Can traditional Maori knowledge be considered scientific?

The idea of a separate indigenous science, practised by Maori before European settlement and passed on to their descendants, is an appealing one. The phrase “Maori science” has cropped up in school curriculum reform and in Museum of New Zealand planning documents. Courses on it have been taught at university level. The Department of Conservation has decided it is “highly relevant to future policies for science and research”. But does “Maori science” even exist?

At first, this seems a silly question. After all, we know that Maori possessed a huge body of knowledge about their environment, passed on orally for generations, even if today much of it has been lost. The knowledge of how to make bird snares, process karaka berries to destroy their toxins, and differentiate dozens of different varieties of harakeke surely qualify as science.

But science is more than a body of in-depth knowledge about the world. Other bodies of knowledge include history, literary theory, gardening, auto mechanics and rugby. If knowing a lot about flax is enough to make you a scientist, then so is knowing a lot about rugby. Although scientists tend to know a lot about their area of study, as astronomer Carl Sagan has said, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

Defining Science

The aim of science is to understand how the world really works. Not just collecting facts about the world, but questioning the mechanisms behind those facts. Knowing how to prepare karaka berries is knowledge; trying to find out why and how they are poisonous, and how your preparation is removing the poison, is science. A perfect scientist (most are mere human beings) is continually questioning, never accepting hearsay or declaring an area closed to inquiry. This aim of science, and all the methods that flow from it, is responsible for the extraordinary understanding of the natural world we have today.

Dr Ian Hawthorn of Waikato University defines science as “objective rational co-operative knowledge acquisition”. That is, it deals with the real or empirical world as opposed with subjective opinion or personal belief. It believes that the world can be understood rationally, without recourse to the supernatural, and it operates through the sharing of knowledge by scientists.

Under this definition of science, how does Maori knowledge measure up? The answer, it seems, is not very well.

Kaumatua Morris Grey has pointed out that there was no demarcation between religion and knowledge in Maori culture. Religion’s goal is not to understand the natural world, but to help people to live in it. It operates on faith and authority. However good the knowledge database possessed by Maori, questioning (“Why don’t kakapo fly? Why is the sky blue? What is a rainbow?”) would quickly bring you up against religious and supernatural explanations, which by their nature are not open to questioning.

Maori culture was not alone in this, of course. On the contrary, every society in the world until very recently operated much the same way. Society then was what we today would call authoritarian, where the authority of your elders and gods was not up for challenge. In Maori society, knowledge was not freely available, but imparted to those who were deemed worthy in a controlled environment. Knowledge was power, and had to be restricted. It was legitimised by the authority of your teacher.

A society in which science can develop needs to have people with sufficient technology and leisure time to do research. It also has to have a good communications network, and ways of reliably storing, disseminating and duplicating information. This state was nearly reached in several ancient societies, but the right conditions were only achieved a few hundred years ago in Europe, and it is only an accident of history that science began there and not in China or South America. Maori society had neither the communications network nor the social structure for collaborative research to go on between different iwi.

So Maori knowledge acquisition was neither objective (relying as it did on religious faith), rational (it mixed supernatural with mundane explanations), nor co-operative (it relied on authority rather than challenge and consensus).


It seems then that “Maori science” doesn’t qualify as science. What should it be called then? Botanist Murray Parson has suggested the useful word matauranga, one Maori term for knowledge, and one which makes no assumptions about how scientific that knowledge is.

The phrase “Maori science” is problematic in a second sense. Most scientists would agree that the universality of science is one of its strongest features. Science is only accidentally European and, more importantly, can be practised by any culture. So the terms “Pakeha science” or “Western science” do not make sense — either a practice is science or it is not, regardless of the practitioner’s culture.

Maori knowledge or matauranga seems to have concentrated more on getting along in the world than understanding what makes it tick; it has more to do with technology than science. The words science and technology are often used together or interchangeably, but biologist Lewis Wolpert has argued that until quite recently the two areas had very little to do with each other — the technology our ancestors used for hunting, farming and building houses was uninformed by science until the 19th century. So matauranga may not be science, but that is only one of the problems that would assail anyone that tried to defend it as a research method or a curriculum subject.

Demeaning Traditional Knowledge

Calling matauranga a science demeans it. Maori knowledge — a mixture of religion, mythology and observed facts — is sometimes inconsistent and often resorts to an appeal to authority to justify a statement. It has different aims and standards to science. Moreover, to contrast it with “Pakeha” science, which is wider in scope and both more detailed and more accurate in almost every case, will teach Maori children that they are heir to a “science” that is less comprehensive and often simply wrong. Scientific standards are the wrong ones to use when examining matauranga.

Consider the story quoted by early anthropologist Elsdon Best about the pukeko arriving in New Zealand on the Aotea or Horouta canoes. This is a good example of the sort of knowledge claim that might be put forward in a Maori science class. It is also empirically testable. Ornithologists will point out that although pukeko are indeed found though most of the Pacific, New Zealand pukeko belong to the Australian subspecies, not the Pacific. This is consistent with other facts, such as the ancestors of takahe being pukeko which settled here long before humans, and the number of other bird species that have arrived here from across the Tasman. It is not, however, consistent with matauranga.

Such contradictions and anomalies are not rare. If matauranga were to qualify as science, it would have to play by the rules of the game and discard its mythological and religious elements. To many, and I am sure to most Maori, this seems a ludicrous solution, one which would rob matauranga of its coherency and richness.

There is another problem with the concept of Maori science. Although some of its promoters have the laudable aim of making science more accessible to Maori children, setting up an opposition between Maori and Pakeha science will have a different effect. The message conveyed will be that “real” science, with its wide-ranging and powerful explanations, is owned by Pakeha, and that Maori own only a lesser version.

As artist Cliff Whiting has pointed out, this ignores the fact that any race and culture can practice science. Members of historically excluded groups, such as Maori and women, should be encouraged to participate in science, not taught that it is the tool of the dominant culture and that to study it is to sell out.

Why Indigenous Science?

Given that there are so many problems with the notion of indigenous science, why is it being promoted at all?

The seminal publication in this area is a paper by Liz McKinley, Pauline Waiti and Beverley Bell, published in 1992 in the International Journal of Science Education. It advocates studying the culture of Maori students to encourage their achievement in science. The proponents are not cynical and malicious, as the creationist movement in the US has been in its struggle to introduce religion into science classes. They genuinely believe that Maori knowledge is science and should be taught. The problem here is that criticising their solution could be misinterpreted as criticising the very real problem of poor Maori participation in science.

About half the paper offers constructive suggestions for making science relevant to Maori. Again and again, however, the authors slide from this point to actively defending a separate indigenous science. Their use of the term “Maori science” seems to be an attempt to legitimise matauranga in Pakeha eyes, by borrowing the cloak of science to confer some mana. As Mere Roberts, a zoologist studying kiore, has pointed out, this is a little like the situation of some decades ago, where some Maori discarded their language and culture by “trying to be Pakeha”. Why should Maori have to “legitimise” their matauranga by trying to turn it into science?

Maori science is not being talked about only in academic journals. In 1992, the Department of Conservation, in response to the debate generated over the poisoning of kiore, the Polynesian rat, gave a bicultural presentation. Roberts talked about kiore from a scientific point of view, Bradford Haami from that of matauranga (which DoC called tikanga Maori, or Maori custom/protocol). The message was that each of these “techniques” of data-gathering are of equal value when doing research, and that this approach was highly relevant to future policies for science and research.

In 1993, McKinley and Waiti are on contract to the Ministry of Education to translate the NZ Curriculum Science Statement into Maori. An interesting point made in their paper is that some scientific concepts will not be crossing the language barrier; the concepts taught in Maori may not be the same as those taught in English. Their example is that in Maori “wind” would be termed “Tawhirimatea” for the name of the Maori god of wind. They defend the inclusion of religion in a science course by pointing out that concepts of energy taught by a physics and a chemistry teacher also differ, which hardly seems a reasonable analogy even if it is true.

The idea of Maori science seems to make sense at first hearing, partly because of a vernacular but inaccurate definition of science as “a body of knowledge”, and partly because it appeals to the fairness of teachers, who genuinely want different perspectives and to tell both sides of the story. The latter appeal is misleading, and echoes creationist requests for equal time for their story. Presenting two alternative viewpoints is only appropriate if the viewpoints are genuine alternatives; that is, if they are seeking to do the same thing in different ways. Science and matauranga do not seek to do the same thing.

The transitions going on in New Zealand society at the moment mean that discussions of cultural beliefs can become emotionally polarised, with misquotation and misunderstanding running riot. Posturing, name-calling or Maori/Pakeha-“bashing” will not help answer these issues. It is vital that critical and constructive argument can occur instead.

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