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Celebrating the Ingenuity of Indigenous Peoples

June 15 2021 | Laura Martinez

Inspired by nature, Indigenous peoples in America are behind a great many innovations and more than thirty of these are showcased in the Indigenous Ingenuity exhibition currently touring Canada. Let’s explore the science behind two of their innovations: the multilayer clothing system and (bet you didn’t know this was an innovation) corn!

“Nature gives to us and nature teaches us,” explained Innu bearer of knowledge Jean St-Onge at the Montréal Science Centre’s 2017 inauguration of the Indigenous Ingenuity exhibition. “It is by listening, watching, and asking questions that a child successfully acquires knowledge,” added his daughter, Shana St-Onge, who collaborated on the exhibition alongside her father.  

Observing nature, listening to bearers of knowledge, experimenting with new knowledge and then passing it along to others are the four steps of the Indigenous knowledge innovation process. This is also how knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next.

The Multilayer Clothing System

Ask any lover of the outdoors and they’ll tell you: wearing multiple layers is the secret to staying warm and comfortable when active in the outdoors. What you may not know is that this heat conservation strategy is said to have been invented thousands of years ago.

Thanks to their connection with nature, Indigenous peoples had a wealth of inspiration when designing innovations. Seeing how Arctic animals used their thick fur coats to protect themselves from the cold, the Inuit used fur to design clothing. And, seeing the advantage mammals had with their multiple layers of insulation, often a layer of fat under a layer of fur, the Inuit also added layers their clothing designs.

To brave the cold of the Arctic, Inuit hunters kept warm by first wearing a layer of caribou fur but with the fur placed against their bodies instead of facing outwards. That’s because trapping air between the skin and the caribou hide works well to retain heat and keep warm. And since the hairs of caribou fur are hollow and filled with air, this makes it a fantastic insulating material. Knowing that being well-insulated helps retain body heat, hunters used this innovation to keep warm.  

But hunters also used a second layer of fur, this time with the fur facing out. With all that Arctic snow, this second layer helped them keep their clothes dry because mammal hair (made from keratin, a water-resistant fibrous protein) helps makes this second layer virtually waterproof.  

Even if synthetic materials have since largely replaced those from animals, the multilayer clothing system still remains the standard when it comes to braving extreme weather.

Corn

We roast it, we pop it, put it in a salad, or boil it and serve it at what we traditionally call a corn roast. Just about everyone is familiar with the tall-stemmed grain with tall green leaves we call corn, but did you know that corn never grew on its own in the wild?

Corn is the result of a selection process that happened over thousands of years which consisted of choosing the best grains from corn’s ancestor, teosinte, a plant native to Mexico. Though genetically related, teosinte doesn’t look much like corn at all. For instance, teosinte ears only have a few grains. By only sowing the fittest and most promising grains, the first civilizations in Central America developed a technique now known as mass selection. Over generations, the ears of the teosinte plant grew larger and larger and produced more and more grains which also had a higher starch content. Starch is a glucose-based carbohydrate made from sugar molecules.

Over time, different varieties evolved thanks to the different environmental conditions of the many places the plant was grown. Indigenous farmers are said to have planted different varieties side-by-side to encourage a form of cross-pollination called hybridization, even if it wasn’t until the 20th century that the science behind this plant-improvement technique was proven. Thanks to Indigenous farmers, corn slowly evolved into a grain that was much more productive and nutritional than its colonial-area European equivalents.

Agricultural innovations also contributed to a number of Indigenous peoples in America moving away from a nomadic way of life to a sedentary one. For example, thousands of Iroquois formed large villages and survived the winter thanks to their harvests. And in case you’re wondering, the Iroquois are no strangers to popcorn!

Today’s world would be vastly differently if it weren’t for the scientific innovations of Indigenous peoples in America. Ready to observe nature, listen to bearers of knowledge, experiment with the scientific principles of Indigenous innovations, and share what you learned with others? Visit Science North in Sudbury and take part in the Indigenous Ingenuity exhibition’s interactive adventure!

 

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Laura Martinez
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Text and images by Laura Martinez

Laura’s love of science is matched only by her love for adventure. She is a PhD in biology who spent more than ten years studying seabeds. She’s also the expert on whale sunburns! Since 2017, she has been devoted to Arctic research, science journalism, and projects aimed at popularizing science. Keep an eye out for her next blog posts!

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