An essay by Eugene Linden

One horrible day 1,600 years ago, the wisdom of many centuries went up in flames. The great library in Alexandria burned down, a catastrophe at the time and a symbol for all ages of the vulnerability of human knowledge. The tragedy forced scholars to grope to reconstruct a grand literature and science that once lay neatly cataloged in scrolls.

Today, with little notice, more vast archives of knowledge and expertise are spilling into oblivion, leaving humanity in danger of losing its past and perhaps jeopardizing its future as well. Stored in the memories of elders, healers. midwives, farmers, fishermen and hunters in the estimated 15,000 cultures remaining on earth is an enormous trove of wisdom.

This largely undocumented knowledge base is humanity’s lifeline to a time when people accepted nature’s authority and learned through trial, error and observation. But the world’s tribes are dying out or being absorbed into modern civilization. As they vanish, so does their irreplaceable knowledge.

Over the ages, indigenous peoples have developed innumerable technologies and arts. They have devised ways to farm deserts without irrigation and produce abundance from the rain forest without destroying the delicate balance that maintains the ecosystem: they have learned how to navigate vast distances in the Pacific using their knowledge of currents and the feel of intermittent waves that bounce off distant islands: they have explored the medicinal properties of plants: and they have acquired an understanding of the basic ecology of flora and fauna. If this knowledge had to be duplicated from scratch, it would beggar the scientific resources of the West. Much of this expertise and wisdom has already disappeared, and if neglected, most of the remainder could be gone within the next generation.

Until quite recently, few in the developed world cared much about this cultural holocaust. The prevailing attitude has been that Western science, with its powerful analytical tools, has little to learn from tribal knowledge. The developed world’s disastrous mismanagement of the environment has somewhat humbled this arrogance, however, and some scientists are beginning to recognize that the world is losing an enormous amount of basic research as indigenous peoples lose their culture and traditions. Scientists may someday be struggling to reconstruct this body of wisdom to secure the developed world’s future…

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Originally published inĀ Time (September 23, 1999): 46-54