Human Journey

Wisdom of Elders Better Than Science or the Internet: “They Still Know How to Cook Mammoth”

Petr Kaurgin, a Chukchi reindeer herder from Siberia. Photo: Citt Williams

“Our elders are the best source of information. Better than science or the internet,” said Petr Kaurgin, a Chukchi reindeer herder from the remote Turvaurgin nomadic tribal community in north-eastern Siberia.

Kaurgin delivered his message to climate scientists from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other Indigenous peoples at the closing of the Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous peoples workshop here in Cairns, Australia.

“We need to listen to the wisdom of the elders. We can use everything in nature. But we must not break or destroy things, ” he said through a translator.

It was -45C when Kaurgin left his home to bring his people’s message to climate experts here in the hot, wet tropical part of Australia. The IPCC is the world authority on the science of climate change. And along with the United Nations University (UNU) organized the workshop to figure out how to incorporate Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge.

“When we love the land where we live only then we are happy,” he said.

Kaurgin’s people and other local Siberian communities have been experiencing the impacts of climate change such as melting permafrost for the last 20 years said Tero Mustonen, Head of the Village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland.

Tero Mustonen, head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland. Photo by Citt Wiillams

As the hard permafrost melts it produces landslides and collapsing riverbanks, altering the entire landscape. That affects traditional reindeer migration routes, and alters where the animals can feed and travel. Seasons are shifting and river and lake ice is thawing sooner, making life less predictable, said Mustonen, who has a doctorate and is head of international affairs for the Snowchange Cooperative, a network of Indigenous peoples.

Kaurgin and his family manage a herd of 15,000 reindeer, but they can no longer migrate to the rich grasses on the Arctic coast in summer because the ground is now too soft. “They have to stay 80 to 150 kilometers inland,” said Mustonen.

The Chukchi and other Indigenous peoples living traditional lives put very little climate-altering carbon into the atmosphere. Helping them stay on the land means they can continue their low-emission ways of living. If they leave their land and go into towns and cities their emissions will inevitably increase.

The IPCC needs to integrate traditional knowledge into its scientific assessments as was done for the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Traditional people were also able to improve the content of that report,  said Mustonen.

“If traditional knowledge is preserved they will survive climate change. After all the Chukchi have words for mammoth. They have oral knowledge of how to hunt and cook mammoths,” he said.

“They’ve experienced major changes before. ”

Chukchi reindeer herd. Photo: Saija Lehtonen


Follow the workshop on Facebook or Twitter

An international environmental journalist for more than 20 years, Stephen Leahy has been published in dozens of publications around the world: National Geographic News, The Guardian (UK), Vice, New Scientist, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Al Jazeera, Mo Magazine (Brussels), TerraGreen (India), Toronto Star, China Dialogue (UK), Earth Island Journal, The London Sunday Times, Wired News, BBC Wildlife. Stephen was a co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change, and the author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products (Winner Best Science Book 2014)
  • David

    Great article – and so true about indigenous knowledge being important when we discuss issues like climate change. They know the land, the history, and when things are changing. They don’t need to look at scatter plots and bar graphs to see the changes happening to their land. Let’s hope and pray people listen when they speak.

  • Angela

    Indigenous people are in touch with the soul of the Earth. The materialism and consumer attitudes of today’s society are not. It is time for higher wisdom and guidance to prevail in all that we do and all that we live.

  • […] What then should the members of this circle be focused on? My answer is the basics: food on the table, a roof over your head and security.  As Dave points out, in a world of no money, climate instability and no fuel putting food on the table is not as easy as it may look. Indigneous cultures developed trial and error over a long time, handing down the wisdom each generation gained to the next. To learn more of this “internet of past experience” read the article here. […]

  • […] Posted by Stephen Leahy in Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples on March 29, 2012 […]

  • Pinkmini

    We had someone prattling at us from the University last week about Indigenous people looking after the flora and fauna. Not so in Far North Queensland where if they spot a dugong they slaughter it & traipse around to all and sundry trying to sell the meat. Some indigenous are OK, some are not.

  • IndianNtheCupboard

    It’s a shame that systematic genocide and the conquering of indigenous people which founded most societies today, is “history” and acceptable. Only now, when the earth has had too much destruction and we are at the threshold of collapse do you consider ever thinking about indigenous peoples. All conquering societies fail to realize they have destroyed the societies that keep the micro-cosmic universe in order and that this imbalance can never be adjusted as it once was. Take my people for example….we were herded to alkaline fields, starved, murdered, kept over harsh winters, and were returned home with only 1/4 of all ancient ceremonial rights and rituals. Never to be known again…imagine what powers these lost rites once had. Maybe they had the power to change reality…we will never know. You will never know.

  • […] We now have the building blocks of knowledge with everything from the sciences to business to art to literature to varying views of evolution, history & culture (although we sill have a lot to learn). […]

  • […] (Related: “Tapping Wisdom of the Elders“) […]

  • Evarist Fundisha

    Indigenous knowledge related to climate change is a cornerstone to local level knowldge because of the locale-rooted experience. We should acknowledge it by publisising it at every publishable materials.

  • Oop

    If a Finnish guy makes an off-hand remark about Chukchis, and you present his statement in your headline as a fact, it is actually pretty lousy journalism.

    • Petr Kaurgin, the Chukchi mentioned in the article was standing beside Mustonen when he made that comment. Mustonen has some expertise in this area and later confirmed that dialects of Chukchi and Yukaghir languages still have words that relate to mammoths including hunting and cooking.

  • Steve D

    So we see respect being paid to folk zoology, folk botany, folk meteorology, folk environmentalism, etc. So why not folk sociology? Surely if folk wisdom has any value, it would be in sociology, say child rearing, sex roles, crime and punishment, etc.

    And why do people revere the folk wisdom of every other culture but our own? After all, we have words for “mammoth,” too.

  • Greg

    I am continually reminded how people project their values to other cultures. I am not sure if it an issue with “our education” and a feeling of entitlement.
    Ancient cultures have survived without us for thousands of years. Why would you not talk to the elders. I challenge the doctors of the world to spend as much time with someone who as ancient knowledge as you do listening to someone who is into “school”

  • Richard Schroeder

    I am not sure I see the significance of the Chukchi’s having a word for mammoth and instructions on how to cook mammoths. Apparently from time to time people do find frozen mammoths in Siberia. It isn’t bizarre that the Chuckci might have a word for these frozen carcasses. It isn’t even all that bizarre that they have a story about how to hunt them–even if they have never seen a living mammoth. After all, I have never seen a real live vampire, but I have a word for them and I know the rudiments about how to hunt one: crucifixes, consecrated hosts, garlic, stake through the heart etc.

    But let’s assume the Chukchi have an absolutely authentic story about hunting a real live mammoth. Then what does that tell us about global warming?

    • Richard, the point is that the Chukchi have a long, long history on their land and that they can adapt to climate change given the chance.

  • Mr. Bill

    Let me get this straight. We have some native folks who remember stuff about mammoths, showing how they survive climate change…the climate change that happened when there were still mammoths.

    So…unless these humans of 10K years ago were up to no good, the climate changed all by itself (as it has since the earth was formed.)

    But that can’t be…all the “smart” people are whining the we puny humans are causing global warming, er…excuse me, I mean climate change.

    But they could never be wrong, right?

    I mean those scientists my teachers talked about back in the 70s who said there was going to be global cooling…they weren’t wrong, were they?

    It’s impossible for our perfect and all-knowing scientists to be wrong today, right?

  • Angel

    There are also stories with the First Nations in the Arctic of walking with the dinosaurs, the large birds in the sky and saber tooth tigers. There is also prophesies told from generation to generation of the coming changes of mother earth-that it is a natural cycle…whether humans are here or not it will happen, humans did contribute the quickening of this process and there are solutions out their with the earth cultures on how to prepare for it…it is only going to intensify over time…the ice age will be on the opposite side of the world and once again the arctic will be tropical-as told in prophecies. What else was shared prior to radios and televisions is the weather will change, there will be holes in the sky, the poles will shift and another ice age will come. Considering the time frame…all has happened accept one the up coming ice age. This is when mother earth will re-balance all the damage being done to her, it will be put back into natural order-the way it was always meant to be.
    Earth cultures of mother earth do have the answers, do have the solutions, yet are not being taken into consideration of helping mankind or humanity…this is due to the programming of all mankind to live negative teachings that keep each other down. The wonderful thing about science is it is now verifying what our people have known for thousands of years…our schooling was mother earth and the Elders and we did not need institutes to give us papers to prove this-those raised by grandparents with the ancient knowledge tested have IQ’s of 180…the earth cultures were given the knowledge or pieces of it. It is important for humanity to put the judgments, criticizing, denying and gossip aside, share the knowledge, wisdom and teachings to help each other. In the past we have found pieces here and there and leaves us with more questions. This is why we have been working so hard at giving everything we have got to help mankind in a positive way and put it out there-we found all the pieces thanks to the ancient teachings and a wonderful teacher, elder and genuine traditional healer Manyhorses. We are praying for support and the financial backing so we can share with the world “the whole package”. For now we have a website…changing or helping mother earth starts with the self, from the self it has a pyramid effect, on our children, family, friends,community and all life…
    Shared with unconditional love.

  • Evarist Fundisha

    Doing things may reflect creativities which may stem from individuals’ curiousity or learning from others. In Chagga society, there is practice of not planting maize of the both ends of the cob. This means that those at the centre of a cob are the once planted. In addition to that, those at the two ends are stored where are used after the germination of the sowed once. What does this mean in western science? or are the seeds of the two ends of the cob inferior in quality?

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media