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7 February 2011
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Further Reading


The knowledge held by indigenous people is informed by a profound understanding of their ancestral territories. Because many indigenous groups have lived so long in one territory they have acquired highly tuned skills needed for their survival. Hunters have to know everything about their prey; those who rely on their livestock have a profound understanding of their animals. If you forage for food, you become expert on how it grows and where best to find it.

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Every tribal culture has its own rules and rituals for the treatment of animals and plants, which ensure  selective harvesting and sustainable forms of land and wildlife management. Those rules are often bound up with an animistic belief that each plant and animal has a spirit or soul and therefore needs to be treated in a particular way. Tribal knowledge is often an intricate mixture of the real and supernatural.

Shamans mediate between the world of spirits and the everyday world for many tribes. Contrary to popular conception, the shaman is thus an essentially practical and pragmatic figure. His or her power derives from regular communion with the forces that animate creation, whether this is achieved by drugs, drumming, dance or other means.

Many indigenous societies’ knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants is unparalleled – for thousands of years they have relied on these plants for healing. Medical science has drawn on some of this expertise, but pharmaceutical companies are notorious for failing to compensate tribal groups (a practise  known as ‘bio-piracy’). Many shamanic cultures - particularly in the Amazon - ascribe their sophisticated botanical knowledge to the ritual use of hallucinogens. By means of drugs such as ayahuasca, the shaman believes he takes consciousness down to a molecular level and converses with the ‘plant-teachers’. Indeed, some biochemists have even claimed to have identified the forms of the structure of DNA and specific chromosomes in shamanic art.

Some regard indigenous forms of agriculture as the only viable means of farming for future generations. Take for instance the ‘agro-forestry’ practised by Amazonian tribes, who raise their crops and animals in the same space as trees. Many crops and most livestock fare better under tree cover and, unlike most options, this method retains the forests which are vital for the health of the planet.

Instead of trying to change the world, these traditional cultures seek to know it. In general, their beliefs and low-impact lifestyles have had little environmental impact. But this is changing fast as tribal peoples become influenced by the outside world and adopt newer, more damaging technologies and ways of living. Although now recognised to some extent, traditional tribal knowledge is still not valued enough or used sufficiently by agricultural researchers, development agencies and policy makers attempting to confront today’s environmental crises.


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Rethinking Visual Anthropology, New Haven, UK
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Social Anthropology: A Concise Introduction for Students, Taunton Studymates
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Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing Anthropology, Cambridge University Press
Heider, K.G. (1997)
Seeing Anthropology: Cultural Anthropology through Film, Ally & Bacon
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Companion Encyclopaedia of Anthropology, Routledge, London
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Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses, Princeton, NY
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Social And Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, Routledge, UK
Sillitoe, P. Bicker, A. Pottier, J. (2002)
Participating in Development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge, Routledge, UK

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