“There is danger in rushing to a final and definitive answer on whether Māori knowledge is a science.” — Georgina Tuari Stewart (Photo supplied)

Debate about “Māori science” is often split between the claim that mātauranga Māori is a traditional indigenous form of science — and vehement opposition to that claim.

It’s a debate that is more than simply academic jostling — the idea of “Maōri science” increasingly has real-world application in Aotearoa, especially in teaching.

Here’s Georgina Tuari Stewart writing about why the arguments on either side aren’t clear-cut.


I’d like to tackle the question of whether there’s such a thing as “Māori science”.

It’s a theoretical question but it is one that has ongoing real-world significance to national science funding and education.

To consider my answer, I draw on my more than 25 years of experience in teaching intermediate and secondary Pūtaiao — which is the Māori word for “science”, and is capitalised when referring to the Māori-medium school subject.

My teaching experience has showed me that the apparently simple question of whether “Māori science” exists is extremely complex, and requires consideration on many levels, including theories of knowledge, philosophy, culture, identity, technology and politics.

However, I do think it’s possible to provide a balanced synopsis of the arguments for and against the concept of Māori science in hopes of making a useful contribution to the current discussions.

One clear view which exists is that, yes, mātauranga Māori is a traditional indigenous form of science from Aotearoa. The other dominant response is a firm “no”, from those who regard it as nonsense, and part of the growth to dangerous levels of anti-science attitudes in society. Claims are made on both sides that the opposition’s views are blinded by politics or privilege.

This debate is a specific instance of a larger philosophical debate between universalism and relativism, but the Māori science discussion is not purely academic. It can have real effects, for example, in the work of school science teachers who are increasingly held personally responsible for the achievement of their Māori students under current policies. Similar policies are also being taken up for tertiary-level science teaching.

In 1993, when I first started teaching intermediate and secondary Pūtaiao, I was devising the curriculum and accompanying lexicon as I went. Te reo Māori was the primary language of the classroom, but I had to plan all the content: topics, texts and activities, and above all, describe an underpinning model of the subject that made sense both in Māori terms and in science terms.

It was clear in my planning that the question of whether Māori knowledge is a science was important. But the idea of Māori science has traditionally been of little relevance as perceived by scientists themselves. In this sense, the Māori science debate is notable for the disjunction between its large theoretical heft and its tiny base of practical and perceived importance.

Central to its theoretical importance is the prior difficulty of succinctly but adequately defining science. Much literature on multicultural-science education, including most papers on the “Māori science” question, falls into the trap created by this difficulty.

For example, in response to the argument that traditional knowledge of sustainable living techniques enabled Māori ancestors to thrive, the standard disciplinary philosophy of science would say those things are about technology, not science.

The same point of view would also argue that the accurate and detailed Māori observation of natural phenomena is an inadequate concept of science, because it’s merely “nature study”.

Nevertheless, both these examples have some merit, and are often rehearsed as arguments in favour of the concept of “Māori science”.

So, let’s summarise the key arguments, distilled from my years of research into Pūtaiao, that are made for the case that mātauranga Māori does count as science.

  1. Traditional knowledge enabled Māori ancestors to live and flourish in harmony with the natural world in Aotearoa, employing sustainable technologies such as kūmara pits and harakeke fishing nets and lines.
  2. Many items of traditional Māori knowledge are based on accurate, detailed observations of macroscopic natural phenomena (plants, animals, astronomical patterns, and so on), capable of generating data of scientific validity and interest.
  3. The cosmogenic Māori nature narratives work together as an overarching paradigm of knowledge, replacing in that role the science framework of theories and commitments that underpins the modern/western worldview.
  4. Māori knowledge is not necessarily restricted to the three-dimensional reality of the laws of physics, and therefore may have access to wisdom that western science has disallowed within its canon.
  5. The original meaning of the word “science” comes from the Latin word meaning “knowledge”, so on grounds of epistemic fairness, mātauranga Māori deserves to be recognised as valid knowledge, that is, as a form of science in its own right.
  6. Mātauranga Māori can also be understood as a critical Māori viewpoint on science and its applications in society in Aotearoa New Zealand — for example, as a Māori critique of scientific racism and justifications for colonising damage done to Māori people, culture, and environments.
  7. Mātauranga Māori sometimes seems to know more than science about very complex phenomena, such as the essential nature of a human being, or the mysteries of reality. For instance, mātauranga Māori has values and metaphors that can provide fresh views on epistemology, or philosophical questions of knowledge.

The objections to the first two reasons for “Māori science” have already been noted.

Arguments based on the wider paradigm of Māori knowledge, as in 3 and 4, are less  common, and most scientists reject them by saying any system of knowledge that doesn’t adhere to the key science theories and philosophical commitments is, by definition, not science.

The remaining reasons given in favour of the concept of “Māori science” are more complex. To argue that “Māori knowledge” is a science changes the meaning of “science”. It begs the answer: “It depends on what is meant by the word ‘science’.”

If any recognisable form of knowledge is a science, then yes, so is mātauranga Māori.

And if we consider the anthropological sense of a body of natural knowledge fit to cross oceans and sustain the life of an identifiable human culture, then perhaps Māori knowledge does deserve to be considered a “science”.

Let’s turn now to the argument for mātauranga Māori as functioning as a critical viewpoint on science and its applications in Aotearoa. This argument tends to get entangled with nationalistic myths and deliberate philosophical attacks on Māori knowledge, embedded in a belief that scientific knowledge holds “the truth” about Māori and about the national history of the country.

When mātauranga Māori is used to critique scientific racism and the justifications for colonising damage done to Māori people, culture and environments, it often becomes a discussion about national identity and what it means to be from Aotearoa New Zealand.

The final argument — that mātauranga Māori sometimes seems to know more than science about very complex phenomena — works better as an argument in favour of “Māori philosophy” rather than “Māori science”. All knowledge, including science, is based on a philosophy of knowledge, but the two words, “science” and “philosophy”, have different meanings, so the concept of “Māori philosophy” does not imply that there must be “Māori science” apart from in the restricted senses noted above.

Now let’s look at the case against “Māori science”, where the arguments tend to group as follows:

  1. The laws of science apply equally, at all times, in all places, to all human beings. In other words, science is based on universalism (or universalist philosophical commitments).
  2. Resulting from the above point, science is an acultural (or transcultural) form of knowledge, so to place a cultural modifier, such as Māori, before the word science is incoherent and makes no sense.
  3. Science knowledge is based on empirical experimentation and testing using well-established methodological norms (the scientific method). That is, science tests itself against empirical reality.
  4. Science knowledge has well-defined criteria and a vast archive of experience that ensure it adheres to the highest epistemic standards and is the “best” possible knowledge about reality available to humans.
  5. Science knowledge is subject to ongoing revision as empirical knowledge advances. In other words, science is fallible knowledge that changes over time in ways that orthodoxy or faith-based knowledge does not.
  6. Scientific research is subject to the scrutiny of a community of peers, and this community ultimately decides the current status of scientific knowledge on any topic.
  7. Science enabled the rapid advances in human knowledge and its applications that characterised the post-Enlightenment rise of modern European culture across all facets of human endeavour, to a previously unprecedented size, level of sophistication, and global dominance.

The first point to consider when thinking about the arguments above, is that, while the criteria of science and laws of nature may be universal, there is a very large gap between epistemic ideals and the way science plays out in society.

As a human product, science is subject to human failings and weaknesses, including the deep influences of non-scientific ideas such as sexist or racist ideas. Nor is there any reason to think scientists should be any more immune than the general public to the subtle curricula of colonisation. The lack of recognition that renders those invisible also renders them powerful.

For example, the colonisation of Aotearoa was carried out under the banner of a now outdated form of science, which included ideas such as the “Family of Man” in which Māori people were considered less evolved and hence biologically inferior to British, or white, people. Darwin’s then-new theory of evolution was famously mis-applied to humans to argue that Māori as the “inferior race” would naturally die out.

The term “Māori science” can therefore be used with irony to critique the term “western science”. This terminological comparison highlights the fact that science is, essentially, a western form of knowledge. It’s a cultural term — and it’s local in the same sense as “Māori”, and not universal at all. However, the unmarked word science continues to mean or imply “western science”, and terms such as “Māori science” are useful provocations of this unmarked meaning and its implications.

Reasons 3, 4, 5 and 6 against “Māori science” are more a matter of degree than of kind, as these components all appear in mātauranga Māori systems and practice, and so they don’t provide robust grounds for arguing that science is completely different from Māori knowledge. The argument about scientific method is outdated. It’s a relic found mainly in school textbooks.

Reason 7 about the power of science and its applications is undeniably true, but heavily loaded, since it’s now impossible to read such a statement without awareness of the catastrophe about to engulf humanity that has grown like a cancer from that power — and made possible by what is described as western philosophical blindness to the degree to which science has become enslaved to wealth.

So, the short answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Māori science is therefore: “It depends.” It depends on what is meant by science, and it depends on the purpose for asking the question.

That also means we can’t give an answer which is an unqualified “yes”. It is not the case, for example, that there’s a base of traditional Māori knowledge that can replace the standard school science curriculum — or at least, not with the same outcomes that mean “success” in the current system. The idea that scientific data can be swapped for oral texts and so forth is clearly ridiculous.

So how are we to understand the two systems and how they may relate to each other?

In 1993, when I was putting together ways to teach Pūtaiao, I began from the traditional accounts of Rangi and Papa and their many children, including Tāne, Tangaroa, Tāwhirimātea and so on, who act as guardians and metaphors for knowledge of the different elements and domains of the natural world.

Since Māori knowledge includes these gods, and knowledge of spiritual realms, while science doesn’t, I drew a diagram in which mātauranga Māori is a large circle, and science is a smaller circle inside it.

This differs from the more typical Venn diagram model with two intersecting circles used to show the overlap between science and Māori knowledge.

The benefit of my “superset” model of the relationship between science and mātauranga Māori is that it makes all of science, not only in some domains such as ecology, relevant to Māori and Māori school students.

The other benefit is that it allows us to sharpen rather than usurp ideas about the accepted foundations and canons of science knowledge, while remaining critically aware of science’s past, and its current enslavement to power, money, and social privilege.

Without such a perspective, the question of “Māori science” remains a political football in which the uninformed nature of debate tends to entrench rather than overcome oppositional attitudes on either side.

Meanwhile, the implications of the question for science education continue to grow in urgency, as classroom teachers are being held increasingly responsible for Māori student achievement, and education policy seems trapped in the unproven belief that “adding Māori knowledge” to the curriculum is the answer to long-standing Māori lack of achievement, which is particularly severe in science.

These pressures add to a growing base of support, even among English-medium schools and teachers, for the dubious value of translating science into te reo Māori.

Science translated into te reo Māori has become synonymous with Pūtaiao at the expense of any notion of “Māori science” as a different form of knowledge, with a different philosophical basis. This reduction of Pūtaiao to effectively being science that is taught only in reo Māori supports a call for teaching Māori philosophy rather than “Māori science”.

Public science funding is the second main site — or real-world context — of the Māori science debate, dating back to a major report in the mid-1990s on the interface between science and mātauranga Māori, as part of the restructuring of public science management and funding. The neoliberal reform process stimulated a round of academic debate on the question of Māori science, and I read these papers as part of the writing group for the first Pūtaiao curriculum document.

Since 2005, the Vision Mātauranga policy has guided inclusion of Māori knowledge in research, but scientists still seem unsure about how it applies to their work. There is ongoing discussion about including Māori knowledge in university research and teaching.

I think it’s more helpful to look at the question of Māori science as a tangle of semantic, philosophical and political arguments, rather than a simple yes-or-no question. It’s a specialised form of the wider debate about the nature of science.

So, whether Māori knowledge “counts” as science is more of a provocation than a research question to be answered. It has no simple or correct answer, as the right answer depends on what is meant by science, and the purpose of the question.

Perhaps the best way to regard Māori science is as a conundrum: the two words represent incommensurable forms of knowledge that can’t be measured or compared by the same standard. This disjunction is an opportunity for learning, and it’s of particular importance to the self-knowledge of science and research in the national academy of Aotearoa New Zealand.

There is danger in rushing to a final and definitive answer on whether Māori knowledge is a science, which could altogether miss the educational opportunity and gift presented by the provocative concept of “Māori science”.


Georgina Tuari Stewart is Professor of Māori Philosophy of Education in Te Ara Poutama/Faculty of Māori Studies, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), and is of the peoples of Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu and Ngāti Maru. Georgina first qualified and worked in science research, and later trained as a teacher. She is one of the few Māori-speaking qualified teachers of science and mathematics. That work led her to doctoral studies at University of Waikato, in turn leading to her current academic and research career.

Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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