The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK): An Interview With Dr. Michael Hutchins

Leave a comment

Reposted from National Geographic blog:

Posted by Jordan Carlton Schaul of University of Alaska on January 11, 2014


Inuit man eating narwhal (NGS)

The following interview is my 12th in a serieswith my esteemed colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins. Michael recently joined the American Bird Conservancy, as the organization’s National Bird Smart Wind Campaign Coordinator.

The distinguished ecologist has agreed to answer my questions about indigenous knowledge and the impact of such informational resources on the management of wildlife populations.

Jordan: In many cases, the large scale hunting of megafauna by indigenous peoples has been implicated in mass extinctions in the late Pleistocene. Is it fair to attribute the demise of some large placental and marsupial mammals to indigenous peoples?


Inuit woman (NGS)

Michael: This is an interesting question.  It is difficult to say, as what happened in prehistory must be pieced together through sketchy evidence. However, I am highly skeptical of the claims of some scientists, such as Paul Martin (Martin, P.S. 2005.Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. Berkeley: University of California Press), who has blamed indigenous people for widespread Pleistocene extinctions.

Martin developed his theory of Pleistocene overkill, also known as the “blitzkrieg model” based on his observation that the sudden demise of large Ice Age mammal populations coincided with the arrival of humans on different continents. Martin hypothesized that as humans migrated from Africa and Eurasia to Australia, the Americas, and the Pacific islands, they rapidly hunted large animals to extinction.  But, as we all know, correlation does not imply causation.

Martin’s research was focused on North America, where the late Ice Age large mammal assemblage rivaled that of contemporary Africa.  Martin’s hypothesis is, however, being seriously questioned by paleontologists, such as Jens Franzen  (Franzen, J.L. 2010 The Rise of Horses: 55 Million Years of Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).  Franzen believes that Martin’s overkill hypothesis arose from the mass killings of bison by American settlers in the 1800s. He states, “In reality, early humans in North America had neither the hunting weapons nor the necessary speed to carry out such mass slaughtering. And human population density was certainly not sufficient to achieve such an outcome.” (p. 175).

He instead attributes the mass extinctions to abrupt changes in climate and vegetation that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age.  According to Franzen, increasingly warmer conditions impacted the availability of food, and led to widespread environmental stress.  He concludes that the climate change hypothesis fits well with the observation that it was primarily the large mammals—horses, mammoths, mastodons, camels, tapirs, rhinos, and giant ground sloths—from the southern United States and Mexico that died out at that time. He further points out that numerous large mammals, such as wooly rhinos and mammoths, also disappeared from Eurasia at that time.  However, mammoths continued to survive in areas where the vegetation underwent little change, such as on Wrangell Island in Siberia, where the animals survived until around 4,000 years ago.

That being said, Franzen also stresses that the real story is probably much more complex than either hypothesis suggests.  For example epidemics may have also played a role, especially if the immune systems of animals were stressed by the impacts of climate change.  Some have speculated that a comet strike may have also been involved.  An issue that has contributed to the debate is the speed with which the global extinction event occurred: was it rapid or gradual?

One recent study ( suggests that it was relatively rapid, occurring primarily between 13.8 and 11.4 thousand years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.  This lends credence to the more complex explanation of numerous factors interacting at once.   However, there is still much to be learned.

In Australia, most mega-mammals had disappeared from the continent before the arrival of humans ( This, combined with evidence that the region was becoming increasingly arid at the time, lends strong credence to the climate change hypothesis.  Furthermore, if the over-hunting hypothesis were valid, then the impact of hunting should have been significantly greater on large mammals; smaller, more fecund and less hunted species would have been largely unaffected. However, another recent analysis ( found that on continents that experienced rapid climate change, extinction rates of small animals were also high; in contrast, they were low on continents with minimal change. This is further evidence for the climate change theory.

Given recent findings, the emerging picture is that hunting may have played a minor role in Pleistocene extinctions but it was not the predominant factor. That honor appears to belong to climate change, and the resultant changes in habitat that occurred at that time. Regardless of the final outcome of this debate, I’m not sure that you can blame people, especially pre-industrial and pre-scientific societies, for simply trying to survive.

In addition, I point out that our presumably more “advanced” industrial-technological society is sitting on the precipice of another great extinction event and is doing little about it, even though we are quite aware of the potential ecological consequences. We should and, in fact, do know better. In defense of the climate change hypothesis, Franzen also points out that “there is evidence that many indigenous peoples, including tribes of American Indians, revered nature and, at the very least, has a greater regard for plants and animals than did colonizing humans.”  That lost reverence may be one of the reasons that wildlife and nature have been devalued by contemporary Western cultures.

Jordan:  What is local and indigenous knowledge? Do we still rely on this resource to learn about the natural world or do we now rely on the scientific community to study nature and to conserve and manage natural resources? Can you provide specific examples of how such indigenous knowledge has benefited wildlife science and conservation?

Michael:   Actually, the way this question is posed is a bit Western-centric. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is often seen as a “benefit” to Western science and, as a result, the question becomes how to “incorporate” it into a Western worldview. Alternatively, some Native American tribes have turned this approach on its head and integrated Western scientific findings into their own cultural framework and used them to improve conservation programs.  Later, I provide examples which emphasize the view that these two paradigms are complementary.  The point is that the answer to this question has a lot to do with which cultural perspective (worldview) you are coming from.


Aboriginal dancers, Australia (NGS)

Traditional Ecological Knowledge or TEK has been defined as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Berkes, F.,  Colding, J., and Folke, C. 2000. Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management.  Ecological Applications 10 (5):  1251-1262).

While TEK and Western science are quite different in a number of ways, TEK has been increasingly viewed as complementary to Western science, or in some cases, even valuable as a stand-alone resource. Indeed, perhaps my characterization of pre-industrial people as “pre-scientific” was a bit strong.  So-called pre-scientific societies learned a great deal about their surroundings through observation and trial and error.  This, in fact, was an early form of science. And, since these peoples were entirely dependent on their knowledge of nature for survival, their understanding of natural phenomena, such as animal habitat preferences and behavior and plant phenology and their utility, were quite keen.  Since knowledge was typically passed from one generation to another through oral tradition, there were, however, some problems of accuracy, interpretation, and embellishment. That being said, however, indigenous TEK can be an important source of information, some of which can be very useful to modern biological scientists and conservationists.  I provide a couple of examples here from Schmidt and Stricker (2010, The Wildlife Professional 4(4): 40-44).

In the late 1990s, university researchers used Inuit Eskimo TEK to establish historical changes in Arctic caribou populations in a remote region of Canada.  In another instance, Inuit peoples documented the rapid decline of common eiders, a large sea duck, which lost 75% of their population in a decade, and the reason—severe winter ice leading to mass starvation.

In 1977, scientific surveys indicated that numbers of bowhead whales had become dangerously low, with less than 1,000 individuals remaining.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) took immediate action, ceasing all native hunting of the species.  Yet, local Inuit hunters took issue with the survey results and suggested that the numbers were more like 7,000. They also disputed the scientists’ findings that whales did not swim under offshore ice and did not feed during migration.  Researchers subsequently began incorporating Inuit knowledge of whale behavior into their survey methods, and a new survey in 1992, revealed that the bowhead whale population numbered 8,000—what Schmidt and Stricker (2010) call, “an affirmation of the ecological knowledge held by individuals who depended upon the whales for food, fuel and shelter.”

There are challenges to the cross pollination of TEK and Western science, especially when worldviews conflict.  As we know from the perceived conflicts between science and Western religions (e.g., over the age of the earth and evolution), the worldviews of indigenous cultures may also contain information or assumptions that are not supported by evidence.

For example, some Native Americans believe that horses have always been in North America (  Horses are, of course, an integral part of Native American culture and spirituality, but the evidence is clear. Horses evolved in North America, but went extinct around 10,000 years ago, along with several other large mammals (Franzen, J.L. 2010 The Rise of Horses: 55 Million Years of Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).  Native American cultures did not integrate horses into their lives until domesticated horses arrived on the continent with European colonists, beginning with the Spanish in the late 1500s after undergoing many generations of selective breeding and domestication (Burt, O.W. 1975. The Horse in America. New York: The John Day Company).   More recently, feral horses have become a major problem in rangeland and other ecosystems both in North America and Australia, where they have become overpopulated and are impacting native plant and animal species (Jeffress, J. and Roush, P. 2010. Lethal hoof beats: The rising toll of feral horses and burros. The Wildlife Professional 4(4): 50-55; Thomas, M. 2010. Is shooting the answer down under?: A fold icon puts Australia’s alps at risk. The Wildlife Professional 4(4): 57).


Seafha Tuttle (left) and her field assistant

Some authors have tried to break down the distinction between Western and indigenous knowledge, preferring instead to “… talk about multiple domains and types of knowledge, with differing logics and epistemologies.”  (  That being said, and despite the predictable cultural disconnects, TEK is being used more frequently by Western scientists and by indigenous peoples, often collaboratively, in the service of conservation (Schmidt, P. and Stricker, H. 2010. What tradition teaches: Indigenous knowledge complements Western science. The Wildlife Professional 4(4): 40-44;!).

There is no doubt however, that TEK goes beyond the data and into the realm of worldviews. An example of an integrative approach to TEK and Western science is provided by the work of Seafha Tuttle, a graduate student currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.  I have known Seafha for several years and have had the privilege of serving as one of her academic and career mentors.  Seafha is a member of the Yurok tribe from northern California (  Her work has two critical aspects: an ethnographic study of the Yurok worldview of wildlife and its cultural significance and a survey of wild carnivores present on Yurok ancestral lands.

The latter also includes a scientific analysis: she will use conservation genetics techniques to identify species and diet composition from scats collected in various forest age classes.  Because she began with the goal of cultural preservation, rather than pursuing the wildlife science for science’s sake, she has encountered some differences in worldviews with professional scientists. She often finds herself explaining to Western-trained scientists that she is not using TEK to answer a specific scientific question, but rather, she is conducting a scientifically sound project that “does not leave culture on the back burner.” 

She has strived to develop, conduct and provide results of her research in a culturally-appropriate context.   The contemporary Yurok worldview and relationship with wildlife will assist with that goal and serve as a resource for management decisions. The goal of her study has become how to use both TEK and Western science to do culturally sensitive conservation.  In fact, perhaps the most important aspect of Seafha’s work is the cultural interchange and understanding that it helps to produce among people whose views can be very different, but whose shared humanity can lead them to similar realizations about the natural world and their place in it.

Jordan: Where native people have transitioned from subsistence lifestyles to trading in the formal market economy they have been heavily implicated in the exploitation of natural resources. Is this justified?

This is also an interesting question and the answer is yes, but I also find it understandable. Some Native Americans, for example, have adopted Western lifestyles, spirituality and ethics and it is therefore not surprising that some have also adopted an extreme capitalistic mindset and all that goes with it, including exploitation of the environment for material gain.  This is true in other areas of the world, as well, where indigenous people are adopting Western lifestyles. I’m not sure we can blame an economically disadvantaged people from trying to better their lives.  It is also important to point out that many indigenous peoples have been forced to assimilate into Western culture, often at gun point, and not given any other option.  In North America, Australia and other parts of the world, this resulted in a holocaust unmatched in history, which has had devastating, long-term impacts on entire cultures (

Prior to European contact, the Native American population was estimated to be greater than 12 million; four centuries later, the count was reduced to 237 thousand.  In the United States, a forced dependence on government and institutionalized poverty was a result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ( ). This legislation allowed for self-government, but also limited tribes’ land base and economic options.  When European colonists invaded the United States, they arrogantly assumed that they had all the answers and that their worldview was superior to that of the indigenous peoples and “ordained by God.”  This was used as a justification for blatant murder and exploitation.  But times and sensibilities have changed, and the assumptions on which those heinous acts were committed are now being challenged.   In addition, we are on the brink of a global environmental disaster brought about by human overpopulation, technological advances and greed.  As a result, I would argue that it is western industrial-technological society that has much to learn from traditional indigenous cultures, particularly with regard to their relationship with wildlife and nature (see below).

Jordan: You have traveled to over 30 countries, many of which include developing nations. Are there any particular instances in which you were notably impressed by the interface between indigenous people and wildlife? Was there anything you learned from native people that has complemented your scientific aptitude for nature? Can you provide examples?


Massai woman (NGS)

Michael:  There have been many. I have been particularly impressed by the Massai people in Kenya and Tanzania, who live and manage their cattle herds in close proximity to wild animals, including large carnivores, such as lions and leopards (see  Conflict still occurs on occasion (, but in general, they have made peace with the wildlife nearby.  Much of this is due to their traditional way of life, including the building of bomas, fences of sharp, thorny plants around their living areas, which keeps predators out of their compounds (  In general, they have been able to maintain much of their traditional culture, while still taking advantage of some aspects of “modern” civilization, such as cell phones. (


Courtesy of M. Hutchins

In Papua New Guinea, I also visited villages along the tributaries of the Sepik River, where people are able to live relatively traditional lives, but had access to medical care, generators and the like, often paid for by revenue generated by tourism. Tourism is, in fact, one of the reasons that traditional art and culture still flourishes in New Guinea, much of it depicting the close relationship that these people still maintain with nature.  (Unfortunately, in other areas of the world, tourism has altered traditional art by creating an economic incentive for cheaply made replicas). New Guinea still has more than 80% of its forested areas intact, and some tribes, realizing the importance for their children and children’s children, are beginning to adopt wildlife management/conservation practices that will ensure a future for their cultural traditions and lifestyles, many of which are dependent on wildlife and nature (


Courtesy of M. Hutchins

In many cases, indigenous peoples are becoming the protectors of remaining wild lands from the rushing onslaught of energy development, settlement, and agriculture (e.g., the Kogi of Colombia:; the Australian Aborigines:!; and the Kayapo and other tribes in the Amazon ( In fact, Indigenous peoples are among the most likely to be heavily impacted by global climate change, so they have become an important voice calling for world-wide efforts to address it (


Kayapo girl with spider monkey (NGS)

In this time of planetary destruction, based largely on human greed and ignorance, we must set aside our arrogance and learn from indigenous cultures.  Part of this is getting back to our roots– to our spiritual connection to nature and the knowledge that everything is interconnected.

Nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary Western culture’s perception of the food that sustains us. Many indigenous people continue to hunt, fish and gather their food from the land; whereas those of us in urban-industrial-technological societies do our “foraging” in the grocery store or MacDonald’s, where we often eat processed food full of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals.  This easy life has led to obesity, cancer, heart problems, and an increasing disconnect with nature.  It has also led to veganism and animal rights—in my opinion, also reflections of Western culture’s divorce from nature (Hutchins, M. 2007. The limits of compassion. The Wildlife Professional 1(2): 42-46).  In the process, we have lost our spiritual connection to wildlife, nature and the land.  When brave pygmys hunted and killed elephants for their meat in the Central African jungle, they conducted extensive ceremonies that recognized the animal’s sacrifice for their survival and to appease its spirit.

In our so-called “modern” culture, many children do not know where their meat comes from or that it was once a living animal. When we buy chicken, pork or beef, it is bloodless and hermetically sealed in plastic. Few give a passing thought to the living creature that brought them sustenance.

In summary, contemporary culture has lost a great deal, and if we don’t change our ways, the future does not look bright.   In a recent blog, author Alan Pierce wrote the following: “Scientific research is bringing knowledge of the natural world full circle, offering biological and theoretical authority to the enduring truth of indigenous wisdom. In so doing, perhaps our relation to animals will become a more sacred endeavor, like that embodied by indigenous communities” (  There is much truth to this and the need for a new perspective toward wildlife and nature is great—that is, if we are to have any chance of preserving some semblance of nature in a world dominated by human influences.


Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s