Traditional ecological knowledge: the third alternative (commentary)

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Pierotti, Raymond, and Wildcat, Daniel

Contemporary Western attitudes concerning the management of natural resources, treatment of nonhuman animals, and the natural world emerge from traditions derived from Western European philosophy, i.e., they assume that humans are autonomous from, and in control of, the natural world. A different approach is presented by Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of indigenous peoples of North America. Although spiritually oriented, TEK converges on Western scientific approaches. TEK is based on close observation of nature and natural phenomena; however, it is combined with a concept of community membership that differs from that of Western political and social thought. TEK is strongly tied to specific physical localities; therefore, all aspects of the physical space can be considered part of the community, including animals, plants, and landforms. As a consequence, native worldviews can be considered to be spatially oriented, in contrast to the temporal orientation of Western political and historical thought. TEK also emphasizes the idea that individual plants and animals exist on their own terms. This sense of place and concern for individuals leads to two basic TEK concepts: (1) all things are connected, which is conceptually related to Western community ecology, and (2) all things are related, which changes the emphasis from the human to the ecological community as the focus of theories concerning nature. Connectedness and relatedness are involved in the clan systems of many indigenous peoples, where nonhuman organisms are recognized as relatives whom the humans are obliged to treat with respect and honor. Convergence of TEK and Western science suggests that there may be areas in which TEK can contribute insights, or possibly even new concepts, to Western science. TEK is inherently multidisciplinary in that it links the human and the nonhuman, and is the basis not only for indigenous concepts of nature, but also for concepts of indigenous politics and ethics. This multidisciplinary aspect suggests that TEK may be useful in resolving conflicts involving a variety of stakeholders and interest groups in controversies over natural resource use, animal rights, and conservation. TEK may also have implications for human behavior and obligations toward other forms of life that are often unrecognized, or at least not emphasized, in Western science. We present examples from community and behavioral ecology where a TEK-based approach yielded unexpected and nonintuitive insights into natural phenomena. Understanding of TEK may be useful in helping scientists respond to the changing public perceptions of science, and new cultural pressures in our society.


Pierotti, R., and D. Wildcat. 2000. Traditional ecological knowledge: the third alternative (commentary). Ecological Applications 10:1333–1340.