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Durham University

Research & business

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What is traditional about Piaroa traditional knowledge?

A research project of the Department of Anthropology, part of the Anthropology in Development research group.


There is good reason to believe that what is commonly thought of by researchers as 'traditional environmental knowledge', i.e. names and uses of natural materials, the understanding of practical techniques and certain ecological data, is not what is considered to be the unique character of traditional environmental knowledge by indigenous peoples. There is an underlying cosmology, system or contextualisation that lends traditional knowledge a resonance and value for indigenous groups. The proposed research is based upon two previous studies of the Piaroa that highlighted different aspects of what might be called 'traditional knowledge'. Overing's study (eg. Overing 1989), carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, highlighted the cosmology of the Piaroa and how they see knowledge acquisition occuring. The other study (Heckler 2001),carried out in the late 1990s, focused on the nomenclature and practical application of botanical resources. The proposed research aims to make the connection between the two accounts of traditional knowledge, explore how this aspect of cosmology might have changed in the past 30 years, and record manifestations of traditional knowledge with the community. I will do this by interviewing and working with a cross section of the same community in which I worked 5 years ago.

I will explore current perceptions of the cosmological origin of productive knowledge, use particpatory planning to discover what aspects of 'traditionality' are considered by the community to be pertinent, and determine if nomenclatural expertise is an accurate predictor of wider TEK.


From the Department of Anthropology