many environmental problems are local in nature and the need for the cooperation of traditional peoples in addressing global issues.

These relationships between scientists and indigenous communities have been criticized by some advocates of postmodern perspectives that emphasize hegemonic power relationships embedded in certain forms of knowledge. Western science, insofar as it embodies cultural constructions that disenfranchise and subordinate traditional populations, tribal groups, and women, is viewed as an enemy of the indigenous knowledges that are inherently consistent with the political aims of empowerment and land rights for these groups. Although this approach seems to value indigenous knowledge for its own sake, the notion of compatibility between the land rights of local communities and environmental conservation has come into question, based more on the stereotype of an "ecologically noble savage" than consistent findings on the relationship between the use of indigenous knowledge and ecological well-being (Zent 2000). Recently, traditional knowledge (TK), through modern ethnobotanical research, is informing science in many areas of natural resource management. TK helps scientists understand management of biodiversity; TK informs science about natural forest management; TK is providing scientific insight into crop domestication, breeding, and management; TK gives scientists new appreciation of the principles and practices of swidden agriculture, agroecology, agroforestry, crop rotations, pest and soil management, and other areas of agricultural science. We discuss this in more details below.


The relationship between traditional knowledge and science has always been very close in ethnobiology and in the broader field of ethnoscience. Ethnobiology is the study of the reciprocal interactions between people and biological organism and of traditional knowledge about these interactions; while ethnoscience is the study of interactions and of traditional knowledge of the physical and biological world (Martin 2001). Traditional knowledge informs and profoundly influences ethnobiology and ethnoscience. Traditional knowledge is often adapted by science and re-applied in contemporary contexts and through contemporary management (Cunningham 2001). Thus, traditional knowledge is useful to science and to contemporary society.

Historically, the scientific study of traditional knowledge has a long history in the Western tradition, built on Greek, Roman, and Islamic foundations. The development of traditional knowledge in botany progressed with the establishment of botanical gardens and the publication of herbals and botanical treatises in Renaissance Europe beginning in in the sixteenth century and spreading rapidly (Ambrosoli 1997). Linnaeus’ codified use of Latin binomials for plant and animal nomenclature was founded on his studies of traditional Lap knowledge and naming (Balick and Cox 1997). Systematic study of traditional knowledge has no less history or impact in other parts of the world (Minnis 2000) such as the Egyptian, Chinese, South –Asian, and the Incan empires. Modern ethnobiology dates to the late 19th century (reviewed in Cotton 1996) and flourishes today as one of the most popular biological and anthropological subdisciplines at many universities. Dedicated scientific societies and journals on ethnoscience proliferate including the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE), the Society of Economic Botany, the Society of Ethnobiology, as well as many regional societies.

Traditional knowledge has informed modern science in many areas, most notably in taxonomy, medicine, agriculture, natural resource management, and conservation. Here, the impact of traditional knowledge on these sciences is detailed to recognize the positive influence and to argue for the recognition of traditional knowledge by ICSU. For example, in taxonomy many species new to science have been pointed out by traditional peoples knowledgeable in the flora and fauna of their environment (e.g., new species of primates were recently discovered in Central and South America, new ungulates in Southeast Asia, and new plant species throughout the tropics under the guidance of traditional people and their knowledge). Medicine is influenced by traditional knowledge in many ways. Western medicine is founded on Greek traditions, and in other parts of the world such as China (Lin 2001) and India (Mishra 2002) traditional medicine is actively supported and researched. As many as 80% of the world’s people depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs (WHO et al. 1993). The combination of traditional and scientific knowledge is evidenced e.g., in the USA where 25% of all prescriptions contain plant materials (Farnsworth and Soejarto 1985). The use of traditional knowledge in bioprospecting for new pharmaceuticals is an active scientific pursuit (Chadwick and Marsh 1994). Disowning the role of traditional knowledge in medicine would disenfranchise 80% of the world’s population, ignore much of modern medicine, and curtail discovery of new drugs and treatments of diseases for which we still have no satisfactory cures.

Agricultural sciences and natural resource management are being influenced by traditional knowledge, through modern ethnoscience research. Traditional knowledge is providing scientific insight into crop domestication, breeding, and management (Conklin 1957, Boster 1984, Nabhan 1985, Brush 2000, Johns and Keen 1986, Salick, Cellinese, and Knapp 1997). Principles and practices of swidden agriculture, agroecology, agroforestry, crop rotations, pest and soil management, and other areas of agricultural science are documented by ethnoscientists (Conklin 1957, Bunch 1982, Hecht and Posey 1989, Smole 1989, Salick 1989). Traditional knowledge informs science about natural forest management (Posey 1985, Peters 1990, Pinard 1993, Pinedo-Vasquez et al. 2001, Salick 1992). Scientists are beginning to understand management of biodiversity through ethnoscience studies (Nabhan 2000, Salick et al. 1999, Irvine 1989, Johnson 1989). Our appreciation of the subtle and often unarticulated indigenous strategies in natural resource management has been fostered through ethnobotanical studies of indigenous knowledge. This has inestimably promoted scientific advancement in natural resource management.

Conservation strategies can be based on traditional knowledge and resource use (Redford and Padoch 1992, Redford and Mansour 1996). Application of the ethnosciences to conservation (Cunningham 2001) enables effective management and partnerships without which conservation is doomed. From the harvesting of individual plant or animal resources to the management of entire landscapes and ecosystems, learning from local people allows conservationists to integrate their programs with real human needs and practices. Conservation by exclusion and isolation will not be sustained in the face of growing poverty and hunger. Applying ethnosciences and traditional knowledge to sustainable development is a further step with great potential (Bennett 1992) but also fraught with problems including land tenure, genetic resource ownership, intellectual property rights and benefit sharing (ten Kate and Laird 1999). Recognizing the worth and value of traditional knowledge to science is only a first step, thereafter involving scientists in issues of professional ethics (Cunningham 1996).

ICSU Study Group. (2002). Science and traditional knowledge. Report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge. Accessed at


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