One of the biggest challenges for indigenous people in North America (and elsewhere) arises when it comes to being seen (or not) by European settlers as peoples with legitimate systems of knowledge. Centuries of white supremacy considered Indigenous Peoples to be inferior in every way. But Native elders, activists, scholars and intellectuals have told a different story—one that shines a light on Native contributions to world knowledge, which non-Natives are gradually recognizing as valuable in this age of extreme environmental degradation and human-caused climate change.
The word “science” as it is commonly used refers narrowly to complex, specialized and mechanistic systems of measurement to understand what we call reality. Literally translated, however, science refers simply to systematized knowledge. In this sense, all Native peoples have their own science systems based on their ancient observations of the world they lived in. From their observations they developed technologies that made their lives easier while at the same time caused minimal or no harm to the environment. Here we look at five of the most ancient, well known and influential of those Native technologies, with a tip of the hat to Gregory Cajete, whose work in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Clear Light Books, 1999) inspired and informed this list.
Astronomy is one of the oldest forms of science. Consistent with Native worldviews that recognized the interdependence of all life, even the stars and other celestial bodies were seen as relatives who guided the lives of the people in tangible ways. The movement of celestial bodies could determine ceremonial cycles and festivals, or determine war and other events of political or religious significance. They also figure prominently in the creation stories of many peoples.
Like folks all over the world, Indigenous Peoples read the heavens to keep track of time. Calendar systems such as the Plains Indians’ winter count and other forms of pictographs, drawings and rock art (such as those found throughout the American Southwest and the painted caves of the Chumash) were records that allowed people to maintain important traditions year after year. Some, like the Nazca geoglyphs in Peru, are even thought to be a form of geometry and mathematics. One of the most pragmatic applications of astronomical knowledge was its ability to guide cycles of planting and harvesting.
Many indigenous cultures in pre-contact South and North America were known to have complex irrigation systems that could sustain communities of thousands of people. Archeological evidence from the Hohokam culture (in today’s Phoenix) and Peruvians in pre-Incan and Incan times suggests that irrigation technology including canals, pipelines, aqueducts, dams, reservoirs and check valves date back to 300 B.C.
Fifteenth-century Aztecs constructed an aqueduct more than eight miles long in what is today Mexico City and was then their capital city. And in the major urban center of Teotihuacán, a semi-arid highland valley, archeologists speculate that there must have been an irrigation system to support a large population (upwards of 200,000), although evidence has been minimal.
Contrary to the popular colonial myth of Indians as nomadic wanderers, many Native peoples were agriculturalists of the highest degree. As Cajete wrote in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, agriculture “is in reality applied indigenous science.” What we today call permaculture is the application of traditional indigenous knowledge of bio-regional sustainability, which sometimes even included game management.
Great Lakes peoples cultivated wild rice, cattails and wild pond lilies. Mesoamericans cultivated the microalgae spirulina, one of the most nutritious foods in the world. All over North and South America Indigenous Peoples experimented with farming techniques, resulting in many of the world’s most widely consumed food crops today. For example Iroquois and other Native North Americans planted the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—all together to insure long-term soil fertility and maximum output. Growing crops in these small mounded areas known as “milpas” ensured minimal soil erosion compared to linear plowing, and was adopted by some European immigrant farmers.
Native peoples practiced hybridization techniques long before researchers like Luther Burbank and Gregor Mendel popularized it, resulting in the many varieties of corn, chiles, beans and squash that we enjoy today. In all, the agricultural achievements of indigenous peoples can, and have, filled volumes.
Transportation and Road-Building
In North America Native peoples had no need for the wheel, because after the last ice age, animals suited to be draft animals were extinct. But they were highly mobile and had constructed a network of trails that are still visible today. What became pioneer wagon trails such as the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, the Central and Southern Overland Trails, the Cumberland Gap-Wilderness Road and the Natchez Trace are still visible on maps as roads and highways.
In Mexico, the Mayans built a network of roads centered in the Yucatán city of Cobá around 623 A.D. These roads were remarkable for their rubble-filled, raised construction that ranged from two to eight feet above ground and were lined with limestone concrete. Roads were as long as 62 miles, and archeologists have found a five-ton cylindrical roller for packing the ground, similar to steamroller equipment used today.
In South America, the Inca of South America constructed a 24,000-mile-long complex of roads centered around the city of Cuzco and that extended as far as the Amazon and Argentina. The roads consisted of suspension bridges, solid bridges with stone piers and wooden decking, and even tunnels cut through solid granite. Bridges crossed gorges, marshes and other seasonally wet areas and incorporated culverts to prevent water from undermining them.
Marine Navigation and Vessels
Wherever there was water, Indigenous Peoples developed watercraft. In North America, canoes were common among coastal, lake and river-dwellers. Great Lakes peoples built bark-covered canoes, and Arctic peoples constructed sealskin kayaks. Pacific Northwest peoples constructed elaborate dugout canoes big enough to hold as many as 20 people and thousands of pounds of cargo, and their maritime history is among the oldest in the world. The Chumash and Gabrielino were known for their tomol, a sewn-plank canoe that is considered one of the oldest forms of seafaring craft in North America, according to Canoe & Kayak magazine, and is believed by some to be influenced by ancient Polynesians. And recent discoveries on the islands off the coast of California confirm the ancient ocean navigating abilities of the Chumash dating back at least 11,000 years, far predating the seafaring of ancient Egypt, Europe, and Asia, according to Westerndigs.org.
Perhaps nowhere in the world, however, were people more highly accomplished as seafarers than the early Polynesians. Thousands of years before the European voyages to the New World commenced, Polynesians were exploring and settling uninhabited lands in the Pacific. Able to navigate by the stars and other natural conditions, the Polynesians designed double-hulled sailing canoes known as “wa’a” (pronounced va-a), or “vaka.” Native Hawaiians have revived their seafaring culture in recent decades through the voyages of the Hokule’a and Hikianalia, as chronicled by the Polynesian Voyaging Society.