Primitive Peoples or Native Scientists?

Tuesday July 24, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Have you ever looked at the great Mayan pyramids with awe and wondered what kind of technology they possessed that could allow them to build such amazing structures? What about the Mayan calendar? How could a supposedly illiterate people conceive of such a complex system of timekeeping? Have you ever heard of the Nazca Animal Geoglyphs of Peru? They are massive designs etched into the earth in the form of animals that can only be seen from the sky and were not even discovered until the 1920s when planes began to fly over the Nazca Plain. How could supposedly "primitive" societies possess such ingenuity?

Maybe those are the wrong questions to ask. Maybe these and so many other accomplishments of ancient indigenous peoples only seem so amazing because of the way we've been conditioned to think about them. Conventional narratives have long been written from a paradigm that have habitually characterized native peoples as primitive, pre-technological, savage and altogether ignorant, and they are deeply pervasive. These histories were all too often written through the Eurocentric lens of people who felt themselves morally, culturally and intellectually superior, and usually with some other agenda in mind (such as a need to justify the expropriation of indigenous lands and resources).

But native people always had their own technologies, even if Europeans could not recognize them for what they were. The Mayans had advanced systems of mathematics which enabled them to conceive of their calendrical system and build fantastic pyramids. South American cultures had cities so large and complex they rivaled those of the largest in Europe at the time of the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, even surpassing them in some ways. Native American scholars have begun to take charge of their own historical narratives and dispel some of the myths that have been perpetuated by settler scholars by reframing these narratives. This week I've written about a field of study called native science in which I explore concepts like astronomy, farming and other technologies Native Americans employed throughout history. Click here for the article.


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