Indigenous oral history can rewrite human history

Research shows that a Māori reached Antarctica hundreds of years before Westerners, despite what history books claims. Including oral tradition brings research closer to truth.
Antarctica is not habited by many humans, but it’s a very popular spot for penguins.
Photo: Tam Warner Minton/Unsplash

Copenhagen, Denmark (TP)

People from the Western Civilization discovered Antarctica. Or that’s what many history books told us. Newly research published in The Journal of The Royal Society of New Zealand suggests that the very first discoverer of Antarctica was actually a Māori named Hui Te Rangiora.

Hui Te Rangiora’s explored new lands in the seventh century which is in a significantly earlier period than Western explorers who first recorded their discovery of Antarctica in the 19th century.

‘Right from the early voyages of Hui Te Rangiora and Tamarereti and others, right through to the 19th century when Māori participated in whaling and other voyages to Antarctica, right through to today, with scientists going down to the ice every year – (there’s) an amazing connection that we didn’t really expect,’ University of Otago associate professor and project lead Priscilla Wehi told Radio New Zealand.

Her research project Wehi lead is based on Māori oral traditions and in cultural marks such as carvings – sources which is often overlooked in contemporary history research about Antarctica’s connection with humanity. ‘Over the last 200 years, Antarctic narratives have contributed to conceptions of Imperial adventure, carried out by predominantly European male explorers,’ the academic article notes, while also highlighting an aim to ‘provide significant first steps for uncovering the rich and varied ways in which Antarctica features in the lives and futures of indigenous and other under-represented communities.’

‘One of the exciting things coming out of this work is it shows how oral tradition can really be considered as a reliable source of evidence, along with archaeological and paleoecological data,’ Wehi said.

Undermined by colonisation

Oral history – sometimes referred to as oral tradition – is one of the oldest ways to transfer cultural knowledge from generation to generation. Like many other civilizations, indigenous communities used oral traditions to share accounts, achievements, history and ways of survival just to name a few. Scholars have often used these primary sources to outline perspectives from indigenous communities.

But colonisation threatened a large part of oral traditions. Kimberley TallBear, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Native studies, told Radio-Canada that she is concerned over how Western culture always have dominated that of First Nations, ‘Western knowledge … [is] privileged over Indigenous knowledge,’ she said.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Western states have considered writings more trustworthy than oral histories for years. This has ultimately damaged how indigenous communities have transferred knowledge about their culture, especially after aggressive campaigns aimed to assimilate the native communities.

Even then, some stories have survived. And this can be very useful for present scholars who continue to research human history. There’s an understanding that oral history should be included in the research process, as a collaborative effort to investigate certain cases.

Professor TallBear agrees, that one solution could be recruiting more indigenous people for scientific positions.

Undeniable acknowledgement

Including sources from oral tradition has already added significant value to many contemporary academic research projects. In 2014 the journal Science published a study concluding that the Inuit weren’t the first humans to settle in the Arctic by investigating the DNA from ancient human bone, teeth and hair samples from Arctic Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Results showed that it was in fact the Tunit travelling from Siberia who first settled the Arctic. However, this wasn’t new information for the Inuit, who already told a tale about the Tunit in their oral tradition.

‘In the future, I would certainly pay much more attention to oral traditions among Indigenous people because they could really guide us into understanding where the interesting problems are to be investigated scientifically,’ Eske Willerslev, a Danish evolutionary geneticist and one of the study’s authors told Radio-Canada.

Oral tradition is becoming a complimentary method in the decolonialisation process.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that oral histories reinsert ‘Indigenous narratives that historically have been overlooked or ignored.’ It adds information to various indigenous artefacts collected by people of European descent. And by including these stories, researchers can now gain more perspectives on what these objects were originally used for, instead of solely relying on European accounts.

This study shows how tradition is a way to reclaim indigenous history because of the acknowledgement of its value. Acknowledging this is important if we truly want an accurate view of human history.

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The Postcolonial | Copenhagen | CVR: 41032421

Lasse Sørensen (Founding Editor-In-Chief)

Suvi Loponen (Deputy Editor)