Unit E3 - Salvaging and Evaluating Traditional Knowledge


Unit E3


One of the greatest tragedies in the recent history of most indigenous peoples is that so much of their traditional culture and environmental knowledge accumulated over generations has been lost. Such information was only stored in the memories of men and women, and passed verbally and by apprenticeship from generation to generation. The disturbances, epidemics and population decline following European contact meant that many people died before giving their knowledge to their children, and the children were often taken out of the village and put in schools where other kinds of knowledge were taught. Some missionaries and anthropologists have written down what they observed, but there was much that they could not understand, or that was withheld from them.

As a result, only a tiny fraction of most traditional cultures has been written down or otherwise recorded. Much has already been lost, and the old men and women who still possess such knowledge reasonably intact are not passing it on to the next generation; it will die with them. There is clearly some hesitancy to pass on this precious heritage either outside the family line, or to those who do not appreciate it. Persons of middle age often recall the existence of such knowledge from their childhood, but for them it has fallen into disuse, and their personal experience in its application is generally limited. The young in general see no pertinence in such traditions to the modern way of life they hope to live, and are thus not interested.

There are many reasons why this traditional heritage is being lost. For generations, the "superstitions of primitive peoples" have been discredited by missionaries, administrators, educators and European colonists. One missionary in the Pacific, for instance, declined to record all the "superstitious ceremonies related to fishing", pitying the poor natives whom only the Christian message could save from such darkness. Children are no longer educated in the family or the tribe, but in schools where western-style education gives little time to traditional cultures. Traditional patterns of social organization for collective action have been disrupted, making it impossible to continue group occupations such as collective fishing or irrigated traditional agriculture. New occupations in towns, industries or commercial agriculture have attracted the most able, and reduced the extent of traditional subsistence activities. Traditional knowledge no longer passes automatically from father to son or mother to daughter. Even where subsistence activities have continued, new technologies have replaced old, and the old knowledge has seemed superfluous even where it would still be useful. The technological fix is an easy temptation for all societies.

Clearly there is no point in going back to a traditional technology such as hand-woven sennit (coconut fibre) nets when new nylon nets are readily available and more efficient. However, much of the knowledge of the fisheries resources is even more necessary today if catches are to be maintained and overfishing, made easier by new technologies, is to be avoided. The same is true in many other areas of resource use. Many imported development approaches have proven destructive of the resource base, and local traditional techniques which have been adapted to local conditions and refined over centuries may provide a better guide to sustainable development.

Some kinds of traditional knowledge have been reasonably well recorded by anthropologists or missionaries in a few areas, while others have entirely escaped the review of western scholars. The number of studies in depth based on extensive field work is very limited; many papers simply repeat the observations of earlier workers with slight additions or reinterpretations. Often the existence of some type of knowledge or practice has been noted, but the actual content or necessary detail has not; a reference to the flowering of a tree is of little use without knowing what tree is referred to. Even more unfortunately, the published literature consists almost entirely of reports by outside observers. Few local people have yet come forward to record their own cultures free of the biases inherent in any outside perspective.

Today many traditional practices for resource use and environmental management have diminished or disappeared entirely. Traditional agriculture has declined steadily since the arrival of the Europeans, and today in some countries only the simpler types of subsistence cultivation remain. In the Pacific Island of New Caledonia, the Europeans introduced cattle and deer that trampled hillside irrigation structures and raided gardens, destroying the water systems on which important food crops depended. With the displacement of many clans from their ancestral lands, and the colonization of the best agricultural land by Europeans who did not understand or appreciate traditional agriculture, the continuity of agricultural development was broken. The population decline, the breakdown of traditional social structures, the competition for land and labour from cash crops such as coffee and other employment, the introduction of crops easier to cultivate such as manioc, and the availability of imported foods have all contributed to the collapse of traditional agricultural systems. Even where traditional cultivation continues, the less demanding crop varieties are now preferred. Little remains today of the elaborate and sophisticated agricultural systems of the past.

Subsistence fishing has suffered the same decline as agriculture, and those techniques requiring collective effort are rarely if ever practiced. The changes brought by European fishing technology and improved boats have probably been greater than in agriculture. Even where great areas of reef and lagoon are available, overfishing has become an increasing problem. A return to more traditional fisheries management techniques might be a solution.

A review of traditional environmental management shows what a rich heritage there must have been and how little has been preserved or recorded. On some subjects there is a good written description, but without the skills that can only come from practical experience. For other topics, there are only generalities without the detail necessary to be useful. In some areas there is only a hint of the former existence of practices or knowledge that might have been very useful as a guide to solutions to modern resource management problems.

What we do not know is how much of this information may still exist, perhaps unconsciously, in the daily practices of rural workers or the memories of old people. While no one living today can remember back to pre-colonial times, there may still be some who were young when such skills were still valued in the family.

The salvage of the valuable heritage of traditional cultures and of the environmental knowledge that is part of this heritage cannot be left to outsiders. There are too few of them, and problems of confidence and knowledge make it much more difficult for them to collect and record this information correctly. The local people who have such knowledge must ensure that it is passed on, or at least recorded in some way for future generations. However, only a major effort by the young people of each family or community to renew their interest in this heritage and to make the effort to learn it will truly save what is left.

A culture is never something that is rigid or dead, it is always changing and adapting to new conditions. The effort to learn your traditional heritage will inevitably be accompanied by an evaluation of that knowledge and a selection of those parts of it that are still valid today. This will both keep local cultures alive and help them to adapt to the new economic and social climate of an inter-related world.

Techniques for salvaging traditional knowledge

There are many categories of traditional knowledge that are worth saving for the future. These include:
- Legends, history, genealogies
- Religion, magic, taboos
- Social structure, relations, family roles
- Land, water and coastal area ownership
- Rights to and management of resources
- Agriculture
- Fishing
- Hunting
- Food storage and preparation
- Forest use, gathering
- Medicine, healing
- Construction or fabrication of:
  -- houses
  -- canoes
  -- implements
  -- materials
- Warfare
- Other subjects you may think of.

In order for the information you collect to be useful, you should note as much about that information as possible, answering the basic questions: Who? When? Where? What? Why? A possible format showing the kinds of things it is useful to write down with traditional knowledge is shown in the annex to this unit. This format could also be used as a questionnaire for projects collecting traditional knowledge.

The following are some ways in which traditional knowledge can be saved or recorded in the future.

---Record the stories and descriptions of the elders, or even (if facilities are available) with photographs or video, especially if manual techniques are demonstrated. Think of what you would want to hear or see if you were going to learn the knowledge from the audio or videu recording. Always write down the particulars of what you record (who, when, where).

---Write down the stories and descriptions as you hear them. Young people could write papers on some aspect of traditional knowledge in their family or village as part of their school assignments.

---Prepare written reports or articles on traditional knowledge which could be published in the newspaper or by a local society or museum. There is no reason why outsiders should be the only ones to write about your culture.

---Photograph examples showing traditional knowledge, or make drawings of them, or collect samples if objects are involved. Be sure to label these well with information on what it is, where it is from, what it is used for, and who made it.

---Make surveys or interviews of people in a village or area, filling out a questionnaire for each person talked to.

---Try out traditional techniques to see how they work, and note the results.

These materials or copies of the materials collected should be given for safekeeping to your local museum, archives, cultural centre, library, or other safe depository where they will be taken care of and made available to those who are interested in them. Even if no one seems to care now, the chances are good that in 10 or 20 years, people will appreciate the care you have taken to preserve your heritage.

Sometimes people will not want to share or reveal knowledge that has always been kept secret within the family. The ideal would be to find a member of the family interested in learning and carrying on the traditions. If not, it may be possible to get permission to record the information by fixing certain conditions for access to the records, such as access only with the permission of the family, or after some fixed period of time (such as 5 or 20 years), or upon the death of the person providing the information. If such conditions are agreed to, they must be noted with the records and always respected.

Evaluating traditional knowledge

It is difficult to say what is the real value of traditional knowledge, because no one can predict what will be needed in the future, just as earlier generations did not understand the needs brought on by the environmental problems of today. Thus it is better to record everything, and not just what we think is important.

Sometimes we may not know enough to see the importance of something. It can often be helpful to discuss the information with a scientist, school teacher or other knowledgeable person. What we can judge is usefulness to our immediate situation. In evaluating traditional knowledge or practices, try asking the following questions:

Does it relate to modern problems? How?

Does it have information of possible scientific interest?

How might it be put to use again?

Can traditional and modern techniques be put together in some way?


Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1989. Traditional environmental knowledge and resource management in New Caledonia, p. 45-53 in R.E. Johannes (ed.). Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays. IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Gland and Cambridge. Revised from Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1985. Traditional environmental management in New Caledonia: a review of existing knowledge. South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Topic Review No. 18. 17 p.


Format for collecting traditional knowledge

Name of person collecting information:

Name of person providing information:
Place and date of birth:
Title or traditional role:

Family relationships:

(text of legend, description of practices, how used or prepared?)
(with sketches, photographs, maps showing places, other illustrations)

Supporting materials: (objects, plants [dried pressed branches with flowers, etc.] or parts used.

Origins of knowledge
- Traditional or legendary origins:
- From whom received (genealogy of transmission):

Restrictions on use or transmission on knowledge (kept secret, passed from person to person, or within family, etc.):

Conditions for access to this information (if any):

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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Last updated 21 June 2008