Traditional calendars

Image from: Chambers et al., 2021.

Numerous traditional calendars exist globally (World Heritage Centre, 2014), with many Indigenous people looking to the sky and stars or using changes in their environment to mark the passing of time. Within Te Moananui Oceania, traditional calendar systems exhibit particular diversity. This reflects the range of environmental conditions, climate and organisms experienced throughout Te Moananui Oceania (Kelso et al., 2023). Many Moananui Oceanic traditional calendars likely share an origin in the Lapita culture, and its appearance in ‘Melanesia’ roughly 3000 years ago (Goto, 2022). Today traditional calendars in Te Moananui Oceania, and their associated markers and meanings can vary considerably within surprisingly small geographic areas such as between coastal and inland peoples (Roberts et al., 2006), from island to island or even between neighbouring villages (Chambers et al., 2021; Goto, 2022; Kelso et al., 2023). There is a growing understanding of the need to revitalise and preserve traditional calendars, and their importance for climate science, conservation, and environmental management (Avia, 2021).

Traditional calendars (sometimes also called seasonal calendars or ecological calendars) are a form of traditional ecological knowledge. Indigenous people throughout Te Moananui Oceania follow systems for marking the passage of time, with specific names for periods that relate to seasonal change, climate signals and weather patterns (e.g. trade winds or monsoons), the movement of the stars, sun, moon and other celestial objects, and the natural cycles of organisms in the environment (e.g. the flowering and fruiting of plants, or the migration and appearance animals). These are unlike the calendar used in most parts of the world today (the Gregorian calendar) which relies on a calculated schedule of days and months, and which is recorded in a physical manner on a table of numbered days. Traditional calanders are complex and accurate methods of recognising seasonality and natural cycles that respond to the specific local environment and culture from which they originate. Using traditional calendars, Te Moananui Oceanic people can predict and plan for future events, and recall specific events in the past (Goto, 2022). 

Traditional calendars are used widely for food and resource procurement, dictating the activities that should occur on certain days (World Heritage Centre, 2014). They are also used by some Te Moananui Oceanic cultures as the basis for ceremonial and ritual timings (Mondragón, 2004; World Heritage Centre, 2014), to signal or forecast weather (Lefale, 2010), to plan and aid oceanic navigation (Avia, 2021), and to ensure sustainability of resources through customary practices as a form of customary resource management (Roberts et al., 2006; UNESCO Office Apia & ICHCAP, 2013).

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Name of NbS

Traditional calendars

Type of NbS

Management / social / political; Ecosystem Restoration; Ecosystem protection

Location

 

  • Urban
  • Periurban
  • Rural

Case Study

Maramataka

Matariki (Pelaides) star cluster. The rising of matariki in the northeast signals the beginning of the Māori new year and the completion of the cycle of the Maramataka. Matariki is celebrated in Aotearoa New Zealand and is marked by a public holiday. Photo by Stephen Rahn

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is embedded in the meanings and associated activities contained in traditional calendars. These represent generations of accumulated knowledge about place-specific environmental conditions.

The astronomical knowledge of early Te Moananui Oceanic cultures, and their use of the sky for navigation served as the basis for an Indigenous astronomic calendar (Goto, 2022). As cultures spread and diverged throughout Te Moananui Oceania, so did their calendar systems. Each culture adapted the calendar to the specific climatic, weather, ecological and celestial conditions, and the plant and animal species of their place of settlement.

Rather than solely being systems of marking the passing of time, traditional calendars are complex Indigenous knowledge containers. Reflecting the subsistence lifestyle lived by many Moananui Oceanic people pre-colonisation, traditional calendars are entwined with traditional ecological knowledge of food and resource gathering. They can provide cues for agriculture and fishing activities, such as planting and harvesting times, the arrival of a species, or of favourable fishing periods (Goto, 2022; Harris et al., 2013). Traditional calendars also dictate cultural and spiritual activities, such as ceremonies and times to feast (Lefale, 2010; UNESCO Office Apia & ICHCAP, 2013).

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Climate change benefits
  • Changes in phenology
  • Loss of food production

Traditional calendars are affected by climate change. Equally, their basis in the natural world and reliance on environmental cues means traditional calendars are important solutions to understanding and adapting to climate change. Many of the markers of traditional calendars rely on species to predict changing seasons. As seasonal distinctions shift or diminish (Chambers et al., 2021) the phenology (natural cycles) of those species also shift, making traditional calendars invaluable in their ability to predict, observe and communicate climate change (Chambers et al., 2021; Kassam & Bernardo, 2022). Incorporating knowledge about planting times, resource availability, and sustainable agricultural practices, traditional calendars can dictate customary practices that ensure resource sustainability such as seasonal harvest closures (Roberts et al., 2006). By aligning planting and harvesting activities with natural cues in the environment, traditional calendars enhance food production and resilience in the face of climate-change related events. 

The process of climate change means that species may migrate to or from an area, or may flower and fruit at different times (Balick & Plunkett, 2023). Although these changes may affect the basis of traditional calendars, the nature of these calendars means they can be adapted as the environment changes. This can be understood in the way traditional calendars historically proliferated throughout Te Moananui Oceania and adapted to each unique locality in the region (Goto, 2022). Traditional calendars in Moananui Oceanic cultures show deep understandings of local ecosystems and seasonal patterns, allowing communities to understand and adapt to changes in climate and weather systems. Intimate and ancient knowledge of weather and climate, and their relationship to ecology is an important factor in observing, communicating, and adapting to climate change (Chambers et al., 2021; Lefale, 2010).

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Food security and quality
  • Rights / empowerment / equality / tino rangatiratanga

Informed by the observation of natural cycles, traditional calendars in Te Moananui Oceanic cultures ensure that human activities align with the reproductive and migration patterns of various species (Kelso et al., 2023). Aligning resource use with ecological events contributes to the preservation of biodiversity through recognition and adherence to natural cycles. Traditional ecological knowledge embedded in traditional calendars encourages sustainable harvesting practices, reducing the risk of overexploitation of a particular resource or ecosystem (Goto, 2022).

By guiding agricultural practices and fishing activities, traditional calendars provide sustainable harvests, ensure a diverse diet, and contribute to food security (Roberts et al., 2006). The meanings contained in the oral traditions associated with traditional calendars provide insight into the best times for planting, harvesting, and fishing, which allows an intrinsic kind of resource allocation while minimising environmental impact. 

Traditional calendars in Te Moananui Oceania often hold cultural significance (Goto, 2022; Lefale, 2010; Mondragón, 2004), contributing to the preservation and communication of intergenerational knowledge. The cultural practices associated with these calendars also contain distinct cultural information that might otherwise be lost. Traditional calendars help connect people to the environment and understand, climate, and seasonal change (Mondragón, 2004; Warbrick et al., 2023). They reflect unique cultural practices and traditions throughout Te Moananui Oceania, also contributing to the preservation of history and identity (UNESCO Office Apia & ICHCAP, 2013). Activities associated with traditional calendars can create a sense of pride and empowerment for Indigenous communities. Revitalisation of cultural practices such as customary resource management increase cultural cohesion and develop a sense of sovereignty. Traditional calendars are closely tied to cultural heritage, preserving cultural knowledge, and increasing its recognition (Harris et al., 2013; Mondragón, 2004; UNESCO Office Apia & ICHCAP, 2013; World Heritage Centre, 2014).

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Provision of raw materials
  • Food production (for humans)
  • Species maintenance
  • Biological control

Traditional calendars help identify the appropriate time to harvest resources including timber, fibre, food, and medicines. Harvesting in association with seasonal and environmental cues helps ensure sustainable use of resources (Avia, 2021; UNESCO Office Apia & ICHCAP, 2013). Traditional calendars also provide guidance on when to plant, harvest and consume different food sources (Mondragón, 2004; Orchiston, 2000). By integrating knowledge of phenology and ecology, traditional calendars also maintain the balance of ecosystems and support the maintenance of species (Chambers et al., 2021; Kassam & Bernardo, 2022). Traditional calendars have implications for the monitoring and management of pests and diseases and play a role in ensuring the health of ecosystems and food production (Kassam & Bernardo, 2022; Lefale, 2010; Roberts et al., 2006).

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Image from: Chambers et al., 2021.

Technical requirements

Traditional calendars are based on local, context-specific traditional ecological knowledge generated by people who have inhabited an ecosystem for generations (Avia, 2021). Colonisation, westernisation, and modernisation have led to the loss of traditional knowledge in some places, including traditional calendars (Harris et al., 2013; Mondragón, 2004; Orchiston, 2000). Often traditional calendars and western style legislation and conservation efforts clash.

Ancestral knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge systems like traditional calendars are difficult to define in specificity. They are wide-reaching, diverse and are as intrinsic in culture generally alongside day-to-day life for many Te Moananui Oceanic people (Goto, 2022). They are a precious, sensitive knowledge in Te Moananui Oceania, and care must be taken when researching, recording, and incorporating these knowledge systems into other ways of thinking about and working with the environment (Lefale, 2010). It is important that they are treasured and maintained by the Indigenous people to which they belong.

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Issues and Barriers

There are several issues and barriers to traditional calendars today in Te Moananui Oceania. The most urgent issue is that the transmission of knowledge between generations no longer occurs in the same way. Oral traditions containing ancestral knowledge are diminishing as young people become less connected to their local environment, or move to urban settings (Chambers et al., 2021). The pressure of Western time systems (like the Gregorian calendar) has also led to the decline of traditional calendars.

As climate change affects climate and weather patterns in Te Moananui Oceania, seasonal distinctions are becoming more difficult to identify (Lefale, 2010). The potential loss or migration of indicator species increases the risk to traditional calendars, and the subsequent inability to mark the changing of seasons. (Chambers et al., 2021). 

Indigenous calendars in Te Moanaui Oceania remain under-researched and there are gaps or a lack of understanding of these calendars. The nuanced or informal manner in which information is presented can be a barrier to researchers not accustomed to this manner of information transfer (Lefale, 2010). Traditional calendars must be preserved, promoted, and used to ensure the continuity of this form of Indigenous knowledge.

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Opportunities

There are numerous opportunities and benefits to utilising traditional calendars in Te Moananui Oceania. Traditional calendars can enhance environmental resilience, social cohesion, food security and provide a means for the regeneration of ancestral knowledge. Traditional calendars are full of information about seasonal cycles and communities’ relationships to the natural environment that may be useful in developing adaptation strategies and early warning codes (Chambers et al., 2021). Traditional calendars can be used to document and recall past events, and therefore are an important tool for understanding climate variability over time (Lefale, 2010).

The preservation of traditional calendars in Te Moananui Oceania is occurring through multiple initiatives, including their use for climate education and awareness (Chambers et al., 2021; Kassam et al., 2018; Lefale, 2010). Traditional calendars also continue to have relevance to environmental management in Te Moananui Oceania, and the renewal of interest in customary practices for conservation and ecosystem regeneration is promising (Avia, 2021; Warbrick et al., 2023).

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