Saturday 4th September 2010 is not going to be a day New Zealanders will forget in a hurry. The earthquake in Christchurch is a stark reminder to us all of the price of living in such a beautiful country. Most New Zealanders, I’m sure, will have some personal attachment to Christchurch, such as friends and relatives. I myself have a sister, cousin and friends living there. They have all had quite a nasty shock, not to mention some damage.

This disaster has brought to my mind a section I wrote in Guilty as Charged? called Traditional Knowledge versus Science—Experience versus Experiment (Afterthought 3.1). Paraphrasing that section, I ask here, does local Māori knowledge have something to say about this earthquake? Perhaps local (Māori) knowledge is aware of certain fault-lines; perhaps local knowledge is aware of the frequency of earthquakes in this area; or perhaps local knowledge knows that certain suburbs of Christchurch are more stable than others?

I make no assumptions about the answers to these questions. I do not know the answers at all. However, what I do know is that traditional indigenous knowledge—wherever in the world it is—is extremely valuable. Put simply, indigenous knowledge encodes the essentials about survival within the local environment. It is knowledge built up by experience and passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, it is knowledge that in some ways surpasses that of modern science. Science only answers the questions people ask. Moreover, it is blind to the relative importance of the different questions. Indigenous knowledge, on the other hand, answers the imperative questions asked by the local natural environment—how are people going to survive what the environment throws up?

If all this sounds fanciful, consider the massive tsunami of 2004. What happened just before the tsunami? The tide went out a very long way. Many people in Thailand brought up in the modern scientific world thought this was interesting so went to take a look. They were killed when the wave came.

Conversely, when the tide went out on a remote African community, they were scared. Their (non-scientific) knowledge told them that this was very dangerous and they took to the hills. Everyone in that community survived, even though their village was destroyed.

More about this amazing story can be found in Afterthought 3.1 in Guilty as Charged?. I’ll just leave you with this thought: what vital knowledge do Māori have that could save lives and property in the next disaster? For we all know that there will be a next one. And I am equally convinced that Māori knowledge will have some answers.