Unit E2


The development of modern science has provided the foundation for the explosive development of western civilization. Today it is through science that we look for the answers to the problems of the material world, whether in human health and medicine, in the development of resources and industry, or in the protection of the environment.

Yet science is not something fundamentally new and different. It is an accumulation of knowledge based on looking carefully at the things that go on around us in nature, and then thinking about and organizing all our observations into systems of structures, theories or laws that best explain what we have seen. The proof that such an explanation is the right one is that it can successfully predict what will happen if the same things are done or similar conditions occur again. The law of gravity predicts that if we drop a heavy object it will fall towards the earth. We would be very surprised if the object suddenly fell upwards, and would have to change the law of gravity.

At different times or in different cultures, the events or facts observed may be the same, but our ways of explaining them may change as new ideas or theories provide better or more complete explanations that older ones. For instance, after hundreds of years of believing that the sun turned around the earth, scientists discovered that it was more logical to see that the earth turned around the sun. In another example, it is only some 20 years ago that earth scientists realized that the continents, long thought of by most people as fixed, really drift over the surface of the earth, separating from or colliding with each other.

The general public has never fully understood what scientists do and why they do it. In Europe in the past, the distinction between astronomers or alchemists and magicians or sorcerers was not very clear, and scientists able to predict future events such as an eclipse were looked upon as having special and perhaps dangerous powers.

The same problem occurred in many islands. The early European visitors, and particularly the missionaries, did not understand the beliefs underlying island cultures, and they worked hard to destroy the "sorcery and superstition of the natives" and to replace it with enlightened European ways of thinking. Looked at without the biases of European society which has always thought of itself as superior, island cultures included logical and internally-consistent explanations of the natural world and man's position in it. There is some belief in magic and superstition in all cultures, often mixed with sound observations, and quite a high proportion of traditional knowledge would today be called scientific. Unfortunately the attempts of well-meaning missionaries and educators to destroy these traditional beliefs in order to replace them with something else have led to the loss of much valuable information on the environment along with ideas and practices that had outlived their usefulness.

The ways in which people observed the workings of nature in island societies were similar to those of modern science. The master fisherman, for instance, would spend many hours watching the sea and the behaviour of fish. He would thus add to the knowledge received from his forefathers, and he would in turn pass on his accumulated knowledge to his successor, just as scientific knowledge is accumulated and passed on. However, the intellectual context within which the observations were interpreted was very different. An unfavourable change might have been interpreted as the influence of an enemy's magic powers, to be counteracted by the use of other magic. Even the way in which man saw himself in relation to the natural world was different from that of the European. The kanak of New Caledonia, for instance, did not identify himself as separate from the world around him; on the contrary, he was part of the world and perceived himself by analogy with objects in nature such as the yam, whose cycle symbolized the cycle of life. The ancestors were born from trees, and the body was identified with the vegetable kingdom.

Many things in the natural world had a mystical or spiritual significance, often related to the ancestors and the origins and history of the people. The different plants even had symbolic meanings that were used as a kind of language. The land was the spiritual as well as material source of life. It is no wonder that the habitat was worshipped and that there was no distinction between magic or myth and the natural world.

Knowledge in island cultures was not held equally by everyone; there was a tendency towards specialization in the community. Each family often had its own knowledge and magic passed from generation to generation, and its assigned hereditary role in the community. In New Caledonia, the family of chiefs symbolized the clan and provided political leadership, announcing decisions taken in consultation with appropriate specialists. Other families provided priests, war chiefs, orators and other figures in the community. Many of these specialists had a role in managing environmental resources. The family of the first occupants provided the master of the land who distributed the land and preserved in his memory the record of all land boundaries and ownership. There was often a master of yams or dry (male) crops, and one or more masters of wet or female crops (taro, bananas, sugar cane) who were the agricultural technicians and decided the timing of gardening operations. The doctors and healers had their special knowledge of sicknesses, medicines and other treatments. Fishing knowledge and magic was held by the families responsible for supplying fish to the chief. A clan might be foresters or carpenters, with a knowledge of the forest trees, the qualities of each wood, the techniques for cutting and hauling a tree to the building site, and the construction of huts or the making of canoes. Families might own magic to control the sun, the rain, cyclones, or the land breeze to chase away bad weather. These different specializations were not mutually exclusive, and the number varied with the area and the size of the community. The roles could also be combined; a sculptor might also be a surgeon, since both required similar cutting skills.

There was usually some separation of specializations between men and women. Taro was a female crop, and women knew more than men about the different varieties of taro. Pottery, tattooing, midwifery and some types of healing were also women's roles in New Caledonia. Each island culture had its own ways of dividing up and transmitting such traditional knowledge.

It is clear that many examples of "magic" were really based on scientific knowledge allowing the holder of that knowledge to predict the probable outcome of natural events. The head of a family on Lifou in the Loyalty Islands had magic allowing him to climb up on a promontory and to ask the relations of his god in another locality to send him fish; although the rite is no longer followed, when the wind blows from the other locality it still washes fish up on the sand, just as it did the day after the magician performed the rite. The magic was thus related to a natural happening, and the skill of the magician may have lain in knowing how to read the natural signs that the event was about to happen, and then to use his magic.

The master of a crop in New Caledonia frequently had a small sacred garden in which he first practised the different acts in the cultivation of the crop. These ritual gardens probably served as small experimental gardens and weather stations permitting the master to observe the development of the plants and to adapt his decisions and advice to the variable climate.

A knowledge or skill was intimately related to the myth or magic with which it was inherited. Again in New Caledonia, one missionary described the case of a skilled sculptor and surgeon whose confidence rested in the gift from his deified ancestors; when he became a Christian, this confidence was destroyed and his skill was lost. This shows how closely practical skills and knowledge were linked to the values and beliefs that underlay traditional cultures. There was not the same separation into intellectual compartments as there is between science and religion in modern European cultures.

Traditional environmental management was often the responsibility of the priests or other holders of spiritual or magical powers. Their controls and prohibitions generally had the force of religious taboos, with all that that implied for the effectiveness of enforcement. A taboo might be placed on a garden to protect the crop before the harvest, or an area of tall grass might be protected because it was needed to repair the thatch on the huts in the village. In the Solomon Islands example cited in the previous unit, it was the pagan priest who was responsible for controlling the harvesting of the shells for making shell money. He would apply or remove taboos on the lagoon at intervals necessary for the growth of the shells to a reasonable size. In that situation, the conversion of the villagers to other religions meant the breakdown of the system of resource management.

This close relationship between what would today be called science and religion (or belief) has made it much harder to appreciate the values of traditional cultures. The replacement of pagan beliefs by Christianity meant a rejection of all that was associated with those beliefs, including much that was socially or scientifically valuable. Today we must overcome the prejudices of the past and search out those parts of island cultures that continue to be valid today, and that can help to find appropriate solutions to modern problems. We must in a sense bridge the gap between sorcery and science.


What do you think about science?

Was there science in your traditional culture?

How was man's place in nature seen traditionally?

Did your family have any particular magic or scientific knowledge?

What different kinds of traditional specialists were there who might be said to have had scientific knowledge?

Can you think of scientific explanations for things that were traditionally thought of as magic?

Why were taboos respected traditionally?

Do you think it would be useful to try to preserve traditional knowledge of the environment?

How can traditional environmental management practices that were part of the pagan religion be brought up to date and applied today?


Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1989. Traditional environmental knowledge and resource management in New Caledonia, p. 45-53 in R.E. Johannes (ed.). Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays. IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Gland and Cambridge. Revised from Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1985. Traditional environmental management in New Caledonia: a review of existing knowledge. South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Topic Review No. 18. 17 p.

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Updated 10 March 1999