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Who You Callin’ a Savage? The Beauty and Brilliance of Indian Science

Traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples avoids collisions with science in several ways.

Conflicts between the scientific method and the power of religion have a long and colorful history. John Scopes was fined by God-fearing Tennessee for teaching current biology in 1925 and his trial became an epic showdown between William Jennings Bryan representing God and Clarence Darrow representing science. That clash of oratorical giants was later dramatized in a play and a movie, Inherit the Wind.

The Scopes “Monkey Trial”—so called because of the false claim that evolution teaches humans descended from monkeys—became the secular antithesis of Mary Shelley’s fictional story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who trespassed into the realm of god(s) by creating life. Frankenstein spawned many motion pictures and a classic science fiction trope of science doing harm by ignoring all religious and ethical boundaries. We call the Dr. Frankenstein character the “mad scientist,” but the history of science reveals plenty of madness coming from the religious side.

Copernicus and Galileo got in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for observing (and pointing out) that the earth is not the center of our solar system, let alone the universe. Charles Darwin sinned by holding that man evolved slowly from non-human animals rather than being created in one day. Sigmund Freud’s work was thought incompatible with religious teachings and Alfred Kinsey’s observations of human sexual behavior were at odds with the Divine judgments contained in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples is often considered sacred, but it avoids similar collisions with science in several ways. The most obvious is that our ideas of how the world is ordered are mostly, like science, based on observation, albeit observations that reach very different conclusions based upon stories we hesitate to abandon. The wisdom of “companion planting” corn, beans, and squash was self-evident. Scientific verification came later. Maca roots have been a cure for sexual dysfunctions among South American Indians for over 3,000 years, but only recently did scientific studies find the same.

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Cinchona seeds, the source of quinine to treat malaria, were smuggled out of Peru by the Dutch in the 19th century and planted in what is now Indonesia, and Indonesia is now the primary source of quinine for today’s world market. That’s why the Peruvian Indians have every reason to fear a similar biopiracy of maca.

Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is on the World Health Organization Model List of Essential Medicines because of its versatility as painkiller, fever reducer and anti-inflammatory, and most recently it’s been found to reduce blood clotting. ASA is derived from willow bark, and it was in use by indigenous medicine people of the Americas when the colonists showed up. It’s only fair to note that ASA also has a pre-Columbian history in Europe, but it was not synthesized from willow bark until 1897 and given the name “aspirin,” which is to this day a registered trademark of the German multinational corporation Bayer in some countries.

When Europeans analyze traditional remedies or conduct scientific studies to prove or disprove their efficacy, you seldom hear of any objection from traditional people. This is so even when the remedies are part of a tribal sacred narrative and belief in the power of that narrative is bone-deep. While plenty of indigenous people are skeptical of the scientific method, that skepticism does not drive any need to defend sacred stories with violence or even incarceration. “The Monkey Trial” is an infamous and typically European response to conflict between science and religion. Indian creation stories are just as incompatible with evolution as the Genesis myth but we don’t think our stories need any force of law to be what they are. Most tribes have some understanding similar to the Cherokee understanding that was part of my instruction: the spirit world takes care of its own business.

With the exception of physical anthropologists robbing Indian graves for “data,” Indian objections to scientific investigations of traditional medicine are normally limited to profiteering, particularly when the scientists patent something they got from traditional healers and make themselves wealthy after not discovering but rather being shown—leaving the people who showed them no better off. The objection is not to scientific study, but rather to stealing.

Indigenous methods are often hidden for fear of commercial theft, but the Matsés indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon are taking the opposite tack, standing up to the fear in an effort to preserve their culture, heritage and more for generations to come with an encyclopedia. The Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia, a 500-page collection of the tribe’s traditional medicine, was printed in the tribe’s Native language in an effort to prevent the contents from being stolen while preserving it all for future generations according to an article at

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RELATED: Amazon Tribe Creates 500-Page Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia

It’s telling that the “civilized” Europeans imprisoned or killed scientists who challenged their sacred stories while Indians confronted with the news that, for example, the earth does not exist on the back of a turtle, just shrug.

Science can, of course, be scary. Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage to the so-called New World, had shown himself to be such a greedy tyrant that his reputation preceded him and Indians were no longer inclined to feed or shelter him voluntarily. At the end of his last explorations—and still vainly seeking gold—Columbus was stranded on unseaworthy ships in Jamaica and surrounded by Indians who were quite willing to watch him die rather than render aid.

Consulting an astronomical chart of expected eclipses between 1475 and 1506, Columbus threatened that if the Indians did not feed his men, the moon would disappear from the sky. The lunar eclipse that shook the Indians into saving his skin happened on schedule on February 29, 1504.

This historical escapade began a trope of white triumph over ignorant savages. The eclipse trick was recycled on ignorant Africans in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and ignorant American Indians in Le Temple du Soleil (1949). Mark Twain turned it back on ignorant white people in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Columbus’s gloating report dates the myth that Natives in the Americas didn’t do astronomy to one of the very first European contacts. The Spanish helped that myth a lot by burning all the Mayan codices they could get their hands on, another example of the Europeans reacting violently to scientific observations that conflicted with their religion. What can be reconstructed from rock carvings and oral traditions appears to show mathematics and astronomy for which predicting an eclipse would be child’s play.

The discipline of archeoastronomy tries to recreate the astronomy of Native America. The Anasazi sacred site on the heights of Fajada Butte, in the middle of the civilization founded on agriculture and trade in Chaco Canyon, is hard to reach and has no water or useful soil. The petroglyphs in this otherwise useless site have been found to mark both solar and lunar cycles.

Many tribes called the constellations by different names. The tribes of the Great Sioux Nation governed their migrations by star sightings, and the sacred sites of Paha Sapa correspond to observed star patterns. Both patterns can be found painted on very old animal hides.

The Siouan star patterns and the Chacoan observatory and, most importantly, the lack of hostility to scientific observation show American Indians have a history of more openness to scientific inquiry than the institution that ruled the European world at First Contact, the Roman Catholic Church. When that Church was not forcing European scientists to recant their observations, it was destroying all evidence of American Indian scientific observations, leaving us the myth of the untutored savages, innocent of science.

It’s that purposeful myth creation that produced the hypothesis that the Mississippian Mounds were produced by space aliens and the Valladolid Debate of 1550-1551, which found the Church—hungry for souls—divided on the question whether Indians were human beings with dignity equal to Europeans. Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas stood for the humanity of Indians against the position that Catholic theology and “natural law” taught that Indians were fit only for slavery, argued by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.

Both sides of the Valladolid Debate claimed victory and the historical record is indecisive. We do know the myth of the anti-scientific savage persisted and made it ever so much easier, after European diseases left American civilization centers depopulated and most indigenous scientists dead, to separate the survivors from their real estate. And they call us savages?