Acquisition and Transmission of Subsistence Knowledge by Q’eqchi’ Maya in Belize

  • Acquisition and Transmission of Subsistence Knowledge by Q’eqchi’ Maya in Belize

by Rebecca Zarger




The experiences that young children have when immersed in the biophysical environment—learning about the way different organisms look, smell, and taste, and how to put them to use—stimulate their imagination and contribute in a profound way to their development (Nabhan 1998). The process of exploration and learning is shaped by both cultural and ecological forces. Recently,a handful of researchers working in geography, ethnobiology, cultural anthropology, and cognitive science have begun to consider the fact that a critical component to better understand local knowledge of the environment is its’transmission, acquisition, and change. The ways traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) is passed on from generation to generation, and what the ecological, socio- cultural, and economic factors are which shape this transfer of information is a dynamic process that must be better described and documented. Ultimately one factor that demands our attention turn to encompass knowledge change or loss may be the realization that ecosystems around the world, which are the foundation of TEK, are undergoing rapid changes, along with the cultural systems to which they are intimately linked.Notable research on the acquisition and transmission of TEK includes Omaghari and Berkes’ research on Cree women’s bush skills (1997), Ruddleand Chesterfield’s research in the Orinoco Delta (1977), Gary Nabhan’s work among the Seri (1998), and the Zents’ research with the Piaroa and Hoti (1999;this volume). The cultural transmission of environmental knowledge in traditional societies usually occurs outside of formal school, takes place in the re-production of daily life (such as during work and play activities), and often relies on informal, experiential, and observational means of sharing information (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977; Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Hewlett andCavalli-Sforza 1986). Children acquire knowledge beginning at a very early age, concurrent with language acquisition, and adult competency is acquired for the most part by adolescence (usually by ages 12 to 14) (Stross 1969).Focusing on how children go about learning and are taught the every days kills and tasks that shape their interactions with the environment remains a difficult task. Still there is much more information recorded and reported on what children and adults know, than how they come to know it (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977; Hewlett and Cavalli Sforza 1986).This paper reports the preliminary results of ongoing research on the acquisition and transmission of environmental knowledge among Q’eqchi’ Maya of southern Belize. The focus of the study is the acquisition of knowledge of food resources and other subsistence-related skills. This includes food procurement,preparation, and cultivation, as well as the procurement and use of plants for the construction of houses, household items, and crafts, by children between the ages of 4 and 14. The specific goal here is not to report the findings of the entire study, but to briefly explore the specific contributions that research and theory from the field of cross-cultural child development can make to our understanding of just how it is that TEK, or, “the cumulative body of information and beliefs about the relationship of living beings with one another and their environment” (Berkes 1993:3), is shared and learned.Research on the relationship between children’s work and play is particularly relevant to achieving a better understanding of the mechanisms of child-hood acquisition and transmission of environmental knowledge in subsistence based societies. Additionally, it seems imperative that we focus on the relationship between informal education systems and formal schooling, as many children are spending a large portion of their daily life in school, away from the landscapes and spaces where they have traditionally gained cultural competence in environmental knowledge and skills. It is argued here that the amount of time spent engaged in daily activities in the non-human environment directly impacts the acquisition of TEK, due to the observational and participatory nature of that process. Finally, the potential application of this research is discussed, using the example from the study being carried out in Belize, in the collaborative design of ecologically and culturally relevant environmental education programs.



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Keywords: subsistence farming, house gardens, education, Southern Belize, Q’eqchi’



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