“How ever did they manage?” I’ve spent today at the Mesa Verde World Heritage Site in Colorado, tromping around pueblo sites and gazing at the cliff dwelling houses of the native peoples of the American southwest. It’s hot out – too hot. How ever did the people get water to drink and irrigate their corn? Simply eating and drinking in this arid environment would be such a problem. Then what comes to my mind is one definition I’ve read of a word that is so difficult to pin down: culture. “Culture,” goes this definition (one of many definitions), “is a set of solutions to problems.”
Problems and solutions? We might immediately turn to social geography for comment on societies developing in particular landscapes, or to cultural anthropology for comment on groups working together in systems of social cohesion. Myself, though, I head for the usual place. I think about Theory of Knowledge.
How did the Anasazi people know how to survive? Actually walking through an ancient pueblo or descending a ladder into an underground kiva encourages a visitor to feel intensely – even physically – how practical knowledge connects people, and how much it matters. Thirsty, I look for cisterns and want to know how they stored scarce water. I’m impressed by all they figured out – and how they applied their TOK ways of knowing to discover and test solutions.
I’m impressed, too, with the shared knowledge they constructed over time so that the society as a whole could flourish. They developed better and better building methods so that their houses were less likely to burn — and so that by the end of the 13th century they were able to build the elaborate structures of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. They learned to use the natural materials around them. They developed agriculture, wove baskets, made splendidly decorated pottery, and established trade routes. Their shared knowledge – built up and passed on culturally – gave them so much more than mere survival.
I’m inclined in any case to be impressed by what smart people figure out in any field. But there’s something powerful about confronting a land that seems so inhospitable and recognizing what score you’d get yourself on a survival test.
I’m pleased that Indigenous Knowledge has been added to the TOK course — regardless of whether particular TOK classes ever pursue it. Its inclusion says clearly that in TOK knowledge is not just the province of philosophers or academic specialists. It is constructed and claimed by all people of the world, past and present. As we speak of “shared knowledge” we are referring not only to the depersonalized methodologies of many academic areas of knowledge but also (with appropriate comparisons) to the sharing of cultural groups — such as the Anasazi constructing, in vast and arid canyons, an entire way of life.
I return to my air-conditioned car and escape the heat. As we descend the paved road from the high mesa, to join the highway below, I’m still musing, “How ever did they manage?” Surely the most impressive of all human achievements is knowledge.