Local Wisdom and Science
Local wisdom is the knowledge gained through a series of activities by a group of people in a particular region or place and then passed on verbally from generation to generation. Local wisdom is shaped by the influences of local cultures, religions, socioeconomic activities, natural sources, and climate. Knowledge from local wisdom sometimes is manifested in the inventions of artefacts and architecture that match local needs. Such inventions possess incalculable scientific value.
However, nowadays, local wisdom and cultures do not become part of the process of science learning. It is as if culture and local wisdom have nothing to do with the development of science and technology. That was not the case in history, where local wisdom gave birth to many scientific and technological discoveries in ancient civilisations. The Pythagoras or Pythagorean Theorem, for example, is a mathematical formula that explains the relationship between the three sides of a right-angled triangle.
The theorem states that “in a right-angle triangle, the square of the hypotenuse side is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides.” The theorem is named after Pythagoras because he is thought to be the scholar who discovered it.
However, many historical accounts suggest that Pythagoras was not the first to invent it, but he is credited for his contribution to formulating the current understandable form. Back in history, the cultures and local wisdom of different ancient civilisations contributed to the development of what is now called the Pythagoras Theorem. For instance, there is concrete evidence that the Pythagoras Theorem was discovered and proven by Babylonian mathematicians 1,000 years before Pythagoras was born.
The evidence is derived from the recovered ancient clay tablets used throughout Mesopotamia to record various information about commerce, culture, and daily life. A couple of tablets have particular relevance to the Pythagorean Theorem. Although the Pythagoras Theorem was never explicitly written on any of the recovered clay tablets, the square and triangle shape engravings on one of the tablets display an early understanding of the theorem. The engraving also indicates that Babylonians developed the application of the theorem to measure accurate right angles for the purpose of surveying land.
The early understanding of the Pythagoras Theorem also appeared as a form of local wisdom in the Ancient Egyptian Civilisation. The Egyptians used a knotted rope to aid in creating right angles. This rope had twelve evenly spaced knots that could be transformed into a right triangle with three, four, and five spaced knots on each side. The knotted ropes were used as a model for the much bigger right triangles to build one of the most significant world cultural heritage, the pyramids, a building to honour the pharaohs.
In other civilisations, such as the Indian Civilisation and Chinese Civilisation, Pythagoras Theorem was also developed to fulfil their socioeconomic and cultural needs, such as sailing and building the house of worship. However, the whole point of this discussion is not to prove who first discovered the formula of the right-angle triangle. Instead, it shows how local wisdom in each previous civilisation gave rise to incredible scientific knowledge.
Zooming into Malaysia, it also has its local wisdom inherited from the older generation. The traditional Malay house design, for example, fits the climate of Malaysia which is tropical that is often identified as hot and humid due to its position near the Equator.
Therefore, a good housing design is required to allow adequate ventilation to reduce temperature and humidity. Fortunately, the Malay ancestors understood the local climate, resulting in the construction of a climatic control house design. There are various features of the traditional Malay house which is geared toward providing adequate ventilation, as described by Kamarul Syahril Kamal and his co-authors in their publication entitled “Climatic design of the traditional Malay house to meet the requirements of modern living“.
Another feature of the traditional Malay house is leaving gaps between overlapping roof eaves. This feature allows air travel across the gaps, resulting in natural ventilation and reducing hot temperatures. The hot temperatures are further reduced by designing large and wide overhang roof eaves. This design protects windows from direct solar radiation and heavy rain from entering the house.
Besides that, the large overhang roof and low window designs also reduce the unwanted glare from open skies and neighbouring houses. The Malay culture that emphasises modesty, shyness and privacy is likely to influence this design. Overall, even though it is not directly understood how Malay ancestors conducted R&D to develop the design, it proves that they possess local wisdom in this matter that matches their environmental, cultural, and lifestyle needs.
In a nutshell, every community and civilisation develops its local wisdom based on its understanding of the surrounding environment. Some local wisdom turn into valuable inventions or early scientific discoveries that are valuable for the next generation’s advancement. Above all, local wisdom is a symbol of the cultural identity of a particular community. Therefore, science learning should incorporate the elements of local wisdom in order to preserve the local and cultural identity.