Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from the Landscape
The Use of TEK in Archaeological Research and its Relevance to Present Day Environmental Strategy
BA University of Dublin, MSc student University College London
Indigenous populations possess considerable knowledge regarding their local environment and landscape, which can prove invaluable for researchers, environmental strategists, policy makers and archaeologists. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) refers to the information regarding the local landscape possessed by native populations. This includes observed knowledge of animal and plant species, their relative abundance and behaviour, and other environmental factors which I outline below. This information is handed down through the generations orally and through personal experience. TEK builds incrementally through experimentation, and is dynamic, adaptive and flexible. Importantly, TEK is equally composed of, and intrinsically linked with, an indigenous culture’s belief system, encompassing their spiritual and moral values. Therefore in order to fully understand indigenous people’s interaction with the landscape, this holistic viewpoint must be considered. In this paper I discuss Traditional Ecological Knowledge with regard to human interaction with the landscape, adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change, and its use in decision-making processes within indigenous populations, considering not only the physical and practical aspects of TEK, but the holistic and phenomenological approach also. These are the oft, and erroneously, viewed “less-scientific” approaches practiced by many local populations. TEK is a useful tool for gleaning information regarding culture and identity construction, as well as human interaction with the landscape in the past. This knowledge can be used in the present day to help construct sustainable environmental management strategies, to create policies regarding climate change, and to aid indigenous populations in their quest for self-determination.
What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)?
There are many definitions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). TEK refers to the beliefs and knowledge held by indigenous peoples regarding the environment and ecosystems around them. This knowledge has been passed down through generations, and can therefore reflect long-term ecological change. TEK is local, and related to the groups’ immediate environs. It is the result of human-environment interaction and observation, gained through the daily experiences and livelihoods of indigenous populations. This aspect of TEK is highly practical, emphasizing information related to all the components of the environment, such as ecological indicators, animals and their behaviour, flora, habitat and the physical characteristics of species and their abundance. TEK also refers to (and is intrinsically linked to) the interrelatedness of nature, including not only the physical elements of the environment, but also the spiritual connection between the people and the landscape, and its historical usage. TEK is adaptive and resilient to change. It incorporates at the same time knowledge of the past and present. For example, the experience of foraging or fishing of a village youth can differ from that of a village elder, and though much is similar, those differences they experience can reveal environmental change.
Effective and sustainable landscape management strategies can potentially be created with the aid of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Such long term interaction with the landscape has the ability to reveal environmentally friendly ways of dealing with the natural world (although there are also very environmentally Unfriendly techniques practiced by indigenous groups, but this is unfortunately outside the scope of this paper), and TEK has the potential to compliment scientific research into sustainability. But TEK must be researched in totality, encompassing not just adaptive strategies, observation techniques, and sustainable harvesting techniques, but must include the philosophies and spiritual nature of human-landscape interaction. It is the incorporation of all of these elements that allows indigenous peoples to forge sustainable relationships with the environment.
TEK and Subsistence
Ancient populations have manipulated the landscape for their subsistence for millennia. Hunter-gatherers practiced a range of different techniques such as habitat management, soil enhancement and plant propagation, which increased the productivity of the land. The practices of these indigenous peoples used to maintain and enhance their resources were derived from generations of experimentation and observation, which led to an understanding of complex ecological and physical principles. Examples of such practices include careful harvesting, which aids in the management and sustainability of plants. Indigenous peoples harvest the required parts from the living plant, whilst leaving enough for it to regenerate, e.g. only removing a certain amount of bark from a tree. Careful harvesting can even lead to increased propagation. Turner looks at the specific case of “Avalanche lily”, Erythronium grandiflorum (fig. 1), in British Columbia, a nutritious wild root crop. Harvesting these plants requires the turning over of shallow segments of soil, selecting bulbs to harvest while replanting the rest. This creates a time lapse in harvesting, meaning that they can be harvested in succession from May until the end of August. This not only allows the root to be harvested at different stages of its development for different markets, but also provides a greater chance of avoiding crop failure due to adverse weather. Bears are fond of these foodstuffs and it is likely that they were revealed to humans by bear tracking.
Fig. 1. Erythronium grandiflorum bulbs. http://www.srgc.org.uk
Puri, citing research carried out in Borneo amongst foragers and farmers, highlights that TEK is used by local people to describe different elements of the landscape and ecological features. It is as Puri terms a type of “ethno-climatology”, whereby indigenous peoples have knowledge not only of weather and climate, but also a concept of the spatial and ecological distribution around them. These recognised environmental sub-divisions range from “all the land” (tana), to habitat, biotope and community.
The use of controlled burning demonstrates human understanding of the environment in a traditional technique that is passed down through generations. The result of controlled burning is the enhancement of successional species, for example in modern day Australia. Here the use of fire by indigenous peoples led to an increase in the abundance of game animals by encouraging the growth of grass and legumes. These controlled burns also reduced the risk of wildfires by removing dry brush and scrub before the hottest months of the year arrived, as is the case with the Australian Aborigines. The controlled burning practices of this group were banned by the Australian government, but later overturned when the benefits of decreased wildfires were realised.
Another application of TEK is outlined by McKenna, who discusses mental maps made of Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, by local fishermen. These mental maps tend to be highly accurate, and not much different from those created by various mapping instruments. These maps are conceptualized by fishermen on the lake through repeated action, driven by economic need, and hence their accuracy. Different fishermen possess different levels of knowledge with regards to the lake, depending upon experience, but any inaccuracies are dealt with by creating the maps within a group. The maps consist of several generations of information, passed on through oral transmission and individual experience on the lake. Family groups are important in this community, most young men being taught to fish by their father, grandfather, uncle and brothers, thereby inheriting the TEK through repeated action and work on-site. This way of life, as with farming in certain areas, is threatened due to modernization. In recent decades the number of fishing families around Lough Neagh has decreased significantly, threatening the sustainability of TEK and the local fishing economy.
TEK and Adaptability
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is highly adaptive, and of vital importance with regards to climate prediction, and alleviation of such events as forest fire, famine, drought, and crop failure. Typical responses to stresses might be: broadening your resource base; switching to famine foods in times of food scarcity and crop failure; increasing search ranges; or taking part in reciprocal kinship bonds which are called on in times of emergency. Such contingency plans are the result of indigenous knowledge and prediction of environmental events, and also knowledge of alternative options in the landscape learned from prior experience either of the individual or the community. An example of the ways in which indigenous peoples predict certain weather events can be seen with regards to the fishermen and farmers of Peru. They have been observing ocean currents (noting the correlation between warm waters and heavy inland rain) as well as the constellations (the appearance of the Pleiades constellation in June indicating the timing of the arrival of the October rainy season) to predict, cope with, and adapt to, the El Nino weather event. Enga farmers of New Guinea prepare for and predict frosts caused by El Nino. They take the precaution of planting their crops in mulch mounds to protect them from frost penetration.
Rosen details the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to adapt to environmental changes in the past in the Levant, investigating charcoal evidence, changing settlement patterns, faunal assemblages, and botanical assemblages. The switch from hunter-gatherer to agriculture in the Levant is well documented and debated. Rosen argues that hunter-gatherers in this region, from the early Natufian to the PPNA, went through cycles of adaptation before adopting agriculture, reading the landscape and adjusting to the climatic oscillations occurring at the time. The cultural memories of these peoples, their flexibility, and their innovation allowed hunter-gatherers to adjust their procurement strategies in the face of changing resource availability. The indigenous peoples occupying the Levant in the late Pleistocene therefore potentially sustained their foraging systems, until the final Holocene warm phase led to widespread sedentary farming practices.
Cooper notes the adaptive measures taken by native populations living in Precolumbian Cuba. Ethno-historical research shows that the indigenous peoples of this area had complex belief systems, which took environmental change into account. Different deities represented different weather oscillations and hurricanes. Such oral histories, myths and symbolism, all contributed to the construction of their Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and the creation of adaptation strategies to deal with such adverse conditions. We can identify such strategies in the archaeological record. Wooden pole structures were repeatedly used in the construction of Precolumbian houses in this region. The posts are buried up to 1.7m into the ground and consisted of strong mahogany. These hardwood foundations were surrounded by a lighter superstructure, such as thatch. Radiocarbon dating has shown that these mahogany foundations remained in place for hundreds of years, but that the lighter material had been replaced again and again. This suggests that the houses were built so that in hurricane conditions, the house foundations would remain in situ, with only the light dressing around it being damaged. This would have been easily replaceable, showing clever resilience on the part of the indigenous population.
Lefale describes the use of traditional ecological knowledge of weather and climate in Samoa, as well as their observations of local climate change. The indigenous population read cloud formations, as well as observing the behaviour of animals to forecast weather changes. They then use this information to plan for adverse weather and put adaptation strategies in place. For example, the formation of cirrus cloud indicating the coming of warmer weather, or their term for an easterly wind, “Mata Upolu”, meaning “indicates bad weather, accompanied by heavy rain”. Hence the inhabitants of the island use ecological signals to predict weather changes, and this information is culturally transmitted through the naming of features such as winds and cloud types.
The Phenomenology of Landscape
It is essential, in order to understand both present and past interactions with the landscape, to consider the holistic aspects of TEK, and hence try to understand human conceptualization of the surrounding environment. Tilley outlines the many ways in which space has been conceptualized in modern research. Space is no longer considered an abstract dimension in which human activities took place, but is a medium that is involved in action, and is therefore socially produced. It is subject to change and reproduction, and is created by human activity, giving it context. The landscape, as we will see, is symbolic, socialized and ancestral, and not just of economic significance. This will have a great impact on the way in which TEK is transmitted, and importantly what information is considered worthy to be transmitted.
Space, as previously mentioned, is socially produced, and dictated by the person or group experiencing it according to such parameters as gender, age, and social position. The phenomenological approach to landscape is primarily concerned with how people experience and understand the world. Places (within space) are centres of human meaning, and knowledge of that place stems from human experiences, feeling and thought, as does TEK. Therefore places are infused with significance, emotional attachment and have distinctive meanings. Personal identity, and group cultural identity, can then be said to be intimately tied to place. Australian Aborigines forge strong relationships with the landscape, which is infused with the actions of the ancestors. The landscape is filled with meaning and memories, and through daily activities individuals learn and experience them. I believe this can influence how such populations interact with the landscape, and perhaps can influence the information and practices passed onto the next generation in order to maintain the landscape.
TEK can be transmitted through the naming of places and features. Place names endow meaning, and humanize the landscape, turning it into something that is historically and socially experienced. Place names are emblazoned on the social memory and serve as reminders of historical actions, such as the naming of places among the Apache tribe described by Basso. The Apache people experience and transmit oral narratives in their naming places in the landscape. Geographical features of the landscape serve as mnemonics through which moral lessons are taught. In this way, historical events are located at named points, all of these events representing some moral code, or some guide to help one make decisions. The Koyukon people of Northwest Alaska name all elements of the landscape, including paths as well as topographical features. Therefore all named places have cultural and personal meaning and memory. When people cross their land, the recognition of names, places etc., allows them to draw on this information to orientate themselves and locate resources. Such naming can aid the transmission of TEK for generations, until eventually this meaning is perhaps lost through centuries of changing habitation and land use. For example local place names near my home in Ireland, such as “Goatenbridge” and “Clonmel”, are simply names now, but once signified resources (“Clonmel” meaning “honey meadow”).
Movement is essential to understanding past interaction with the landscape. A path or track is a setting for repeated action situated within constructed confines. They are created by powerful people, or heroic ancestors. Paths may also serve to remind society of past ills and misfortunes, as famine paths or workhouse tracks were used as mnemonics, to remind us of, and honour, the hardships of our ancestors in my home place. A journey along a path can be seen as a cultural act, following in the footsteps of those who have gone before you. This can be within the context of ritual, or can, through the naming of the trail (as with the Apache) warn users of the incorrect way to go. These paths become outlines for future movements, creating and maintaining societal bonds through use. Movement along a path reveals different viewpoints and sensations. Through regular repetition of this journey, the stories attached to the path become embedded in the landscape.
Evidence of such practices in the archaeological record can be found, as Tilley suggests, in monuments such as the megaliths of South West Wales. They represent symbolic and ritual meeting points of great importance, and display the relationship between indigenous groups and their landscape. Tombs incorporated the ancestral dead into the landscape and served to fix the ancestral past in the social consciousness. As we move around space our point of view of the landscape alters. The settings for monuments were chosen in order to fix a certain viewpoint, hence the constructing of monuments near important topographical markers. Monumental architecture deliberately freezes perspective, and restrict people’s points of view. Hence ancestral powers, via monumental construction, are experienced at the site of tombs, perhaps leading to a change in importance of certain other geographical features, and altering of local TEK. Points of view are further restricted by the establishment of social hierarchies, with certain individuals being included, or excluded, from gathering at these points and hence from the transmission of certain Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This theme is much more deeply discussed in Tilley.
TEK is a useful tool, and can be used to help create, and complement, already scientifically constructed, sustainable environmental management strategies to help combat climate change. Indigenous peoples are seen as having insight and understanding that researchers do not, and are regarded as “natural ecologists”. Hence programmes of communication and integration with indigenous groups in places such as British Columbia are now being greatly invested in. Menzies notes that the group, Forests for the Future, provide research and community-based educational activities to facilitate the incorporation of indigenous peoples into the policy making process and sustainable management strategies of local forests. One example of such a project is with the Tsimshian people of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Alaska and British Columbia). Effective consultation and inclusion of native peoples has the potential to not only create sustainable methods of dealing with the environment, but also builds positive relationships, and opens dialogue, with indigenous groups in such areas. These consultations can help to complement scientific research into climate change and the construction of new policies and strategies (but quite obviously cannot replace scientific research into this topic).
Federal and state agencies in Alaska have taken notice of the usefulness of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and harnessed it in the face of dealing with climate change. An oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, prompted these agencies to consult with indigenous peoples in order to gain information on local conditions prior to the spill. The native populations were able to provide information on fish population sizes throughout recent history, ranges of occupation and territory of species of fish, as well as observations regarding diet and behaviour. Integration of this information greatly enhanced the restoration and clean-up effort. Environmental change can be detected and communicated via TEK, with indigenous peoples from the Yukon River area in Alaska able to observe various changes such as impact on fish and fish habitats, drying up of wetlands, and changes in weather patterns. Such observations can then be taken into account when developing environmental management strategies, deciding where to deploy certain resources, and when reviewing and creating environmental and climate change policies.
TEK, combined with science, is important in order to develop adaptation strategies. Science usually lacks time depth, which TEK can provide, whilst science can put the local knowledge of indigenous peoples into a larger context, perhaps revealing regional patterns and trends.
There are numerous other examples of the usefulness of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the creation of environmental management systems, such as those detailed by Rist, and Ramstad.
The holistic nature of TEK also makes it an essential tool for the formation of group and individual identity, as mentioned above. A concern today is the loss of TEK and the erosion of cultural identities as a result. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, as we can see, plays a central role in constructing individual and group cultures and identities. When TEK is eroded, this loss can be perceived as a loss of self.
Crate details TEK usage, and loss, in the Sakha region of Siberia, Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of collective farming, the indigenous people’s here had to find an alternative form of subsistence, and re-adopted pre-Soviet strategies of hunting, fishing and herding. During the Soviet Union a ban was placed on discussing pre-Soviet Russia, hence elder wisdom and Traditional Ecological Knowledge was not utilized for a period of roughly 80 years. This, coupled with modern living enticing the youth of the region to move to the capital of Yakutsk, has led to an erosion of TEK in the area. Research into TEK has revealed that elders possess useful ecological knowledge that could aid local subsistence initiatives which was not being utilized. But the most important element for Sakha elders was bridging the intergenerational gap, and teaching the old ways to the children and youth of the region. They fear that there will be no one to take care of the land in the region once they have passed unless their knowledge is handed down to the next generation.
Growing up in Ireland, I was taught to read the many “old signs” in the landscape by my grandparents and parents, from which I could predict fluctuations in the local climate. If the mountains look very close, then there will be rain, if they seem far away, the weather will be fine. If crows gather and fly in a circle there will be rain (in Ireland the signs invariably point to rain). Swallows flying high, crows flying low, berries on the holly tree, these and a myriad of other signals were used by my parents’ and grandparents’ generations to make decisions with regards to farming practices such as ploughing and “saving the hay”. But in recent decades, many locals have commented that these old signs are now useless, and that the climate is changing too rapidly for them to be of use. The “old signs” don’t point to the same weather oscillations anymore. But the most important issue that bothers my older neighbours is the sense of a loss of identity and “Irishness”. The current generation of youths, according to locals, don’t care about the land and the stories anymore, instead preferring to move to the cities. They fear that when their generation dies out, the old ways, wit and banter of those rural Irish people will be lost to modernization and globalization. They also want the intergenerational gap to be bridged, as in Crate’s Siberia, in order to preserve their sense of culture and society that is intimately tied to the landscape.
TEK is a useful tool for the study of the past, as well as the present, but it is not without its’ problems. The language of Traditional Ecological Knowledge is not the language of science. Researchers must respect the spiritual aspect of TEK if they wish to use it, as this knowledge is embedded with their moral and ethical world views.
One difficulty of the integration of TEK into scientific research is the question of reliability and credibility. For instance, Traditional Ecological Knowledge tends to fluctuate, even within a community, as different people possess different levels of knowledge. Men, women, old and young all possess different amounts of TEK, and so researchers must be mindful of this when conducting research. Comparing scientific data and local observations can be difficult as the practitioners of each are focused on different things. Indigenous groups may be primarily interested in the availability of foodstuffs, whilst the scientist is interested in collecting empirical data related to their research.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is not easy to divide and fragment, and hence the discussion of the subject is complex and difficult. There are dangers and pitfalls associated with the collection of TEK. Developers, planners and policy makers can attempt to extract TEK with an agenda that benefits them, but not the indigenous groups. The survival of indigenous cultures is threatened by economic development, moves towards the market economy, and ecological destruction. There are also concerns over the intellectual property rights of native tribes.
Indigenous peoples are growing in status in international law and policy, and are participating in defining their rights and knowledge in laws. TEK today is linked with issues such as self-determination and sovereignty, with native peoples seeking to assert themselves on the national stage. Groups have been established such as the WGIP (Working Group on Indigenous Populations) who aid native peoples in such endeavours.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge has many potential applications in the future, when constructing strategies for sustainable interaction with the environment, for dealing with climate change, for policy creation and communications with indigenous peoples and management of forests and fisheries etc. TEK also has the potential to aid in the investigation of the past through the creation of models and inferences based on research into native populations today, and is worthy of further dedicated research and pursuit.
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