Aboriginal Science - an interesting perspective
Interesting article below. It really does illustrate the power of paradigms. Compare this to the modern reductionist paradigm in health and nutrition where Governments are spending huge sums on genetic research thinking that we will be able to fix disease states by tweaking a few genes here and there. It smacks of Hilter’s Youth to me. Let’s create the Master Race of genetically perfect individuals.
Doctors work in Disease-care and group symptoms to define diseases then prescribe synthetic chemicals that might help some treatments while risking a host of potential side effects. Their prescriptions stress our biochemical detoxifying processes as we eliminate the unnatural drug molecules. It is hit and miss usually and they know it will probably be better in the morning anyway so bring on the next patient. I have a luxury car to pay for.
On the other hand, the wholistic paradigm understands that nutrition underpins the expression of genes and is by far the major influence over disease – nurture over nature. Whole foods are how we got to this point in human history or at least to the time around 10,000 years ago when some teenagers decided to be Home Boys and offer ‘protection’ to those slaves who were prepared to farm foods for their families rather than continue hunting and gathering. From then on, food choices have narrowed and food quality has fallen to the place where it is today – pre-metabolic syndrome stuff. It’s fuel but not food. There’s nothing happy about a Happy Meal (except for those in the disease care industry) and it’s definitely not a meal.
Aborigines survived 60,000 years BECAUSE of their superior foods, both in quality and quantity in comparison to what we have on offer today. Good nutrition facilitates and supports the development of complex concepts of science, art, culture and survival. Try remembering what your great grandparents ate, how they grew/accessed their foods, what preparative methods they used and how it all interrelated with their health and environment. Aborigines can. Try to predict the tides in your area from some celestial interrelationships and get it right when your next meal depends on it. Aborigines did and it was all committed to memory.
I am always amazed at the polyglots who were my informants during the early days of my wild food research. My Aboriginal aunties spoke 5 languages, they knew all their relatives and their respective Country and Law, foods and medicines. They remembered a pharmacopeia of natural mnedicines for their own health and those of the animals they hunted. They recalled bush calendars which dictated their movements across their Land and what was going to be on the menu for the next few weeks. I can go on and on. It was clearly possible because their ideal nutrition supported an encyclopedic memory, instant recall when your life depended on it and what can only be described as a scholastic effort that is unrivaled today.
This article (first appeared in The Conversation) touches on some of the science of traditional Australians. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science
By Ray Norris, CSIRO
Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilization rescued them in 1788.
How did we get it so wrong?
Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximize productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.
They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.
Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements. The Yolngu people, in north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, long recognized how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon.
Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximizing the availability of seasonal foods.
We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.
They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.
[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.
How could these giants of anthropology not recognize the significance of what they had been told?
The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.
Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realized she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.
The paradigm problem
According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.
Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.
As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.
Not so primitive
The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.
So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.
Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.
We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognizing the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.
As Thomas Kuhn said:
[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.
Still to learn
In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.
There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset in mid summer and winter. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.
So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aborigines used observation to build a picture of the world around them.
This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.
So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.
Ray Norris does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.