Image analysis of African rock art creates a unique opportunity to engage in
authentic explorations of science and culture using rock art images as data.
African rock art and its context provide insights into the intersection of science,
scientific research, research ethics, intellectual property, law, government,
economy, indigenous people, and crime. This article specifically considers the
rock art and other cultural contributions of the San people of Southern Africa,
which offer a rich interdisciplinary exploration of biology—including the
climate and weather of biomes, plant biology, human physiology, and more. An
understanding of the nature of science, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary
core ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is implicated.
Key Words: Nature of science; NGSS; culture; society; authentic exploration;
climate; data; interdisciplinary; bioethics; culturally relevant science.
When we study human ecology in any typical biology text, distinctions
are often made between rich versus poor nations with regard to their
population growth and so on. We might also learn about drastic
events, such as drought or fire, that can lead to large ecological shifts.
However, we do not often examine the successful adaptations of poor
and indigenous peoples to changes in climate or to extreme conditions,
which have allowed them to persist and grow in numbers over thousands of years. And only by including historical context, for example,
do we see that drastic decreases in the populations of many indigenous
groups occurred only after colonization.
Just as recent generations have adaped to a growing technolog-
Impact of Climate on People & on
ical world, so have people native to environments successfully
adapted to changes in climate. In human ecology, the adaptations
of indigenous peoples are typically not studied from a position of
strength, to understand how they have persisted without the exten-
sive resources that we now have. Moreover, in studying the nature
of science, we often don’t see all that scientists have learned from
indigenous peoples – knowledge that has allowed us to adapt in a tech-
nological world. We can assume that indigenous peoples are as attuned
to their natural environments as technological generations are to tech-
nology. This raises many interesting questions. For example, how did
the peoples of Africa sustain themselves in areas with little rainfall or
vegetation? What were their adaptations? What do they know? What
can we learn from them? Indeed, these questions have interested scien-
tists over the years; while we may learn the outcomes of their studies in
light of the benefits to Western science, the insights gained from indig-
enous peoples – particularly those of African origin or of Black African
heritage – and their implications for the nature of science are not made
explicit. This article attempts to make explicit the contributions of
indigenous peoples to science – specifically, what we can learn and
have learned about science, climate, and the nature of science from
the indigenous San groups of Africa.
In describing the changes to the Sahara over time, archaeologist Michael
S. Bisson (1997) also describes the habitation of the region. His description gives us useful information on the region’s biomes, allowing us to
see that the climatic conditions of the Sahara influence not only the types
of vegetation and animal life found there, but also people’s adaptations to
that environment. As the climate of the region changed, so did the adaptations and the niches of the people vary – from herding, hunting, and
fishing to various shifts in agriculture and in the types of animals that
were domesticated. For example, adaptations are seen in the tools and
technology created for hunting and fishing and in the pottery created
for cooking or storing cereal grains (Bisson, 1997). Figure 1 summarizes
changes in the biome, niches, and habitats described by Bisson (1997),
with implications for the impact of climate on ecosystems and interactions with the environment.
If we compare the maps in Christopher Ehret’s (2002) The Civilizations of Africa that depict changes in climate and vegetation over
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 1, pp. 40–46, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.1.40.
An Interdisciplinary Investigation of
African Rock Art Images to Learn
about Science & Culture: Blending
Biology, Geology, History & Ethics
• CATHERINE L. QUINLAN