This is part three of a series of discussion questions related to the presentation on language and identity in our Theory of Knowledge class. See the end of this post for related links.
Indigenous languages, indigenous knowledge
Anthropologists apply indigenous knowledge from different cultures to other sciences, and have created new cross-disciplinary fields like ethnobotany, ethnozoology and ethnoastronomy. By studying the ways that indigenous people groups gather and organize their knowledge about the environment, scientists have identified "new" species of useful plants and animals, discovered useful chemical compounds in traditional medicines (including antibiotics and cancer treatments), and studied cognitive processes through linguistic analysis.
Case study 1
The ancient Maya used a base-twenty numbering system for public works, astronomy and calendar making. They invented the zero independently of ancient mathematicians in Mesopotamia, and their long-count calendar still works today without the need for regular adjustments like our Leap Year.
The image at the right (source) is of Stela C, found at Tres Zapotes, a pre-Maya site in Mexico. The stela is one of the oldest artifacts that uses the Long Count calendar system used by many peoples in Mesoamerica. The numerals inscribed on the left column read: 188.8.131.52.18, which corresponds to the date 3 September 32 BC in the Julian calendar, around the time when Caesar Augustus defeated Mark Antony.
The zero date for this calendar corresponds to 3114 BC in our calendar. The long count calendar will reset when it reaches the date 184.108.40.206.0.0, which will occur in December 2012.
What if Western Civilization had developed mathematics based on twenty instead of ten? How would technology be different? How would the sciences be different? Or language?
Case study 2
2. Surveyors in Brazil recently found evidence of 67 previously unidentified people groups living in the Amazon rain forest. Because of extensive mining and the harvesting of tropical hardwoods and other forest products, these people groups may become extinct soon.
What would be the best way to retrieve and protect the knowledge of these people groups?
What if they believe that sharing their "secrets" would bring danger to them? How do you weigh the importance of protecting their culture versus learning from it?
Language and identity, part one: The sound of a vanishing language
Language and identity, part two: Geography
For more on the problem of indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights, see these Wikipedia articles on indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge, biopiracy. See also the UN's Decade of the World's Indigeous Peoples.