Song has long been recognised as a central carrier of Indigenous cultural knowledge, but it is only recently that attention has turned to how traditional song traditions can teach us about ecology and sustainable land management practices. A recent special edition of the Journal of Ethnobiology has looked at this aspect in eight chapters devoted to Indigenous song in Mongolia, Alaska, Siberia, the Amazon, Australia and other parts of the world with the aim of finding out how biocultural knowledge is handed down through the generations.
“Traditional songs can, thus, be understood as rich systems of embedded knowledge and a powerful expression of local cultural values and worldviews,” say its principal authors Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares and Dana Lepofsky. “Adapting the knowledge and lessons embedded in traditional songs to today’s changing environmental conditions is centrally important to cultural continuity.”
In the case of Aboriginal people in the Central Australian deserts, traditional songs contain numerous references to plants and animals, and in many instances these convey detailed knowledge about seed harvesting and food preparation. This is the finding of Australian researchers Georgia Curran, Linda Barwick, Myfany Turpin, Fiona Walsh and Mary in their chapter entitled ‘Central Australian Aboriginal Songs and Biocultural Knowledge: Evidence from Women’s Ceremonies Relating to Edible Seeds’. They show, for example, how songs as performed in Yawulyu women’s ceremonies mention various harvesting techniques by which seeds are collected from native grasses and are ground into a paste that is eaten raw or baked into a damper. Wattle seeds can be treated the same or roasted.
The authors indeed propose a whole ethno-taxonomic group of edible species that encompasses these seed-producing plants called ngurlu, and they show that Yawulyu songs are the information base by which knowledge about them is passed down. “Traditionally, detailed knowledge of these species was crucial to sustenance and survival through long periods, sometimes years, when certain species were dormant, scarce, or absent,” they write.
“We suggest that the vast corpus of totemic songs may have acted as an inventory of species to aid the recall of ecologic cultural, and mythological information… [The Yawulyu] songs are rich with detailed observations of the natural world and have been used to maintain knowledge for generations, yet their status in the modern world is vulnerable.”
Inevitably, the danger is that this knowledge is being rapidly lost due to declining traditional practices and the overbearance of modern Westernised agriculture. The authors say this makes it all the more important that a diversity of biocultural knowledge is maintained.