How much longer can science ignore what Indigenous people have known for 50 000 years?

A 2017 article in the Journal of Ethnobiology brought worldwide media attention to the Black Kite, a common bird of the Northern Territory. The findings were widely reported because they showed the birds behaving in a novel manner, picking up burning sticks and dropping them some distance away to start more fires, then feeding on the escaping insects and lizards.

Subsequent articles questioned why science routinely dismisses Indigenous knowledge as mythology or spirituality, and therefore not ‘scientific’.  Many were surprised by the scientific method confirming a story which was assumed to be a myth, however this was not the first time this had happened in Australia.

In 2012 a genetic study of palms in Palm Valley in Central Australia confirmed an Aboriginal story at least 7000 and possibly 30 000 years old. The small population of palms was thought to be an isolated relic of a forest that covered Australia when the climate was much wetter.  Genetic comparison with palms in the northern tropics showed that the Palm Valley species became isolated much more recently, and that they were actually dispersed by Aboriginal people who brought the seeds with them and planted them. A Dreamtime story recorded by Carl Strehlow in 1895 said that, “the Gods from the high north brought the seeds to this place a long time ago”. Astonishingly, science had confirmed a spoken ‘myth’ which has been handed down through generations since the late Stone Age.

Until such findings came to light the scientific consensus was that 500-800 years was the maximum length of time that memories could survive in oral traditions. Myths sounded fanciful and childlike to western scientific ears and were vigorously suppressed by missionaries who thought them the work of the devil, ignorant of the fact that the key function of Aboriginal myth and ceremony is actually to pass down essential knowledge in a memorable framework.  Storytellers deliberately included redundant information, weaving in elements to make the myth more memorable. These embellishments could later be dropped off in the mind of the learner without losing the key message such as, “Don’t go to that place” or, “Don’t eat that plant”.

Confirmed events passed down in Aboriginal history to date include sea level fluctuations 7 000 years old, a tsunami from 600 years ago, stories about rock paintings of megafauna that have been extinct for 45 000 years, and volcanic eruptions which occurred more than 10 000 years ago.  Science has confirmed the factual basis of Aboriginal observations of variable stars  and meteorite impacts,  generating entirely new fields of fusion sciences called ‘archeoastronomy’ and ‘geomythology’ respectively.  The scientist who authored the Firehawk paper describes his scientific field as ‘ethno-ornithology’, or the study of cultural bird knowledge.

The western bias toward written knowledge is a self-authorised argument used to deny the accuracy of oral traditions.  This is despite evidence that Indigenous people have survived on this continent for 50 000 years by gathering and transmitting an unprecedented body of knowledge about the geography, climate and ecology of the land, and accurately passing it down through a holistic paradigm of Law, art, story, ceremony and song.

Holism itself is perhaps the defining characteristic of Indigenous world views and what makes them fundamentally different from the western paradigm.  While western science seeks to define reality by its absolutes – the particle, the cell, the atom – holistic systems see all parts of reality as being connected on a continuum or spectrum with two, three or four poles creating a framework.

The Noongar view of creation as part of Boodjar (land), Moort (family) and Katitjen (knowledge) defines everything that exists as an intimately interconnected combination of these three aspects.  Other Indigenous sciences are based on four points of the compass, or the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Combinations of polar qualities can create complex metaphors of correspondences which emphasise relationships rather than absolutes.  Unfortunately, the elemental system became the basis of the western scientific method when Aristotle disregarded the crucial issue of relationships, thus kicking off the western obsession with finding out what ‘things’ actually are, rather than how each part of the whole relates to each other.

The western paradigm is unique among historic knowledge systems in that, “The Western culture is the only culture in the world – perhaps the only culture the world has ever known – that argues for the non-existence of any dimension or reality that the senses cannot perceive.”  This is clearly at odds with human experience since subjectivity is part of being human. Unfortunately, in its current format the scientific method can only turn a blind eye to subjective phenomena.

Confirmation of the facts and methods of Indigenous history and Law challenges the argument that Indigenous science is not truly scientific. Despite the evident ability of the scientific method to develop technology and medicine to a very high level, the system as a whole is incomplete. Western science is non-inclusive since the scientific method cannot be applied to subjective knowledge, which it renders either as soft science or not science at all.  What is excluded as trivial is essentially the knowledge of how to be human.

Indigenous cultures are not primitive versions of societies that did not evolve as the West did, but systems which evolved in a separate way, without taking “a deviation from basic human perception.”  This perception of the world as one system is the cornerstone of modern ecology and essential to the idea of sustainability, or “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Fusing western methodologies with a holistic worldview would mean that solutions can be modelled on existing science, rather than needing to find answers from scratch. Perhaps getting both systems working together could be our best chance to get the Earth moving forward (or back) to a harmonious society which is fair and sustainable.

Catherine Stirling 

Catherine majors in both Science and Humanities and fully expects to be burned for heresy by both eventually. She likes her humour dry and her coffee decaffeinated.