In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • General introductions
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Encounters/Middle Grounds/Contact Zones/Third Space/Borderlands
  • Epistemes and the Problems of Translation
  • Indigenous Knowledge and Empire
  • Indigenous Knowledge and Media
  • Ecology and Environments
  • Climate
  • Land, Agriculture, and Gardening
  • Botany and Zoology
  • Medicine and Pharmaceutics
  • Collecting, Codifying, and Publishing Indigenous Knowledge: Ethnography and Natural Histories
  • Exhibiting Indigenous Knowledge

Atlantic History Indigenous Knowledge
Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0376


What is Indigenous knowledge? While the term is rather problematic—as much knowledge, including European or Western knowledge, could be dubbed Indigenous—this article uses the concept for non-European that is Native American or African (and African diasporic) knowledge in the Atlantic world. Notwithstanding, this labeling is also problematic, as knowledge is often more transcultural or hybrid than we would think. In the last two decades Indigenous knowledge in the Atlantic World has received much scholarly attention from scholars of anthropology, archaeology, history of science, history of knowledge, and environmental history, as well as from many other subdisciplines of cultural and social history. Natural sciences are today also interested in Indigenous knowledge; as much as their early modern predecessors, they use Indigenous knowledge about such topics as climate, environments, ecology, botany, zoology, and minerals as resources in areas such as medicine and pharmaceutics, foodstuffs, and new forms of agriculture and ecology. Early modern knowledge about the Atlantic world—as it came to be institutionalized from the 15th century in the European republic of letters, its academies, royal societies, correspondence networks, universities, collections of objects, maps, natural histories, encyclopedias, travel narratives, and dictionaries—was the result of colonial European powers striving to make sense, conquer, and exploit the Americas. In this, they not only relied on European sources but also depended on American Indigenous populations, African or Arabic enslaved people, Atlantic creoles, pirates, Maroons, and other groups hitherto underrepresented in the master narratives of European expansion, the rise of the sciences, and the production of universal knowledge. These groups left traces in maps, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and travel narratives and produced their own forms and practices of knowledge formation and exchange. The “extraction” of this knowledge came by way of contact, in borderlands and middle grounds, by conquest, colonization, enslavement, and other violent and nonviolent forms of encounter. The intellectual construction of the New World and the rise of modern sciences, as a major foundation of European empire building, had a transcultural and global dimension. All of this often hides the multiple Indigenous American traditions in the production, formation, performance, and codification of knowledge and the categories through which they structure life, societies, political systems, and environments at large. Against this background, this article looks into the conditions and modes of knowledge exchange that have dominated the Atlantic world, focusing on epistemes and problems of translation, on issues of knowledge and empire. Through European categories, it will then assess Indigenous knowledge, with regard to Ecology and Environments, Climate and climate change, land and landscapes, gardening and agriculture, Botany and Zoology, and Medicine and Pharmaceutics, as well as the collecting and exhibiting of such knowledge.

General introductions

While there are no general introductions to Indigenous knowledge, scholars have challenged colonial paradigms with regard to knowledge production in the early modern Atlantic world (and beyond). Goody 2006 problematizes Eurocentric and occidentalist approaches to knowledge, while Greenblatt 1991 has created a master narrative on the appropriation of knowledge in the New World. Native American scholar Clara Sue Kidwell (Kidwell 2019) introduces us to Indigenous American ways of knowing, as does Gordon Brotherston in Brotherston 1992. Proctor and Schiebinger 2008 provides interesting insights into agnotology, while Turnbull 2000 challenges the divisions between traditional, local, and scientific knowledge.

  • Brotherston, Gordon. Book of The Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas through Their Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    This is an excellent overview of Native American knowledge and cosmologies as can be traced in Indigenous texts. It shows the great traditions of intellectual life, philosophy, and historiography of native peoples in the Americas.

  • Goody, Jack. The Theft of History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    While this is not a general introduction to Indigenous knowledge, the book draws our attention to the Eurocentric and occidentalist bias in our assessment of knowledge today— how much we neglect, omit, or willingly ignore the contributions of non-European and non-Western people to what we call universal knowledge.

  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226306575.001.0001

    This masterpiece tells the story of how Europeans appropriated land and knowledge in the New World to build their overseas empires, which possessions and media they then used to present us with the marvels of unknown worlds, as if the latter had not existed prior to the arrival of Europeans.

  • Kidwell, Clara Sue. Native American Knowledge Systems. Staines-upon-Thames, UK: Balestier, 2019.

    From a Meso- and North American perspective, Kidwell confronts us with Native American epistemes, or systems of knowledge, that demonstrate a variety of ways of seeing, ordering, and interpreting the world.

  • Proctor, Robert N., and Londa Schiebinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    What is knowledge? Why do we not know what we do not know? Have we never known or has knowledge been forgotten or become invisible? In this collection of essays, the authors analyze politics of ignorance or forgetting as a powerful instrument through which, for example, Indigenous knowledge came to be effaced from so-called universal knowledge systems.

  • Turnbull, David. Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge. London: Routledge, 2000.

    Turnbull critically assesses our Western understanding of how knowledge is produced. Through his case studies, he shows that knowledge production in all instances, Western sciences included, is messy and local and less rational and coherent than modernity often suggests. He thus contributes convincingly to challenging the divide between European and Western and Indigenous knowledge and knowledge production.

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