History of Science in Non-Western Traditions: Australia and the Pacific

David Turnbull and Philip F. Rehbock


Any examination of non-Western knowledge has to start with a reexamination of Western science and technology and their relationship. All too often in the past it has been assumed that the canonical exemplification of rationality, objectivity, universality and truth is Western science and that technology is the proof of the pudding–it works.  The effect of such assumptions is to relegate non-Western knowledge to the merely traditional, local, or pratical category whose only real interest or value is to be collected and added to the Western archive as either exotic or exploitable.

Recent approaches in the sociology of scientific knowledge, anthropology and history of science, feminism, and post-colonialism have provided a new understanding of Western science and technology. Science and technology are not simply pure and applied knowledge they are intimately linked and were created at a particular juncture and at particular sites, that is to say they are local and moreover their supposedly acultural character was coproduced with them.  Recognizing the local nature of Western technoscience provides for the possibility of an equitable comparison of knowledge traditions.  Ultimately the point of comparing knowledge traditions is to enable indigenous students to discover and appreciate their own knowledge traditions, for non-indigenous students to interrogate Western traditions and for all students to find ways of enabling disparate knowledge traditions to work together to ensure the viability of cultural diversity.

Essential Library Resource

  • Selin, H. (ed.), 1996. Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.
  • Journals
    • Indigenous Knowledge Monitor
    • Cultural Survival Quarterly
  • Electronic/Internet Resources
    • Indkno

Day 1

  • Introduction: Comparing Knowledge Traditions
  • Student Reading
    • Chambers, D. W., 1984, Imagining Nature, Deakin University Press, Geelong.
    • Cunningham, A. and P. Williams, 1993, “De-centring the ‘Big Picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the Modern Origins of Science,” Brit. J. Hist. Sci., 26: 407-32.
    • Watson-Verran, H. and D. Turnbull, 1995, “Science and Other Indigenous Knowledge Systems,” in Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, S. Jasanoff, G. Markle, T. Pinch and J. Petersen (eds.), Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, pp. 115-139.
    • Turnbull, D., 1991, Technoscience Worlds, Deakin University Press, Geelong.
  • Extended Reading
    • Agrawal, A., 1995, “Dismantling the Divide Between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge,” Development and Change, 26(3): 413-439.
    • Goonatilake, S., 1984, Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity in the Third World, Zed Books, London.
    • Goonatilake, S., 1988, “Epistemology and Ideology in Science, Technology and Developement,” in Science, Technology and Developement, A. Wad (ed.), Westview Press, Boulder, pp. 93-116.
    • Harding, S. (ed.), 1993, The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
    • Harding, S., 1996, “Is Modern Science a European Knowledge System? Rethinking Epistemological Verities,” in Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, T. Shinn (ed.), Reidel, Dordrecht.
    • Hill, S., 1988, The Tragedy of Technology, Pluto Press, Sydney.
    • Hobart, M. (ed.), 1993, An Anthropological Critique of Development. Routledge, London.
    • Latour, B., 1986, “Visualisation and Cognition: Thinking With Eyes and Hands,” Knowledge and Society, 6:1-40.
    • Latour, B., 1987, Science In Action, Open University Press, Milton Keynes and Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.
    • Turnbull, D., 1997, “Reframing Science and Other Local Knowledge Traditions,” Futures.

Day 2

  • Indigenous Mapping
    One of the most insightful ways to compare knowledge traditions is to examine their modes of mapping.  This is especially so for Australian Aboriginal, Maori and Pacific Island traditions.
  • Student Reading
    • Turnbull, D., 1993, Maps Are Territories; Science is an Atlas, Chicago University Press, Chicago.
  • Extended Reading
    • Harley, J. B. and D. Woodward (eds.), 1997, The History of Cartography, Vol. 2. Book 3: Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
    • Hitt, J., 1995, “Atlas Shrugged: The New Face of Maps,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, 5(5): 24-34.
    • Lewthwaite, G., 1966, “Tupaia’s Map: The Horizons of a Polynesian Geographer,” Association of Pacific Coast Geographers Yearbook, 28:41-53.
    • Lewthwaite, G., 1970, “The Puzzle of Tupaia’s Map,” New Zealand Geographer, 26:1-19.
    • Milligan, R. R. D., 1964, The Map Drawn by the Chief Tuki-Tahua in 1793, Mangonui.
    • Rundstrom, R. A., 1991, “Mapping, Postmodernism, Indigenous People and the Changing Direction of North American Cartography,” Cartographica, 28:1-12.
    • Turnbull, D., 1996, “Cartography and Science in Early Modern Europe: Mapping the Construction of Knowledge Spaces,” Imago Mundi, 48:5-24.
    • Turnbull, D., 1996, “Constructing Knowledge Spaces and Locating Sites of Resistance in the Early Modern Cartographic Transformation,” in Social Cartography: Mapping Ways of Seeing Social and Educational Change, R. Paulston (ed.), Garland Publishing Inc., New York,  pp. 53-79.
    • Wood, D., 1992, The Power of Maps, The Guilford Press, New York.
    • Wood, D., 1993, “Maps and Mapmaking,” Cartographica, 30:1-9.

Day 3

  • Pacific Island Navigation
    Pacific Island navigation is perhaps the single best example of an organised knowledge system that does not have Western characteristics:  there is no writing, no calculation, no compasses.  But the Pacific was nonetheless colonized.
  • Student Reading
    • Turnbull, D., 1991, Mapping The World in the Mind: An Investigation of the Unwritten Knowledge of the Micronesian Navigators, Deakin University Press, Geelong.
  • Extended Reading
    • Finney, B., 1994, “Experimental Voyaging and Maori Settlement,” in The Origins of the First New Zealanders, D. Sutton (ed.), Auckland University Press, Auckland,  pp. 52-76.
    • Finney, B., 1994, Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey Through Polynesia, University of California Press, Berkley.
    • Goodenough, W., 1996, “Navigation in the Western Carolines: A Traditional Science,” in Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power, and Knowledge, L. Nader (ed.), New York, Routledge.
    • Hutchins, E., 1996, Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press, Cambridge.
    • Irwin, G., 1992, The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
    • Lewis, D. 1994, We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, 2nd ed., Univ. of Hawaii Press.
    • Turnbull, D., 1994, “Comparing Knowledge Systems: Pacific Navigation and Western Science,” in Science of the Pacific Island Peoples: Vol.1: Ocean and Coastal Studies, J. Morrison, P. Geraghty and L. Crowl (eds.), Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva, pp. 129-144.

Day 4

  • Australian Aboriginal Knowledge
  • Student Reading
    • Christie, M. J., 1990, Aboriginal Science for the Ecologically Sustainable Future, National CONSTA Conference of Teachers of Science and Technology, Alice Springs.
    • Turnbull, D. (ed.), 1991. Place, Knowledge,and Experience in Aboriginal Australia: Selected Readings, Deakin University Press, Geelong.
    • Helen Watson with the Yolgnu community at Yirrkala and  David Wade Chambers, 1989, Singing The Land, Signing The Land, Deakin University Press, Geelong.
  • Extended Reading
    • Koorie Perspectives on Interpretation, Deakin University, 1996.  A joint project of The Institute for Koorie Education and Museum Studies.
    • Turnbull, D. and B. Butcher, 1988, “Aborigines, Europeans and the Environment,” in A Most Valuable Acquisition: A People’s History of Australia Since 1788, V. Burgman and J. Lee (eds.), McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, pp. 13-28.
    • Watson, H., 1990, “Investigating The Social Foundations of Mathematics,” Social Studies of Science, 20:283-312.
    • Watson-Verran, H. 1993, “Working Where Knowledge Systems Overlap,” Knowledge and Policy, 14.
    • Williams, N. and G. Baines (eds.), 1993, Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Wisdom for Sustainable Development, Center for Resource and Environmental Studies, Canberra.

Day 5

  • Maori Knowledge
  • Readings
    • Salmond, A., 1985, “Maori Epistemologies,” in Reason and Morality, J. Overing (ed.), Tavistock Pbls., London, pp. 240-63.
    • Salmond, A., 1991, Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772, Penguin Books, Auckland.

Day 6

  • Pacific Natural History
  • Student Reading
    • Klee, Gary, 1980, “Taditional Knowledge of Oceania,” in Gary A. Klee (ed.), World Systems of Traditional Resource Management.
    • Davis, Allen, 1998, “The Native Knowledge of Chuuk Lagoon,” in Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond, F. Rehbock and K. Benson (eds.).
  • Extended Reading
    • Abbott, Beatrice H., 1992, Laau Hawaii: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants.
    • Cox,, Paula. and Sandra A. Banack, 1991, Islands, Plants and Polynesians: An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany (Discordes Press).
    • Johannes, R. E., 1981, Words of the Lagoon: Fishing and Marine Lore in the Palau District of Micronesia.
    • Krauss, Beatrice H., 1993, Plants in Hawaiian Culture.
    • Merlin, Mark, et al, 1994, Keinikkan im melan aelon kein = Plants and Environments of the Marshall Islands.
    • Morrison, J., P. Geraghty, & L. Crowl (eds.), 1994, Science of Pacific Island Peoples, Vols. 1-5.  Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva.
    • Vol. 1:  Ocean and Coastal Studies
    • Vol. 2:  Land Use and Agriculture
    • Vol. 3:  Fauna, Flora, Food and Medicine
    • Vol. 4:  Education, Language, Patterns and Policy
    • Whistler, W. Arthur, 1991, Ethnobotany of Tonga.
    • Whistler, W. Arthur, 1992, Polynesian Herbal Medicine .

Extension Day

  • Western Exploration and Expansion
  • Readings
    • Beaglehole, J. C., 1966, The Exploration of the Pacific, 3rd ed.
    • Dunmore, John, 1991, Who’s Who in Pacific Navigation.
    • Spate, O.H.K, The Pacific Since Magellan, 3 vols.
    • MacLeod, R. & P.F. Rehbock, 1988, Nature in its Greatest Extent: Western Science in the Pacific.
    • MacLeod, R. & P.F. Rehbock, 1993, Darwin’s Laboratory: Evolutionary Theory and Natural History in the Pacific.

Possible Student Research Topics

  • Critically evaluate the recent study by the Rural Advancement  Foundation International Conserving Indigenous Knowledge: Integrating Two Systems of Innovation, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme.
  • Critically evaluate the role of indigenous knowledge in development.
  • What is the role of indigenous knowledge in intellectual property rights and biodiversity?
  • What was the role of indigenous knowledge in the exploration of Australia?
  • How can reframing Pacific Island navigation benefit contemporary Pacific Islanders?
  • Examine ways in which indigenous mapping and Western mapping techniques like GIS can help indigenous groups in land claims and establishing autonomy.