What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new?’ It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 NIV)

R. Mark Kelley, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Health and Exercise Science at MidAmerica Nazarene University used this Scriptural quote to introduce an article he co-authored for the American Journal of Health Studies. The article, "Making the case for 'indigenous wisdom': Comparing historical and modern health recommendations," published in 2012, reported that recommendations regarding nutrition, physical activity and exercise, and drug use have varied far less than one might imagine in the last 70-90 years. His team looked at 129 historical recommendations from textbooks published in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and compared them with recommendations contained within contemporary textbooks. Of these 129 historical recommendations, 122 (or 94.6 percent) were categorized as consistent or neutral with regard to current thought. Such a remarkable degree of consistency was seen by the authors as clearly significant. And, far from concluding that all that can be known has already been discovered, the authors felt a new obligation to carry on with the work of previous generations of researchers, continuing to make observations, and using the efforts of public health and medical research professionals to gain an ever more comprehensive understanding of the underlying chemical and physiological mechanisms that define healthy living behaviors.

Dr. Kelley defines indigenous wisdom, within the context of his study, as those beliefs held by a group, arrived at in a way that is not necessarily scientific in nature, but clearly based on long-term observation. Many such observations are eventually confirmed by scientific research studies. Thus, a behavior that has been widely observed to be helpful or deleterious to one's health is usually confirmed by science. He cited an example from the 18th Century. It was observed that those who caught cowpox were not later stricken with smallpox, a much more devastating virus. Individuals were inoculated with cowpox, and this was found to protect against the contraction of smallpox. In a crude manner, by current standards, this experimentation provided some scientific evidence that a "vaccine" could be effective in preventing disease.

Interestingly, the research conducted by Dr. Kelley and his colleagues compared printed sources of health recommendations from a period of time roughly approximate to the span of two generations. Dr. Kelley's own paternal grandmother, in a loving but strict manner, encouraged him to eat whole grains, drink milk, and eat vegetables, along with a smaller portion of meat. Sweets and desserts were available but only if the more important foods were first consumed. Dr. Kelley has noticed that what he "pushes his children toward," follows this pattern of instruction handed down to him by his grandparents.

Dr. Kelley also noted other examples of observation and scientific study. For a very long time tea has been viewed as helpful in the alleviation of the symptoms of colds and sore throats. This observation has been backed up by more recent chemical analyses of the compounds contained in tea, one of which acts as a topical anesthetic that desensitizes the nerve endings in the throat. Recipients of chiropractic treatments find that they promote health and relieve pain, and the benefits have been shown to correct mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Other medical treatments, such as acupuncture, have been used for thousands of years, and appear to be beneficial, although we still do not understand the physiological reason behind its effectiveness.

The idea of indigenous wisdom was forcefully and indelibly impressed upon Dr. Kelly in September 2005, when he as in Papua New Guinea as part of a medical mission. He was on the island of East New Britain when he heard a story about a volcanic eruption from 1994. Australian seismologists stationed there saw the warning signs and warned the nearby inhabitants of the village, Rabaul. When the seismologists felt that the eruptions were not imminent, they spread the word. Yet, the village elders disregarded their "scientifically-based" recommendations, when they felt mild earthquakes at a certain intervals. The elders marched all of the people from the village far from the area, and not soon thereafter two nearby volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan, erupted. This example of indigenous wisdom was explained to Dr. Kelley: "The people know that volcanoes are like a mother giving birth; when the shaking of the earth comes around eight minutes apart, they know the eruption will come soon." The village was covered in volcanic ash, but the inhabitants were moved away from the place of danger. Lives were saved. While the village elders did not understand all of the geological forces at work, they understood the danger from wisdom that had been passed down through the generations (another large eruption took place in 1937).

Dr. Kelley finds the concept of indigenous wisdom to be fascinating, and he plans to next apply his theories to the topic of education. What educational principles and techniques from the 19th Century remain valid? In particular, he wishes to study the work of John Milton Gregory (1822-1898), who in 1886 published The Seven Laws of Teaching. It will be very interesting to see where this new line of study leads.


R. Mark Kelley, PhD

Dr. Mark Kelley, PhD