History of Science in Non-Western Traditions: Native America

Clara Sue Kidwell


Native American contributions to contemporary science are generally put into environmental studies curricula.  Indians have been romanticized for their consciousness of and respect for natural resources, but their systems of controlling those resources have received virtually no attention.

Indians in meso and south America are credited with the domestication of corn and potatoes, but recent scholarship reveals that Indians in the eastern woodlands of North America domesticated sun flowers, chenopodium, sumpweed, marsh elder, may grass, and possibly squash.  Although these plants declined in importance as food sources when corn, a more nutritious and stable crop, was introduced into the eastern woodlands from mesoamerica, native people made the woodlands an independent agricultural hearth only recently recognized.

Native uses of plants have received attention as a source of contemporary pharmaceuticals.  Many people are aware that aspirin is a synthetic form of natural components found in willow bark, which was widely used by Indians in teas brewed to treat fever and pain.  Scholars have recorded extensive evidence of pragmatic uses of plants by native people.  Some have attempted to correlate the expected outcome indicated by those uses with chemical components of plants that can produce specific physical effects.

Some people may be aware of the accuracy of the ancient calendar system of the Mayan peoples of Mesoamerica, but only a relatively few scholars have examined the complexity of its predictive powers and the sophistication of observational and record keeping techniques that made it possible.  Scholars can find evidence of native achievements in the alignment of structures such as those in the ruins of Mayan ceremonial centers at Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Peten.  Similar alignments can be found in North America in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and the medicine wheel in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, for example.

Native American practices can be a good point of departure for discussion of what constitutes scientific activity.  They cannot be presented as science as it is taught in contemporary American classrooms.  Native practices reveal certain aspects of scientific activity, but there are crucial differences.  The study of these similarities and differences is important.

The domestication of plants, and the process of observing and recording the positions of the sun, moon, and certain bright stars, notably Venus for the Mayan people, is evidence of careful and systematic effort, and the cumulation of knowledge over time.  The characteristic of systematic observation is a key element of science.  The Hopi Sun Watchers in contemporary American society continue a tradition of watching the horizon to observe the sun’s rising at specified points prior to the winter solstice.  The points have been identified based on long periods of earlier observation.  The system is now predictive, but in its inception, it must have been based first on the assumption that the sun followed a regular path through the sky, and secondly on the passage of knowledge from one observer to another of the exact points along the horizon at which the sun’s rising and setting occurred.  It is interesting that the greatest accuracy in the prediction by native peoples in the Americas of events in the natural world occurred in astronomy, which in contemporary science is the most purely observational of the sciences.

The basic similarity of native American understanding of the natural environment and contemporary science is in the importance of systematic observation of patterns in nature.  The domestication of plants occurred when native women selected the seed heads that held the seeds most tightly, thereby providing the gatherer the greatest return for her effort.  This selection on a regular basis favored plants which could not broadcast their own seeds and which became dependent on humans to detach seeds from stems and plant them.  The domestication of animals occurred as hunters discovered that certain animals traveled in groups which followed a dominant male and which ranged fairly widely rather than having a strong sense of territoriality.  It became fairly easy for a human male to displace the male animal leader and assume control of the herd.

The divergence of native practices from what is now science in American science comes in the importance of experimentation.  The testing of theoretical constructs against real life experience is a relatively recent event in the historical development of modern science, coming in the late seventeenth century.  Indian people understood natural processes because they observed them closely.  They adapted their behavior to those processes, intervening in the behavior of plants and animals and changing them through their actions.  Having effected certain changes, however, they established new relationships with their environments, in which they sought to preserve continuity.  They did so through ceremony and ritual in which they expended human energy to assure that spiritual forces in the world would act as they desired.  In other word, human energy in the form of ceremonies was necessary to assure that natural forces would act appropriately to fulfill human needs through the growth of crops, the presence of animals, the movement of rain and storms.  Here native practices are characterized as religion rather than science.  At this point the awareness of native pragmatic observation and ability to predict outcomes of events fades away.

An understanding of native practices and the relationship of human beings to their environments has much to contribute to students’ understanding of science and how it works.  It can serve to focus attention on distinctions between observational science, such as astronomy, and experimental science, such as chemistry.  


  1. “Hopi:  Songs of the Fourth World” is available from New Day Films, 22D Hollywood Avenue, Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey 07423.  It has a section on Hopi agriculture.
  2. The Media Center at the University of California at Berkeley has a number of old films on California Indian foods and technologies, but they are very anthropologically oriented.  


  1. www.wam.umd.edu/~tlaloc/archastro/ae13.html — is the site for access to publications of the Center for Archeoastronomy at the University of Maryland.
  2. indigo.stile.stile.1e.ac.#mainContainer #content h5uk/~rug/ar315/info/lec5.html — is a summary of a lecture on Mayan and Aztec archeoastronomy by Clive Ruggles, an English scholar.
  3. indy4.fdl.cc.mn.us/~isk/stars/starmenu.html — is a home page on Native American star lore that includes images and descriptions of Lakota knowledge of constellations, the Big Horn medicine wheel, and some Pueblo sites.  

Day 1

Culture and Environment  

Human beings act upon, and are acted upon, by their environments.  This mutual interaction is a process that shapes both environment and culture.  The first day should stress that native people took an active role in shaping their environments through the use of fire, irrigation systems, and domestication of plants.  Indians in North and South America adapted to an incredibly wide range of environments and spoke an incredible variety of languages, and this diversity must be acknowledged.  There is no single construct that can be called Native American science.  The commonality in the Western Hemisphere, however, can be described as a sense that the forces in the environment were powerful, sentient, and willful beings whose actions had profound impact on human life, but whose actions it was within the province of human beings to influence.  By observing closely and noting patterns of activity in their environments, Indian people could exercise control over their resources.  

Student Reading
  1. Clara Sue Kidwell, “Systems of Knowledge,” in America in 1492, Alvin Josephy (ed.) (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
Extended Reading
  1. Gary Paul Nabhun.  The Desert Smells Like Rain:  A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country  (San Francisco:  North Point Press, 1982).
  2. Prehistoric Food Production in North America, Richard I. Ford (ed.), Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, No. 75 (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan, 1985).
  3. Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson (eds.), Before the Wilderness:  Environmental Management by Native Californians (Menlo Park, CA:  Ballena Press, 1993). 

Day  2


The domestication of plants marks a signal human achievement in the advance of culture.  It is based on systematic observation and human selection of desirable qualities in plants.  It also entails establishing a symbiotic relationship between humans and plants–plants feed humans, but humans must take responsibility for releasing the seeds of the plants and spreading them for reproduction.  Although corn is generally considered the epitome of Indian agriculture, other plants were domesticated and played important roles in subsistence patterns through the eastern woodlands.

Student Reading
  1. C. Wesley Cowan, “Understanding the Evolution of Plant Husbandry in Eastern North America:  Lessons from Botany, Ethnography and Archaeology,” in Prehistoric Food Production in North America, Richard I. Ford (ed.), Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, No. 75 (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan, 1985), pp. 207-217.
Extended Reading
  1. C. Margaret Scarry, (ed.), Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993).
  2. Bruce D. Smith, Rivers of Change:  Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America, (Washington, D.C. and London:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992)
  3. Seedhead News, issued by Native Seeds/SEARCH, 2509 North Campbell Avenue #325, Tucson, Arizona 85719 — contains information about growing indigenous crops.

Day 3

Environmental Management

Indian people managed their environments by fire, water, and deliberate cultivation of stands of wild plants.  Burning in grasslands controlled the extent of forest areas.  In wooded areas it provided new browse for animals.   It cleared fields for agriculture and created nutrients for the soil.  Fire had significant ceremonial association for many tribes because it was associated with the Sun.  The Lakota saw the Sun as one of their primary dieties, and they set fire to prairie grasses occasionally to drive buffalo to areas where they would be killed for food.  Students should be able to think about how environmental management affects their own lives, how people’s pragmatic use of the environment affects their survival, and how attempts to control the environment have effects on all things–plants, animals, and humans–in the environment.  

Student Reading
  1. Gordon Day, “The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest,” Ecology, 34, no. 2 (April, 1953), 329-46.
Extended Reading
  1. C. Margaret Haury, The Hohokam:  Desert Farmers and Craftsmen (Tuscon:  University of Arizona Press, 1976).
  2. Henry T. Lewis,  Patterns of Indian Burning in California:  Ecology and Ethnohistory, Ballena Press Anthropological Papers, No. 1 (Socorro, NM: Ballena Press, 1973).
  3. R. Gwinn Vivian, “Conservation and Diversion:  Water-Control Systems in the Anasazi Southwest,” in Irrigation’s Impact on Society, Theodore E. Downing and McGuire Gibson (eds.), Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, No. 25 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974).

Day 4


The uses of medicinal herbs and plants by Native Americans represent a particular world view concerning power.  The scientific explanation involves chemical components of plants that cause changes in the human body.  Native people attributed the changes to the sentient spirits of the plants who responded to human appeals for assistance.  Knowledge of medicinal herbs was generally esoteric in that certain practitioners had particular things that they used.  In some cases, such as the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Chippewa in the Great Lakes region, knowledge of herbs was passed on as part of initiation into the Society.  Medical practices among non-Indian colonists and Native people in nineteenth century America were very similar.  White settlers brought the tradition of medicinal simples from Europe, and they readily adopted herbal remedies that they learned from Indians or that resembled European “simples.”  Indian practices of bleeding or cupping represented the same kind of mechanical manipulation that European physicians used.  Pragmatic treatment  of dislocated joints involved tying a rope around the affected limb, throwing it over a tree branch, and pulling the joint back into place.  On the great plains, fractures were splinted with rawhide, which dried and tightened around the broken limb.  A small window was cut in the hide to allow access to wounds caused by compound fractures.  A typical treatment regimen for generalized aches and fevers was that prescribed by Iroquois curers in upstate New York.  The patient was put through a sweat lodge for purification, given large quantities of willow bark tea to drink (willow bark contains salicen, the natural source of acetyl salacylic acid–aspirin), and then wrapped in buffalo robes and put in the corner of the longhouse to rest for several days.  The cure was usually effective.  Medicine is more of an art than a science, but its practice depends upon careful observation of cause and effect relationships and systematic application of knowledge.  In this regard, American Indian medicine was as efficacious as the European medical practices that were imported into the Americas.

Student Reading
  1. Virgil Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), Chapters 1-2, 5-7.  
Extended Reading
  1. Daniel Moerman, American Medical Ethnobotany:  A Reference Dictionary (New York:  Garland Publishing Company, 1977).
  2. Frances Densmore, “Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians,”  Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926-27.  (Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office, 1928).
  3. Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, “Empirical Aztec Medicine,” Science, 188 (April 18, 1975), 215-20. 

Day 5


Native observation of the sun, moon and stars produced significant physical records of patterns in their movement and intellectual achievement in discerning the predictive power of those patterns.  Although the most well-known systems are those of the Maya and Aztecs in Mesoamerica, many North American people created solstice markers, and some may have been aware of the rising points of certain bright stars or constellations that preceded solstices.  The Pleiades had significance in demarcating planting seasons for many agricultural tribes.  The Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming is a solstice marker constructed by hunting people who were probably ancestors of contemporary Shoshone people.  For them, knowledge of the turning of seasons was crucial in predicting the movements of game animals.  For the Hopi in the Southwest, ceremonial cycles were (and in many cases still are) governed by observation of solstice points.  The Hopi also, however, had a sophisticated knowledge of the relationship of movements of the moon to the sun.  The Mayan calendar system, which probably derived from early Olmec culture and which was appropriated by the Aztecs along with much of the Mayan intellectual heritage, predicted eclipses of the moon and encompassed extended cyclical patterns in the heavens.  The movements of the planet Venus were of particular interest.  The study of archaeoastronomy is fascinating for what it shows about the accumulation of knowledge over long periods of time.  Although the pattern of movement of the sun along the horizon that are marked by the solstices can certainly be obvious within the span of a single human lifetime, lunar eclipses are much less frequent.  Patterns in the motion of Venus are more complex.  To discern them was probably the work of several lifetimes and the accumulation of evidence by a number of viewers.  The writing systems of Mayan and Aztec cultures could allow for such accumulation and recording of information.

Student Reading
  1. Lynn Cesi, “Watchers of the Pleiades:  Ethnoastronomy Among Native Cultivators in Northeastern North America,” Ethnohistory, XXV, no. 4 (Fall, 1978), 301-317.
  2. John A. Eddy, “Astronomical Alignment of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel,” Science, 174 (June 10, 1974), 1035-43).
  3. Stephen C. McCluskey, “Historical Archaeoastronomy:  The Hopi Example, in Archaeoastronomy in the New World, A.F. Aveni (ed.)  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1982).
Extended Reading
  1. Anthony Aveni, Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1980).
  2. Munro S. Edmonson, The Book of the Year : Middle American Calendrical Systems  (Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 1988).
  3. Jonathan E. Reyman, “Astronomy, Architecture and Adaptation at Pueblo Bonito,” Science, 193, no. 4257 (September 10, 1976), 957-62.
  4. A. Sofaer, V. Zinser, and R. Sinclair, “An Anasazi Solar Marker?” Science, 209, no. 4459 (August, 1980), 858-60.

The primary journal for the study of archaeoastronomy is Archaeoastronomy, published by the Center for Archaeoastronomy at the University of Maryland, directed by John Carlson.

  1. “The Sun Dagger,” available through the Extension Media Services, University of California, Berkeley.  It shows the passage of a streak of light through a spiral carved into a rock face at Fajada Butte, New Mexico, which has been interpreted as an ancient Pueblo solstice marker.  

Day 6


Mathematics is an essential tool of science in that it allows manipulation of information about relationships among objects.  Mathematical systems in the Americas range from the highly developed base 20 system of the Mayan cultures to very simple counting systems noted on one’s fingers.  The Mayan system was used for calendrical notations rather than operations such as multiplication or division.  It was important for keeping linear count of the days in the Long Count and for keeping track of the correlation between the 260 day ritual calendar and the 360 day Vague Year.  Other systems of recording information include the quipu of the Inka, a series of knotted cords tied to a main cord.  The pattern of knots are thought to be a kind of numerical system to keep track of quantities of goods for trading purposes or held as tribute by the Inka (emperor).  Unlike the Mayan system, where scholars have made significant progress in recent years in deciphering hieroglyphic writing, the code of the quipu has not been broken.  Contemporary Andean people still use quipus but it is not obvious that their use corresponds to the usage at the time of European contact when they were first observed.  It is possible that part of their purpose was to record celestial cycles.  The system of directional shrines that encompasses the city of Cuzco in Peru today has been likened to a quipu laid over the city and dividing it into ceremonial zones controlled by different groups of people during different parts of the year.  The shrines may mark the passage of the sun and moon and divide the Inka universe not only into discrete units of time but also into political or religious units.  Without readily translatable explanatory texts, contemporary scholars must work backward from the visible results of the intellectual activities of the precontact cultures of the Americas to try to reconstruct the origins of those activities.  What we can know is that Native people were keen observers and recorders of patterns in the actions of the natural environment, whether of stars, or animals, or plants.  Those patterns served as predictors of events and allowed people to manage their physical resources in productive ways.  

Student Reading
  1. R. T. Zuidema, “The Inca Calendar,” in Native American Astronomy, Anthony F. Aveni (ed.) (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1977), p. 231.
Extended Reading
  1. Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu:  A Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1980).
  2. Anthony Aveni, Sharon L. Gibbs, and Horse Hartung, “The Caracol Tower at Chichen Itza: An Ancient Astronomical Observatory?” Science, 188 (June 6, 1975), 977-85.
  3. Michael P. Closs (ed.), Native American Mathematics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).
  4. Floyd G. Lounsbury, “Maya Numeration, Computation and Calendrical Astronomy,” Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 15, Supplement (New York: Scribners, 1978), pp. 759-818.

Possible Topics For Student Research

1.  Uses of plants in a particular tribe:  What evidence is there of scientific activity?

2.  Observation of celestial events in a particular tribe and explanations for them:  To what extent are these scientific?

3. Agricultural practices in a particular tribe: How are they explained?  What principles of contemporary ecology are evident in these practices?

4.  How do traditional agricultural practices promote genetic diversity or uniformity in plants?