How is knowledge acquired in indigenous societies?

How is knowledge acquired in indigenous societies?

If you wanted to find an answer to a question, what would be the first step you’d take? The chances are you’d go straight onto the Internet, type in the word or term you wanted information about, and end up on Wikipedia or some other similar site. Then you’d read through the page, and search for the relevant knowledge. Alternatively, you might visit a library, and search for books related to the topic you were researching. You’ll follow this approach as you work on your IB Diploma assignments, your extended essay, and your internal assessments. This is how we learn about the world, and this is how we revise before we are tested on our learning. When you think about the sum total of what you know, you’ll realize how vital representational knowledge found in literary sources have been in providing you with information about the world.

The original empirical thinkers

Indigenous knowledge is acquired in a very different way. The process of finding out about the world is far more empirical, with first hand experience considered the best or even the only way to properly learn. To genuinely understand something, one must use one’s sense perception, as well as language, to experience it. All indigenous societies approach knowledge in this way, so the outlook of Australian aborigines should be regarded as typical:

The need to walk on the land in order to now it is a different approach than the one-dimensional, literate approach to knowing… Persons taught to use all their senses – to absorb every clue to interpreting a complex dynamic reality – may well smile at the illusion that words alone, stripped of complementary sound and colour and texture, can convey meaning adequately. (Marlene Brant Catellano quoted in Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples, Laurelyn Whitt)

One of the implications of this process of gaining knowledge is that very strong bonds are established between the people and the place in which indigenous people live. In fact, these bonds are as unbreakable as the ones that exist between members of a close family. Referring to this, a member of the Diné people (sometimes incorrectly termed the ‘Navajo’) spoke these moving words in court, as his people were being forcibly removed from their ancestral land on the instigation of a mining company in the 1980s:

When the white man talks of relocation he talks of finding a new place to live, a new job, a new place to pray to his God… The white man can practice his religion anywhere, he does not know the earth. The Diné are different, the land is sacred to us, we cannot practice our religion elsewhere, only on the land where we are known… It is like your family… You could not leave your relatives if they were sick – it is in this way that we must stay with this land, our relative.

The land itself – rather than libraries and the Internet – is where indigenous knowledge is stored, so any relocation of indigenous peoples means dislocation from everything that defines them. It is akin to us having to give up the Internet, our libraries, and all other forms of written knowledge, and still be expected to function as before. “It is to estrange, if not destroy, an entire knowledge and value system.” (See Whitt) The famous ‘songlines’ of the Australian aborigines, described below, are one example of many of this.

Story telling and the imagination

Elder members of indigenous societies oversee the learning process. In addition to acting as guides to the land and its flora and fauna, they also convey knowledge to younger individuals by telling stories. These stories provide wide-ranging information to their listeners, such as how the earth was created, the way in which animals and plants came about, why certain moral rules exist within that society, and so on. They are imaginative stories that not only portray and celebrate the inherent beauty of the environment, but also allow their listeners to relate to the objects of the story, and empathize with them. Those listening to the stories imagine what it is like to be the animals in the story, and experience the world from their perspective. As the Cree Indians put it:

The hunter tries to think what the bear is thinking. Their minds touch. The hunter and the bear have parallel knowledge, and they share that knowledge. So in a sense they communicate. (Whitt)

Stories and knowledge may be passed on many different ways. For Australian aborigines, information about the landscape is traditionally turned into songs. These songlines are then passed down from generation to generation, and help those who know them to get from one place to another. Once you have learnt the songlines – first the witchetty grub rock on your left, then the kangaroo ravine on your right – you can navigate your way through the harsh environment of the Australian bush. The Songlines also provide an account of how the world came into being. For Australian aborigines, the period before our existence is known as ‘The Dreaming’, when only the Creator Being existed. This Creator Being then began to sing, and the earth and everything upon it appeared. So when the songs are sung (and sometimes danced), not only do they provide a practical guide for getting from one place to another, they also recreate the birth of the earth, simultaneously blending the physical and metaphysical worlds. Children learn the songlines from a very early age, carried around on their mother’s backs. The result is a unique fusion of imagination, artistic ability, and navigational skill.

…a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.

In the southern African San society, important skills that are vital for survival are conveyed in the ceremony of the great dance.

This life-giving ceremony is both musical and rhythmic, but at the same time deeply serious and at the heart of all the hunter-gatherers’ concerns. In it, they learn over many, many years how to enter the world of the spirits and to ask their god for the power to heal the sick, to make rain, or to influence the movements of the animals. Their skills that we, as outsiders, find so remarkable, they owe to the acquisition of power in this way, and to paying close attention to hundreds of stories and accounts of how to behave in different situations. (See Sam Challis)

There are two important implications of using these methods of passing on knowledge. First, the need to use one’s imagination means that listeners develop a profound bond with the environment in which they live, and the rules required to live successfully within it. Second, the story telling, song learning, or ritual dance helps to strengthen community bonds, with the younger generation learning from the older, and building a respect for their knowledge and position in society.
This is why many indigenous societies consider written knowledge to be inferior to spoken knowledge, and why some have even rejected the former. They see the advantages of learning empirically and personally as more than making up for the insecure position it places them in when it comes to protecting their knowledge. Having said that, it does make them more vulnerable. As the linguist K David Harrison says:

…this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

Unfortunately, many governments and corporations have taken advantage of this vulnerability, realizing that if you take away the language of an oral society, you also take away its identity and knowledge. You are then free to take away its possessions, which are often considerable.

The adaptability and innovation of indigenous knowledge

It’s common to view indigenous knowledge 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)

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 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.

Language use

We have begun to seen the crucial role (spoken) language plays in indigenous societies. In a non-literate culture, you lose your language, and you lose your identity. It’s also worth considering how skilfully language is used by many traditional peoples, and we can do that by putting it in the context of our own experiences in the IB. Part of the selling point of the IB Diploma is the way in which it encourages language learning. We may congratulate ourselves for knowing a second or third language, and some of us are lucky enough to be bilingual, speaking and understanding our first two languages equally fluently, and sometimes even trilingual. However, such an achievement would not be regarded as in any way remarkable in many of the indigenous societies.
Jared Diamond talks about spending time with a group of 20 New Guineans. Amongst them, the smallest number of languages anyone spoke was 5. Several understood between 8 and 12 languages, and one of them could communicate ably in 15 different languages. These were all totally different languages, rather than various different dialects; some were tonal like Chinese, and some were non-tonal. The anthropologist Peter Sutton provided a similar picture for aborigines in the Cape Keerweer area of Australia, with the average number of languages spoken as 5, and with marriage between different language-speakers accounting for 60 % of unions. Even more extreme are the Indians living in the Vaupes River area on the border between Brazil and Colombia. Marriage between two speakers of the same language is virtually unheard of, and it is the norm within family ‘longhouses’ for communication to be carried out all the time in four different languages. The implications of living in a multilingual society are various, but modern neuro-science is systematically showing that speakers of more than one language have advantages when it comes to problem solving, and the increased day-to-day activity of their brains may even help to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. (see Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday)


1. Have a look through the stories on the website.
a. What are the stories mostly about?
b. What ways of knowing do you use in order to understand and process the knowledge provided by them?
2. Linking sense perception: What are the consequences of only relying on knowledge acquired by our own senses?
3. Knowledge framework
a. Scope & applications: What is the social function of indigenous knowledge systems?
b. Methodology Which ways of knowing do indigenous knowers use in order to communicate and develop their understanding of IKS?


Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. How is knowledge acquired in indigenous societies? (20th October 2014). Last accessed: 23rd February 2017


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