A well-known proverb states that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” According to Kathryn Demps, it also takes a village to preserve ecological knowledge in upcoming generations.
Demps, a Boise State University visiting assistant professor in anthropology, studies behavioral and evolutionary ecology in small-scale societies. Her latest project looks at the honey-gathering Jenu Kuruba tribe in South India and how its cultural knowledge is being preserved, or lost, in our modern world.
“What we learn from others — our culture, skills, values, beliefs and knowledge — is passed through the generations,” she said. “How it is passed down can change the body of knowledge.”
Demps noted that in today’s race toward homogenous societies, indigenous knowledge is being lost even faster than languages.
One example is medicinal specialists. In the 1980s, the first hospital in the area populated by the Jenu Kuruba opened; 1985 was the last year for a recorded medicinal ceremony. Gurus didn’t train more apprentices because no one wanted to learn, and as a result, the knowledge has been completely lost in just one generation.
The Jenu Kuruba comprise a band of small communities located in the forested Kodagu District. For generations, young men from the tribe have collected wild honey by nimbly scaling massive trees. Because honey is in such high demand in the cities for its purported medicinal qualities, it fetches a high price and is an important part of the local economy.
But the skills needed to harvest this precious commodity are at risk of dying out. Several former honey-gathering communities were moved away from the forests in an attempt to create national parks, and those that remain (thanks to special rights from the government to live in the forest and collect non-timber products) are now sending children to school during the day, drastically affecting how, or even if, they learn necessary honey-gathering skills.
Prior to construction of the local school in the 1970s, children rarely received a formal, western education. While the average level of education is still low, most children are spending at least a few critical years learning new skills at the expense of traditional, indigenous knowledge.
“Kids need to learn how to climb trees and how to make big, smoky torches from sticks wrapped in green leaves,” Demps said. “They have to learn to climb onto the branches and cut off the honeycomb. There also are ritual things like the honey-collecting song that is supposed to appease the bees and show brotherhood.”
Locals learn at an early age to scale trees by shimmying 100 feet up the trunk, pressing their feet flat into the bark and using their arms to pull themselves ever higher. Young boys pick this up by playing a traditional climbing game called mara cothi, which means “tree monkey” and is similar to an arboreal version of tag. Because the climb can be so dangerous, young men often leave offerings at the base of a tree, asking for a blessing for a safe climb.
More skilled gatherers also need to know how to work with the bees, coaxing the queen into a new hive, gathering the honey or calming a troubled colony. This is especially important given that the largest honeybees in the region are massive compared to the average Idaho varieties, and pack a powerful sting.
Demps and fellow researchers are evaluating data collected from almost 200 local residents ages 6-65 in order to understand what residents know at various ages, and who they learned it from.
“If we know what people are learning, and how they are learning it, we can make recommendations that may remove conflicts affecting traditional knowledge,” Demps said. “For instance, giving children just five or six days a month off of school can make a big difference. That has been shown to be enough time for children to learn the skills they need to collect honey but still learn western knowledge. They also can learn how to collect forest foods for better nutrition as they are out hunting and gathering, as well as medicinal knowledge and how to manage the environment so that they are less likely to deforest the area.”
Demps has published two papers based on her research and is working on another based on traditional knowledge and schooling. She hopes to eventually write a book examining the tribe’s traditional life ways that draws on various firsthand accounts over the past two centuries.