How “indigenous medicine” differs from “medicine”

January 25, 2022 • 11:15 am

I seem to be spending a lot of time reading about Mātauranga Māori (the indigenous “way of knowing” of the Māori of New Zealand, henceforth called MM), for there’s a battle over whether it’s to be considered “coequal to science” in New Zealand science classes, and whether MM should be taught with as much intensity, truth value, and classroom time as “modern science”— which is simply what we call “science”.  Yesterday I did a two-hour video podcast with a New Zealander on the subject, and it should be posted soon.

In the meantime, I’m looking for specific claims about MM and how it can tell us stuff that modern science can’t, or can somehow supplement modern science.

If you try to run down the claims of the “science” in MM, it invariably comes down to one of three examples.

First, Polynesians learned to navigate by the stars and other signs (this is a form of cultural selection, as those who couldn’t do it didn’t survive), which is indeed a form of knowledge, but doesn’t deserve as much classroom time as, say, the theory and mechanisms of biological evolution.

Second, the Māori teach us proper stewardship of the land. This claim is at best dubious given their historical destruction of the land and its fauna), as well as the value of scientific conservationists, who are using modern methods, for example, to save the kakapo: the world’s only flightless parrot.

Third, we have the recurrent claim that the Māori idea of a water demon in a river taught people that when the demon twitched its tail, the river would overflow, supposedly prompting road builders to circumvent the stream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the water-demon claim adumbrated as exemplifying the true value of MM. But hydrodynamics, which is what the builders really relied on, tells you much more than mythological tales or metaphors about where to put your roads. If MM is so valuable, why do its advocate always go back to the “water demon example”?

The same goes for medicine. Many Māori practice traditional medicine, often involving medicinal plants but also prayer and the numinous. Does it work? It could in practice, because, after all, we’ve gotten clues to modern medicines from observing indigenous practices. The ingestion of cinchona bark, which contains quinine, was a folk remedy for malaria, and 25% of modern pharmceuticals are said to have been derived from plants. But finding out what about the bark was the active substance, and how well it worked, required more than indigenous knowledge.

These examples can constitute knowledge gained from experience, but the gold standard for testing drugs these days is not a trial-and-error process, but the vastly more efficient method of double-blind testing.  Below is a paper from Frontiers in Immunology that’s been represented to me as an example of how MM can help science find new drugs. Sadly, the paper doesn’t even come close to doing that. Click on the screenshot to read; you can download a pdf there, too.

I’m not going to go through it. It simply describes how the Māori suffer excessively from type 2 diabetes (this is largely blamed on colonialism, which apparently gave them no healthy sources of food), and that there are traditional plants that they ingest to relieve the symptoms and damage of the condition. They then list all the possible plants, describe the chemicals in them, and say which ones might improve diabetes because rat studies have shown them to effect the insulin/glucose storage pathways. (Many of the plants lack even that minimal evidence.)

What is lacking in the study is this:

a.) Any evidence that these remedies actually work (there are, of course, no double blind studies). The whole paper is full of statements like, “Traditional reports describe compound X as having good effect for diabetes” and “Māori practitioners are known to use the leaves of Y to help alleviate symptoms.” This is assertion based on tradition, not evidence, though it could be evidence were the plants or their extracts tested under proper clinical conditions.

b.) Any evidence that the chemicals in the long list of plants help alleviate diabetes in humans.

c.) Any evidence that the plant “medicines” are better than the drugs currently used to treat type 2 diabetes.

In other words, the studies show a lot of “this is possible” and “that is possible” but give no substantive evidence for the efficacy of the Māori treatment for diabetes. This lack of evidence for efficacy is of course not unique to Māori medicine, but is characteristic of much “alternative” medicine throughout the world, as well as other traditional cures like reiki, faith-healing, and so on. In fact, faith is an integral part of Māori medicine, as the authors note (my emphasis)

Given the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealand indigenous flora, it is likely that new anti-diabetic treatments will be discovered from these sources. [JAC: I am not sure this is at all true. There may be more efficacious plants elsewhere in the world!] The plant vegetation foods, seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits that formed the basis of traditional Māori diet and rongoā would seem worthwhile targets in a systematic search for anti-diabetic agents. It is also important to understand that Māori believe the beneficial effects of rākau rongoā are not due to the plant alone, but are more importantly due to other traditional influences such as faith in Te Atua God, personal mauri (connection) with Papatūānuku (mother earth), a good sense of oneself as Māori, and a good sense of whakapapa (family history). In Māori communities, natural health and traditional medicinal practices are increasingly widely supported (Williams, 2001).

This means that Māori culture plays some ineffable role in the cures. And the need for “faith” to make the medicine works is a blatant way of insulating the potential treatments from falsification.

One such statement:

There has been growing recognition that “health” is more than an individualistic, biomedical concept; health is also determined by social circumstances and contexts (Lines et al., 2019). These social determinants of health involve the conditions under which people live and work, and include diverse factors such as language, culture, and identity. Indigenous culture is a dynamic and adaptive system of meaning that is learned, shared, and transmitted from one generation to the next and is reflected in the values, norms, practices, symbols, ways of life, and other social interactions of a given culture (Kreuter and McClure, 2004). Relationships, interconnectivity, and community are fundamental to these dynamics (Lines et al., 2019).

Language and identity? But wait; there’s more:

For Māori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, there is an intrinsic connection between the health of the people and the health of their land (McGowan, 2017). Māori developed mātauranga of their whenua over centuries, which was passed down from their ancestors who originated from Hawaiiki (Smith, 1898). As such, mātauranga Māori is about connection to Papatūānuku or whenua land (McGowan, 2017). Once those connections are broken, mātauranga Māori becomes less of a living knowledge. A disconnection of mātauranga Māori commonly occurs when it is taken out of context in which it originated.

That makes no sense at all to me.

So we see how MM can be rendered immune to falsification, which is a way to say that it’s “not science”.  Anything that can’t be falsified shouldn’t be taught in science class.

Futher, you can say, as advocates of paranormal stuff like ESP often do, that “it won’t work if taken out of context”.  An example (don’t ask me to translate). Emphasis is mine:

Many Māori support the use of animal testing to understand the effects of rongoā at the physiological and molecular level, if that knowledge is unknown. Many Māori support animal testing of rākau rongoā if the research is conducted under the guidance and protection of a Māori kaumatua (elder), kairongoā (rongoā Māori practitioner), and Māori kairangahau (researcher). As mentioned earlier, Māori have strong interests in kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga, and support animal testing of rākau rongoā if it is preserved and governed under their guidance.

Māori view the intake of rongoā by animals as a very natural process, which can help guide laboratory research if conducted in a culturally humane and safe environment for the animal and rākau rongoā under investigation. Furthermore, it is important that a karakia (prayer) is given by a Māori kaumatua before the research commences and ends, including when the animal is euthanized humanely.

The requirement that you must have specific Māori elders around to do the research properly, and to recite a specific prayer, is another way of immunizing this kind of MM against falsification.

Finally, the authors disparage modern medicine simply because it’s “colonial”. I found the statement below amusing—but also infuriating (remember, this is a peer-reviewed paper in an immunology journal):

Mainstream health systems are constantly charging Māori to validate the efficacy of their rongoā Māori practice based on mainstream health systems, without recognizing that Māori have their own body of knowledge and practice systems based on mātauranga Māori and tikanga Māori (traditional kaupapa Māori protocol) (Koia, 2016). This is viewed as institutional racism and Crown inaction on health equity in New Zealand (Came et al., 2019). Furthermore, this also supports historical practices of colonization and forced assimilation enacted by the Crown as profoundly racist (Smith, 2012). Furthermore, colonial policies informed by superior Pākehā people, institutions, and systems, have allowed entitlement of Pākehā to resources and power, including those related to traditional rongoā Māori practices. As such, the New Zealand Crown are thought to be in breach of Treaty of Waitangi obligations in terms of inequity between mainstream health systems and traditional rongoā Māori healing practices.

In other words, “We don’t need no stinking tests because that’s just racist colonialism.”

As I said, there may be value in investigating “traditional” plants used in indigenous treatment of diabetes. But you can’t just assert that or say “traditionally, plant X has been used and seen to be helpful.” Further, new remedies have to be at least as useful (taking into account side effects) as the ones already in use. There may be no plant as effective as insulin in some severe cases of type 2 diabetes. I find it ironic that the authors note this at the end of their paper:

Based on traditional reports and knowledge, karamu, kūmarahou, and kawakawa each display anti-diabetic potential. Remarkably, no molecular or biomedical research has been conducted to confirm the anti-diabetic efficacy of these rākau rongoā and to understand the mechanisms by which these effects are achieved. Although early phytochemical studies confirm known constituents, research is yet to be performed to validate anti-diabetic agents of the given rākau rongoā. 2D cell culture and animal model systems provide ways to study the effectiveness of anti-diabetic agents sourced from rākau rongoā.

Translation: those plants have chemicals in them, but we’re not sure whether they work.

That’s an admission that they have no idea whether any of the plants they suggest are of even potential value (the “potential” here is defined very thinly). Finally, the efficacy of the plants is said to defend on the need for a specific Māori harvesting protocol that comes close to religious practice (my emphasis):

The preparation of rongoā from these should be performed following certain principles and Figure 2 illustrates a kaupapa Māori molecular research scheme to undertake pre-clinical and clinical studies to test efficacy of karamu, kūmarahou, and kawakawa rākau rongoā in T2DM “mate huka.” Harvesting and aqueous extraction of rākau rongoā ought to be performed under the direction of a kairongoā or Māori kaumātua. In line with traditional Māori protocol, karakia is essential to acknowledge and thank the gift of Tane Mahuta prior to harvesting any rākau rongoā plant material. Harvesting rākau rongoā involves considering the needs of others, ensuring sustainability in the forest, being gentle with footprints in the forest, harvesting the eastside of the plant by hand, never harvest in the rain and to harvest leaves during growing season (Kerridge, 2014

The east side of the plant?  Harvesting during the growing season alone? I can think of reasons why one might do the opposite—and at least you should try a variety of protocols, like harvesting on the west side of the plant!

I found little of value in this paper, but was astounded to see how infused the medicine is with prayer, proper Māori elders, and unjustified harvesting practices, as well as having some unspecified but necessary connection to the land.  There are ways to do double-blind tests on the plants even without a clinical study, but none of that has been done in this case.

I will continue to read defenses of MM as being scientific or supplementing science, but I tell you, it’s a mental beating. And imagine what’s in store for New Zealand medical schools if MM is required to be taught, as it may well be, as an alternative and equally valuable way of treating disease or injury!

60 thoughts on “How “indigenous medicine” differs from “medicine”

  1. “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.”

    ― Tim Minchin

    1. Alternative reading: “If it were actually medicine, there would be no need to call it indigenous medicine.”
      Traditional cultures “teach us proper stewardship of the land”! My take: tell that to the mammoth, giant sloth and native American horse.

      1. And all the large flightless birds that used to live in NZ!

        It will be easy enough to show that the MM involved in traditional indigenous care for type 2 diabetes works really well. All those in favour of it will use it, and only it, to treat their diabetes. What’s that? No volunteers? Why?

  2. Quite a interesting and substantial post – I’ll have to digest this later – I emphasize I understand PCC(E) has clearly stated the intent is to include the indigenous ways of knowing _as_co-equal_with_modern_science.

    my new comment on this general topic is this :

    I’ll try to make this short :

    I think there is a conflation at play of teaching the _history_ of science with _mainstream_ teaching of science.

    By “mainstream” I mean high-volume, cut to the chase, 20/20 hindsight stuff : what we know _now_. Some _critical_ experiments to discuss (e.g. Avery, McCloud, McCarty, or Mendel) that resolved critical questions in the past.


    Starting in antiquity, proceed linearly, one discovery at a time. Taking everything onboard – assume nothing.

    … I’m not a historian of science but have read some of it – it is very interesting but not at all how science should be taught if the intent is to evaluate modern results, learn new things now, to join the scientific work force.. I’m rambling…

    but the “inclusion” of “Other Ways of Knowing” would be consistent with the historical view vs. the doing-science-now view.

    Thus, my argument that _conflation_ is at work, of modern science with history of science.

    Apologies for length.

    1. AIUI they’re not asking for historical placement but that it be treated as if it works, right now.

      Illustrative example: Maori healing prayers. They don’t want the scientific community to teach this like they teach Eratosthenes’ measure of the Earth or Hippocrates’ medical attempts. They’re asking the scientific community to teach students that these prayers are effective treatments; to give prayer studies research dollars, for doctors and hospitals to use them on injured people, etc.

    2. No conflation on the part of the Kiwis: they want MM taught IN SCIENCE CLASS as a way of knowing that is equivalent and as valid to modern science as a “way of knowing”. No history need be involved.

      1. Please, don’t say ‘the Kiwis’ and tar us all with this. Most serious scholars here are against this nonsense. As people get to hear of the nonsense and stand up against it, Kiwis are suddenly discovering Inquisition-like conditions. The ‘getting to hear’ is in fact a serious issue in NZ. There is no discussion within my NZ university. I get more info from this blog than from all NZ sources combined.
        Simply, if you’re reading this, you know more about MM than my neighbours up and down the street in a NZ university city.

  3. Of course, when these things comes up, there are always some examples that, it is argued, show the value of the non-Western alternative. What about all the things which have been or can be proven to be wrong? The people pushing MM would say that that’s just colonialist thinking, but they always argue that the useful knowledge is useful in a Western manner. (BTW, perhaps the Maori had diabetics before, but they all died because they didn’t have insulin.) On top of that, in order to learn about this you apparently have to learn a language that has one of the smallest populations in the world. (Wikipedia says fewer than 50k report being able to speak the language well.)

  4. It is revealing that the Indigenous Exceptionalism cottage industry is concentrated in the Anglosphere:
    NZ first of all (possibly egged on by romantic British expats), Canada next, with the mother country and the US trailing behind. although represented. In the USSR and now Russia, on the other hand, has there ever been an equivalent fuss over Matauranga Yakut, or Buryat, or Samoyed, or Evenk, or Nanai? Come to think of it, why aren’t Ireland and Scotland developing curricula which combine science with stories about the sprites, kelpies, selkies, and Tuatha Dé Danann that populate Matauranga Celti?

    1. If by anglosphere you mean (former) British colonies, I doubt it is so limited. I expect you’d find similar ‘native knowledge’ movements – albeit less vocal – in central and south America too. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany did it too, despite not be colonized by others at all. The Nazis got all Wagnerian and rejected “Jewish science” (good thing, too), while the Soviets rejected “capitalist” science in favor of Lysenkoism.

      I think the common theme is a nativist/nationalist fervor. Doesn’t matter if you were colonized by Brits or even colonized at all, nationalists tend to look backward, create myths of a former golden age, and use nationalism to tell their people not to listen or pay attention to what other modern people are saying or what other countries are doing. In that respect, nativism is an attempt to control people and limit their connection to the outside world. Limiting what science they access is just one lever of control amongst many.

      1. Come to think about it, my money’s on the Druids. They’ve got Stonehenge, after all. What could be more science-y?

        1. Over to Nigel Tufnell. “In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing. But their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock, of Stonehenge”

          1. I thought that the druids didn’t actually have anything to do with the CONSTRUCTION of Stonehenge, they just sort of appropriated it. That’s what Stephen Fry said, anyway.

            1. The druids who appropriated Stonehenge were an organisation founded in the late 18th century (maybe early 19th century ; I don’t rate them highly enough to be worth remembering their details). When the Romans went off to beat up the druids big-style, they trundled up Watling Street to Snowdonia and Anglesey, not down Akeman Street to Corinium. If the legions had been around Stonehenge, they might have got back to Londinium in time to defend it against Boudicca’s ravening hoards.
              Sorry – what’s the PC term for when a frightfully oppressed colonised minority massacre their colonial overlords, which doesn’t mention the peeling of people and sewing bits of their bodies into the mouths of the flayed bodies? Because you can’t mention the murders.

          2. Oh, hang on, Nigel Tufnell of the imposing 18″ erection? He was a Likely Lad, I wonder what happened to him?

            1. That’s the one. Last heard of touring Japan, but I’ve not heard any news of him lately. I hope he hasn’t perished in a bizarre gardening accident.

    2. JG, I think you are correct. There is something weird about the Anglosphere. ‘Woke’ can be found to a degree elsewhere. However, it is most intense in the Anglosphere. Why? I don’t know.

  5. In other words, the studies show a lot of “this is possible” and “that is possible” but give no substantive evidence for the efficacy of the Māori treatment for diabetes. This lack of evidence for efficacy is of course not unique to Māori medicine, but is characteristic of much “alternative” medicine throughout the world

    IOW, it fits in with modern science the same way lots of other folk medicine does: it’s a decent way to decide what hypothesis you might want to test, but it is not a test or evidence of the hypotheses itself.

  6. Although not 100% consensus yet, the main cause of diabetes 2 (the insulin resistant one, not lack of insulin) is thought to be ‘high dose’ consumption of refined sugars and starches (and alcohol). Reason why the Banting or keto diets work so well in these patients, if they stick to it.
    The added medication of choice is Methformin. Methformin is derived from the French lilac Galega officinialis so yes, a traditional medication. However, traditionally it was given to goats (hence the alternative name of Goat rue) to increase milk production , and it was tried as an anti malarial remedy, where it’s blood glucose lowering properties were discovered. So yes, a plant based (originally) medicine.
    There is also the notion that people with a long history (ancestry) of high starch consumption are better at coping with it high starch and sugar diets, have more genes producing the necessary enzymes, than populations -such as hunter gatherers- that only recently ‘converted’ to this diet. All this is of course still a bit hypothetical, still a lot of research to be done, but it might explain the high rates of Diabetes 2 in the Maori, or other hunter gatherer, traditionally low sugars and starch consuming, populations..

    1. It’s been seen in many indigenous peoples who formerly ate very low-processed-food/comparatively low carbohydrate diets who were then introduced to the “Western” diet with refined grains and non-wild fruits (though white rice is pretty pure starch, too, and it’s not primarily “Western”), and developed diabetes (Type 2) at a higher rate than those who have spent perhaps hundreds of generations subsisting on comparatively (and increasingly) high starch, high sugar diets. It happens in native Americans (north and south, I believe), and I think other Polynesian peoples similar to the Maori.

    2. That’s not the issue here, as it is as so often correlated with body mass.

      Diet fads can be more problematic than helpful, since only a few percent of a population will – at least on a decades long time horizon – loose mass. Exercise is likely more helpful in short and long term.

  7. Kawakawa sounds like particularly good stuff, although sadly I have none in the garden.

    “ Kawakawa is known as a universal rongoā where the leaves and bark were used to treat a range of health conditions. These include nerve pain, tooth infection, toothache, rheumatism, stomach pains, gonorrhea, cuts, wounds, bruises, abrasions, skin disorders, eczema, venereal disease, intestinal worms, boils, abdominal pains, purify blood, bladder complains, kidney troubles, and chest troubles ”

    1. Yes, but it’s not nearly as effective on those maladies as Dr. Bob’s patented snake oil, which is far more effective, they say. Everyone says it.

    2. Kawakawa, the universal rongoa, reminds me of a product I encountered in the 60s-70s. It too was touted to cure very conceivable disease, and also to improve one’s temperament, mental balance, sex life, and finances. The product was a small porcelain funnel, through which the user was instructed to run water or some other drinkable liquid. The funnel was supposed to contain “C cells”: not like the batteries, but described rather as a unique form of cellular life which was neither animal nor vegetable. Liquid that had passed through the funnel was thus enriched in the magic C cells, and drinking it would confer all their beneficial effects.

      I spread aliquots of this exudate on nutrient plates in my lab, and on certain media, what came up was a strange, loathsome-looking fungus which an expert mycologist in our Botany Department could not identify. I still have photographs of the thing somewhere. All of which explains why we do not have MM in the US. Instead, we have alternative medicine, “supplements”, homeopathy, naturopathy, and so on.

  8. Indigenous advocates find it more politically useful to ascribe high (nearly 100%) rates of type 2 diabetes in Indigenous people everywhere to loss of access to traditional foods through colonialism than to getting fat from adopting a diet of energy and carbohydrate abundance and a sedentary existence, there being no longer any need to hunt or gather on foot. Once the central role of obesity is ignored or suppressed as racist victim-blaming, then the field is cleared for all sorts of woo to be put forward for treatment and research funding….as we see in Prof. Coyne’s post.

    Now, science has not had much success treating type 2 diabetes, either, because obesity is a complex brain-and-behaviour social problem. Few people are successful in losing weight durably, so few diabetics can be cured. Decades of insulin resistance does not readily reverse. Even with good treatment of the metabolic fellow-travellers of high blood pressure and cholesterol, people with type 2 diabetes still die young from heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure, and have more disability from blindness and nerve damage that contributes to limb loss. The ravages of diabetes are more devastating the farther down the socioeconomic class ladder you are. Alcohol and tobacco make everything much worse.

    Behavioural or spiritual treatments respecting the person’s culture might conceivably improve adherence to effective treatments by giving the person an internal locus of control where she is invested in improving her own outcomes. Even if an elder was the secret sauce that needed to be present, the intervention could still be tested as long as the elder couldn’t game the measurement outcome. Example, the outcome would have to be something both verifiable and meaningful, like cholesterol or blood pressure, or number of heart attacks vs control, not “I felt better self-esteem because the elder shared his spiritual vision with me.”

    These TK methods tend to be expensive add-ons (not replacements) to regular medical care because labour-intensive sinecures attract rent-seeking behaviour, They need to be evaluated with a critical, sceptical eye, the very thing the purveyors don’t want. Good luck.

    Finally the notion that there might be differences in genetic susceptibility to diabetes for a given degree of obesity among different populations is now considered racist violence that diverts attention away from the true fight against colonialism. It cannot be discussed publicly, despite being plausibly commonsensical.

    1. Very good points; I forgot to mention LOSE WEIGHT. The article does note, however, that Maori may have different genes from “colonials” with respect to diabetes susceptibility, so they apparently don’t consider that to be racist

      1. Right you are. The article reports an allele widely distributed among Polynesians and no others that while associated with obesity, was statistically protective against type 2 diabetes. Mechanism and importance to treatment, if any, unknown.

        There was a major kerfuffle over the discovery in 1999 among the Native community of Sandy Lake, Manitoba, of a “private” allele that, while never claimed by its discoverer Robert Hegele to be a “thrifty gene”, it had some metabolic actions that one might be expected to have, were one ever to be found. Hegele later concluded that while it was strongly associated with T2DM, it was clearly not a sufficient cause as nearly every one in the community had the disease, yet only about 2/5 had the allele which was associated with much earlier onset, in pre-adolescence. Much as in other populations, most T2DM is likely due the the interactions of multiple cosmopolitan genes and environmental & dietary influences (duh!) Nonetheless as soon as the words were uttered, there were bitter accusations of racism, through guilt-by-association with Neel, the originator of the hypothesis in the 1920s.

        For a particularly strident view, calling for the application of Critical Race Theory to the question, see Hay, Commentary: The Invention of Aboriginal Diabetes: The Role of the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis in Canadian Health Care Provision, 2018
        There isn’t space here to go into detail. I’ll just say that Hay misrepresents Hegele’s study. He also misrepresents the even-handed citation the study receives in the literature reviews prepared for modern treatment guidelines. (He has expanded this theme into a whole book out last year, Inventing the Thrifty Gene: The Science of Settler Colonialism, co-written with Indigenous elder Teri Fiddler.)

    2. It’s not just indigenous people here either. According to the NZ Health Quality and Safety Commission, “Pacific peoples had a significantly higher prevalence of diabetes than all other ethnic groups” and “People of Indo-Asian ethnicity are not presented separately in the data; however, rates of diabetes in this population group are close to those observed in Pacific peoples.” A casual observation of the patients at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland might lead one to suspect that obesity may be a risk factor.

    3. I bet the rise in diabetes and poor health is much more recent than the ‘loss of access to traditional foods.” Like, 1980s recent.

      That was what I observed in Australia from the mid-70s to early 80s. Fast food shops went from practically nonexistent to US-common. TV made a lot of inroads. Weekend sports club participation was still high, but noticeably not as big. Supermarkets were replacing the local butcher and greengrocer.

      This is not to do an old fogie grump, but to argue that it’s not 18th or 19th century colonialism that is the cause of Maori health problems, but rather late 20th century lifestyle changes seen across western society, arising from greater access to cheap bad food and TV as the predominant form of after-hours personal entertainment. The west has gotten a lot more sedentary and obese. But that’s in the last *50* years, not due to what anyone did 150 or 250 years ago.

      1. The irony is this: populations with stunningly high rates of type 2 DM are historically populations that lived in near starvation conditions. Having become accustomed to calorie restriction, their metabolism finds the plentiful calories of a ‘western’ /colonial/settler diet too much to cope with, leading to hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance. The worthwhile indigenous knowledge relevant to this would be to return to their traditional diet and avoid diabetes.

    4. I spelunked around and I could find no other risk factor than the usual and strong body mass correlation in these populations. So my reflection was that it was a pity the “traditional” methods didn’t include basic measures to regulate body fat.

      I even found a paper where they cited a young Maori that had problems at 15 and was eager to do his own blood tests to regulate his diet. But he got little support from the community apart from the basic offer.

  9. I laugh and cry when I see papers like this.
    I used to work in small molecule drug discovery, screening large compound libraries for inhibitors of various biochemical reactions that we could modify into drug candidates. The “potential anti-diabetic” natural product compounds shown in the article (esp. quercetin, ellagic acid, kaempferol and the saponins) are what were known as “promiscuous inhibitors” that showed up in almost every screen and could bind to and inhibit many diverse enzymes in vitro, making them essentially useless nonspecific compounds that could never be turned into viable drugs. They also tended to have fairly low potency.
    I roll my eyes every time I see a paper touting these types of compounds since they will never make it past the “potential” stage. The literature is full of these kinds of weak papers on compounds like these, it’s surprising they make it past review anymore.

    1. Thanks! I learned something. I guess scientists like you spare us the task of weeding out molecules like that.

    2. It’s people like you, who know what you’re talking about, that really piss off the “hard of thinking” brigade. Keep it up!

  10. Considering this recurring topic, I had a thought. If someone obtains a science education in NZ, from primary school to the university level, will they even be able to communicate effectively with international peers?
    We all learn science primarily in our native language. Even so, that involves different words for the same concepts and terms. In Japanese, you learn a different word for gravity. The Japanese word does not also mean solemnity, just gravity as a scientific concept. The point is that it translates directly into any formula or discussion of gravity in English or any other language.
    If a scientist trained in NZ has an education that is full of concepts that only exist in the Maori worldview, it seems like there are going to be communications issues, at a minimum. It might even be that some scientific concepts are not accepted by the Maori, or for which they have religious explanations.

    It will be sad when someone leaves university in NZ with what they think is a science education, and discover that their training primarily has prepared them to be a Maori shaman.

  11. Many thanks to Jerry for his focus on this nonsense in New Zealand. Speaking up for science in this country gets you called “racist” and your career sabotaged. Only overseas commentators can help us.

    1. Same in Canada. Indigenous ways of knowing is making inroads in education. Slowly, slowly but never stopping. “Racist, colonial white settler!” is the taunt used to shut you up if you question it.

  12. Māori medicine rings the same bell as homeopathy or TCM. It is pseudoscientific, it is SCAM (so-called alternative medicine).

    1. Skeptics who criticize So-Called Alternative Medicine have always encountered furious backlash. In my experience, alties were even more sensitive and outraged when receiving critique than the religious.

      Denying personal experience and Other Ways of Knowing seems to automatically trigger the creation of an oppressed class. Combine it with a class already oppressed for other reasons and it’s a virtual whirlwind of resentment.

  13. First, Polynesians learned to navigate by the stars and other signs (this is a form of cultural selection, as those who couldn’t do it didn’t survive)

    Hmmm. Well, rather more likely, those who, in their teenage years never showed any consistent skill at navigating by the stars (compared to the null hypothesis of agreeing with the canoe’s (or flotilla’s) chief navigator) never got promoted to “navigator” and stayed at “paddle pusher”.
    It’s not as if these were single-person canoes.
    We don’t know when the multiple-person water-craft was developed, but examples were certainly present in Bronze Age Britain, the Stone Age Americas, … does anyone have any really old examples from, say, Arabia, or the Indian subcontinent? I don’t think anyone seriously claims that human settlement got through Indonesia (with three species of hominid) without regular use of multiple-person water-craft, even if the about 60kyr old entry into Australia was by accident not design. (IIRC, the settlement of Polynesia was from Taiwan-ish, not from Australasia, but the argument might still be going on).

    1. The use of the term “navigating by the stars” brings with it some connotations that do not apply to all Polynesian societies. Those whose territory encompassed lots of small islands separated by long distances would have developed more complicated systems than those whose territory was limited to fewer islands, or those much closer together.
      The directions to Neverland illustrate a very basic type of star navigation, but are not science. Importantly, they do not offer a way back.
      I know a lot about ocean navigation, but I think it is realistic to assume that any people who traveled long distances in places with few consistent landmarks also navigated by the stars or the sun, as they were the most reliable and constant references available. Still, it was often more formulaic than analytical. It is to celestial navigation what cooking by a memorized recipe is to chemistry.

  14. The plant vegetation foods, seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits that formed the basis of traditional Māori diet and rongoā would seem worthwhile targets in a systematic search for anti-diabetic agents.

    Hmmm, that’s a bit arse-over-tip as we say between bites of indigenous haggis round here. It implies that some parts of the “traditional Maori diet” (if there was everyone one such thing, and not a different one in each region, with different soils, hunting possibilities, etc) are diabetes-type-2 prone, and the pre-contact Maori were protected from this by the wonderful anti-diabetic compounds in this other list of foodstuffs.
    Far more likely, pre-contact Maori were protected from symptomatic diabetes-type-2 by living lives of grindingly hard work to procure a barely-sufficient diet by hunting, gathering, or whatever forms of agriculture they colonised the islands with, from other Polynesian islands.
    But, for some reason, a life of grindingly hard physical labour doesn’t seem to be too popular as an anti-diabetes strategy. Odd, that.

  15. About 20 years ago, I taught one summer in an Upward Bound program in Montana. We worked on a dinosaur dig the first part of the summer, and the second part of the summer we went back to a college campus and had classes on science, scientific method, and how our project fit into this whole scheme. You might know, UB was started by the Johnson Administration to bring kids who might not otherwise go to college onto college campuses and expose them to what college life is like, going to classes, etc. Montana had a Math and Science UB program. I was teacher for some of the scientific method/science literacy stuff. Pretty mundane stuff, pitched to 15 year olds, but there were two native American girls in the program, and next thing I know, a group of elders in the particular tribe demanded my firing and to meet with the head of the program. He informed them that I would not be fired, and somehow diffused the situation. What I know is that I just talked about science and particularly paleontology and such, and never would have even mentioned anything about how this was superior to indigenous knowledge, etc. Somehow what I had said was taken out of context and it was, for a short time, quite an incident. The issue is, as I see it, and it’s similar to the one you are discussing with Maori “ways of knowing,” how do we respect indigenous cultures and the people in them–which I do and know you do–and yet teach about science, which does tell us about the world and what’s in it, and some important things about how we got here?

  16. The rhetoric in that paper is straight out of the Alternative Medicine play book. One of their more persistent claims is that whatever nostrum they are perscribing cannot be tested by ‘Western Medicine’ because it relies on ‘subtle energies’ that ‘Western Medicine’ cannot pick up on.

  17. I think the more one tries to counter pseudo-science, the more importance it is given. What should matter to locals is where they go to get cured of diseases, what vehicles they drive/use and what remote communications devices they use. If they use the ones designed by Maoris technologies, then good for them.

    Also I wonder what is the guide-book for the % of maori terms you have to use in writing these days to be PC ? it must be a set percentage range, too little and you get cancelled, too much and nobody understands what you write. Imagine doing this in American English, with 300 American Indian languages (not counting Inuit).

    1. Sorry–you’re asking us to ignore this “way of knowing” which will take its plaace alongside science in scecondary schools and universitiess? It matters not to locals but to all New Zealanders. Presumably you don’t care much if Maori get sick or die if there are better medicines available?

      Sorry, but you’re wrong; if you don’t counter this, everybody in NZ, Maori or not, is going to get a confusing and second rate science eductation.

      Did you read the post/

    2. The question is :

      Is there a relationship between “other ways of knowing” and well being?

      Likewise for astrology, religion, pseudoscience, etc.

  18. Here is how I react to discussions about how indigenous folk medicine of this or that culture may or may not have known that herbal goat’s rue may have marginal value against symptoms of Type 2 diabetes. I recall that from 1 to 3 million people in the US, and tens of millions world-wide, suffer from Type 1 diabetes, which was a fatal disease before the discovery of insulin therapy. These millions owe their lives to daily insulin injections. Needless to say, Banting and Best discovered insulin not from anything like MM, but by classic experimental research (with dogs as test subjects); Collip and McLeod and then Walden purified insulin by standard, empirically defined chemical methods; and today insulin is produced by recombinant DNA methods. Whakapapa has nothing to do with these lifesaving developments.

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