Antarctic ice samples, which were claimed to reveal remnants of 700 years of land-burning practices in New Zealand/Aotearoa, have touched off a pointed debate about the need for diversity in scientific research teams.
The researchers in this case, led by Joseph McConnell from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), based in the US, found black carbon in six Antarctic ice cores from James Ross Island on the Antarctic Peninsula. Carbon levels began increasing in the 1300s and tripled over 700 years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The researchers determined that the black carbon most likely came from New Zealand/Aotearoa, because the increased carbon coincided with the arrival of Māori people to the archipelago and subsequent forest burnings.
“The idea that humans at this time in history caused such a significant change in atmospheric black carbon through their land clearing activities is quite surprising,” says McConnell.
“We used to think that if you went back a few hundred years you’d be looking at a pristine, pre-industrial world, but it’s clear from this study that humans have been impacting the environment over the Southern Ocean and the Antarctica Peninsula for at least the last 700 years.”
The authors say that the finding challenges assumptions about when people started to influence climate change.
“Compared to natural burning in places like the Amazon, or Southern Africa, or Australia, you wouldn’t expect Māori burning in New Zealand to have a big impact, but it does over the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Nathan Chellman from the DRI.
However, experts from New Zealand/Aotearoa disagree that this is a significant or previously unknown conclusion, especially because cultural knowledge and consultation was absent from the study, published in Nature.
“It is scientifically spectacular to see an analysis of Antarctic ice cores show fire patterns in Aotearoa over the last millennia so clearly,” says Priscilla Wehi from the Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence in Complex Systems. “The topic is fascinating, but does it miss what we already know in our research community?
“The work led me to reflect on diversity and inclusion in science. The authors, based across northern America, Europe and Australia, also apparently lack New Zealand collaboration despite the central topic of Māori burning and fire use.
“‘Helicopter science’, where research is led and conducted by those who live and work far from the subject of their work, is currently under scrutiny in the research community. An important critique is that this approach is likely to miss important insights.”
Cultural knowledge is not the “unknown”
Beyond chemical analyses, this story raises an important question: is the science one-sided?
Practitioners of science have a well-documented history of being culturally insular, often dismissing other cultural knowledge, practices and history in favour of what is perceived as “objective” evidence.
However, this can lead to an unintentional bias where greater contextual evidence is left out.
“The principle of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, is a mantle of responsibility for us and one we willingly share to improve the wellbeing of our oceans and planet. Please do not distort your scientific evidence to position Māori as the problem. I am sure that you can do better than that,” says Sandy Morrison, acting dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato.
The conclusions about Māori fire practices explained in the article do not accurately reflect the cultural relationship to both fire and nature, Morrison claims.
“The association of Māori with fire is longstanding,” explains Morrison
“Mahuika, goddess of fire, gifted her fingernails of flames to enable us to have fire for warmth; fire for sustenance; fire to provide nutrients for the earth. We attribute and honour Mahuika. She is part of our whakapapa (genealogy).
“Burning became part of our practices; regular burning allowed plants to regenerate and some of the minerals in the ash provided rich nutrients for the land. Regular burning facilitated hunting and access to hunting grounds.”
Beyond this, the study doesn’t contextualise the history of Māori settlement locally or globally.
“The Antarctic-New Zealand connection was made by comparing the ice core record to a charcoal record from a lake sediment core in New Zealand which is indicative of local biomass burning,” says Holly Winton from the Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington.
“While the magnitude of black carbon change is evident in both records from the 13th century until today, the trend is not. Ice core black carbon peaks in the 16th and 17th century. At the same time, the New Zealand charcoal record declines.
“This disparity leaves me wondering about additional black carbon sources from Australia and Patagonia during this time, changes in the hydrological cycle, or changes in the transport processes that drive the variability in the ice core black carbon record.”
Without this extra historical and cultural knowledge, the conclusion is not only tenuous, but may even come across as patronising.
“The internationally-authored paper by scientists who examined Antarctic ice core records to find that carbon emissions increased significantly from wildfires after Māori first arrived in Aotearoa is devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings, and is yet another example of what we have grown to expect from western science,” says Morrison.
This all comes back to a central need within the scientific community: diversity.
“A swathe of research tells us that diverse teams create excellent science, and there is gender variation in the author list. Other research has visualised citation and collaboration patterns in science and concluded that research from Australasia and the ‘global south’ is often missing from the work of our European and North American colleagues,” says Wehi.
“Issues that have already been researched locally – from dust transport to Antarctica through to population estimates of Māori settlement – are often identified by local collaborators who, one hopes, have additionally been building the next generation of researchers in the nation where the focus of the research is situated.
“All of this leads me to return to this paper, which I found fascinating, and ask, how much better could this have been were it more inclusive in its approach?”
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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