Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

After Thousands of Years, Western Science Is Slowly Catching Up to Indigenous Knowledge

Science
Jawoyn elder Margaret Katherine, Gabarnmung, Arnhem Land. Bentley Dean

By George Nicholas

Our knowledge of what the denizens of the animal kingdom are up to, especially when humans aren't around, has steadily increased over the last 50 years. For example, we know now that animals use tools in their daily lives. Chimps use twigs to fish for termites; sea otters break open shellfish on rocks they selected; octopi carry coconut shell halves to later use as shelters.


The latest discovery has taken this assessment to new heights, literally. A team of researchers led by Mark Bonta and Robert Gosford in northern Australia has documented kites and falcons, colloquially termed "firehawks," intentionally carrying burning sticks to spread fire. While it has long been known that birds will take advantage of natural fires that cause insects, rodents and reptiles to flee and thus increase feeding opportunities, that they would intercede to spread fire to unburned locales is astounding.

It's thus no surprise that this study has attracted great attention as it adds intentionality and planning to the repertoire of non-human use of tools. Previous accounts of avian use of fire have been dismissed or at least viewed with some skepticism.

While new to western science, the behaviors of the nighthawks have long been known to the Alawa, MalakMalak, Jawoyn and other Indigenous peoples of northern Australia whose ancestors occupied their lands for tens of thousands of years. Contrary to most scientific studies, Bonta and Gosford's team foregrounded their research in traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. They also note that local awareness of the behavior of the firehawks is ingrained within some of their ceremonial practices, beliefs and creation accounts.

The worldwide attention given to the firehawks article provides an opportunity to explore the double standard that exists concerning the acceptance of Traditional Knowledge by practitioners of western science.

Traditional Knowledge

Our knowledge of the world comes from many sources. In my field, archaeologists have long depended upon ethnographic sources of information—detailed observations or information derived directly from communities studied—to help develop or test interpretations about past peoples' lives.

In recent years, many scholars have become aware of the large body of information known as Traditional Knowledge (TK), Indigenous Knowledge (IK), or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), amongst other terms. These knowledge systems, developed over countless generations, are based on individual and collectively learned experiences and explanations of the world, verified by elders and conveyed and guided experiential learning, and by oral traditions and other means of record keeping.

Traditional Knowledge has today become a highly valued source of information for archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, ethnobotanists, climatologists and others. This information ranges from medicinal properties of plants and insights into the value of biological diversity to caribou migration patterns and the effects of intentional burning of the landscape to manage particular resources. For example, some climatology studies have incorporated Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) to explain changes in sea ice conditions observed over many generations.

Despite the wide acknowledgement of their demonstrated value, many scientists continue to have had an uneasy alliance with TK and Indigenous oral histories. On the one hand, TK and other types of local knowledge are valued when they support or supplements archaeological, or other scientific evidence.

However, when the situation is reversed—when Traditional Knowledge is seen to challenge scientific "truths"—then its utility is questioned or dismissed as myth. Science is promoted as objective, quantifiable and the foundation for "real" knowledge creation or evaluation while TK may be seen as anecdotal, imprecise and unfamiliar in form.

Multiple Ways of Knowing

Are Indigenous and western systems of knowledge categorically antithetical? Or do they offer multiple points of entry into knowledge of the world, past and present? In many cases, science and history are catching up with what Indigenous peoples have long known.

In the past two decades, archaeologists and environmental scientists working in coastal British Columbia have come to recognize evidence of mariculture—the intentional management of marine resources—that pre-dates European settlement. Over the course of thousands of years, the ancestors of the Kwakwaka'wakw and other Indigenous groups there created and maintained what have become known as "clam gardens"—rock-walled, terrace-like constructions that provide ideal habit for butter clams and other edible shellfish.

To the Kwakwaka'wakw, these were known as loxiwey, according to Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla) who has shared this term and his knowledge of the practice with researchers.

As marine ecologist Amy Groesbeck and colleagues have demonstrated, these structures increase shellfish productivity and resource security significantly. This resource management strategy reflects a sophisticated body of ecological understanding and practice that predates modern management systems by millennia.

These published research studies now prove that Indigenous communities knew about mariculture for generations, but Western scientists never asked them about it before. Once tangible remains were detected, it was clear that mariculture management was in use for thousands of years. A move is underway by various Indigenous communities in the region to restore and recreate clam gardens and put them back into use.

A second example demonstrates how Indigenous oral histories correct inaccurate or incomplete historical accounts. There are significant differences between Lakota and Cheyenne accounts of what transpired at the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) in 1876, and the historical accounts that appeared soon after the battle by white commentators.

The Lakota and Cheyenne can be considered more objective than white accounts of the battle that are tainted by Eurocentric bias. The ledger drawings of Red Horse, a Minneconjou Sioux participant in the battle, record precise details such as trooper's uniforms, the location of wounds on horses, and the distribution of Indian and white casualties.

In 1984, a fire at the battleground revealed military artifacts and human remains that prompted archaeological excavations. What this work revealed was a new, more accurate history of the battle that validated many elements of the Native American oral histories and accompanying pictographs and drawings of the events. However, without the archaeological evidence, many historians gave limited credence to the accounts obtained from the participating Native American warriors.

These examples, along with the firehawks study, demonstrate the reliability of Indigenous knowledge.

Opportunities at the Intersection

As ways of knowing, western and Indigenous Knowledge share several important and fundamental attributes. Both are constantly verified through repetition and verification, inference and prediction, empirical observations and recognition of pattern events.

While some actions leave no physical evidence (e.g. clam cultivation), and some experiments can't be replicated (e.g. cold fusion), in the case of Indigenous knowledge, the absence of "empirical evidence" can be damning in terms of wider acceptance.

Some types of Indigenous knowledge simply fall outside the realm of prior western understanding. In contrast to western knowledge, which tends to be text-based, reductionist, hierarchical and dependent on categorization (putting things into categories), Indigenous science does not strive for a universal set of explanations but is particularistic in orientation and often contextual.

One key attribute of western science is developing and then testing hypotheses to ensure rigor and replicability in interpreting empirical observations or making predictions. Although hypothesis testing is not a feature of TEK, rigor and replicability are not absent.

Whether or not traditional knowledge systems and scientific reasoning are mutually supportive, even contradictory lines of evidence have value. Employing TK-based observations and explanations within multiple working hypotheses ensures consideration of a variety of predictive, interpretive or explanatory possibilities not constrained by western expectation or logic. And hypotheses incorporating traditional knowledge-based information can lead the way toward unanticipated insights.

The travels of Glooscap, a major figure in Abenaki oral history and worldview, are found throughout the Mi'kmaw homeland of the Maritime provinces of eastern Canada. As a transformer, Glooscap created many landscape features. Anthropologist Trudy Sable (Saint Mary's University) has noted a significant degree of correlation between places named in Mi'kmaw legends, oral histories and recorded archaeological sites.

Indigenous peoples don't need western science to validate or legitimate their knowledge system. Some do appreciate the verification, and partnerships are developing worldwide with Indigenous knowledge holders and western scientists working together.

This includes Traditional Ecological Knowledge informing government policies on resource management in some instances. But it is nonetheless problematic when their knowledge, which has been dismissed for so long by so many, becomes a valuable data set or used selectively by academics and others.

To return to the firehawks example, one way to look at this is that the scientists confirmed what the Indigenous peoples have long known about the birds' use of fire. Or we can say that the western scientists finally caught up with TK after several thousand years.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Supporters cheer before Trump arrives for a rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.

Read More Show Less
In the tropics, farmers often slash and burn forests to clear fertile land for crops, but a new method avoids that technique. Inga Foundation video

Rainforests are an important defense against climate change because they absorb carbon. But many are being destroyed on a massive scale.

Read More Show Less
A truck spreads lime on a meadow to increase the soil's fertility in Yorkshire Dales, UK. Farm Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As we look for advanced technology to replace our dependence on fossil fuels and to rid the oceans of plastic, one solution to the climate crisis might simply be found in rocks. New research found that dispersing rock dust over farmland could suck billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed large scale analysis of the technique, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning. Pxfuel

By Tim Radford

German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.

Read More Show Less
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


Nurses wear PPE prior to caring for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.