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Indigenous Peoples preserved


Combining different disciplines, Leiden University researchers work together to formulate innovative solutions to societal problems. Below is an example from the field of societies around the world.

Overview research dossiers


Preserving a unique knowledge of life

Indigenous Peoples possess rich worldviews and unique knowledge that form part of our global heritage. Oppressing these peoples and violating their natural environment is leading to the destruction of this knowledge. Leiden researchers aim to counter this through collaborating with Indigenous Peoples from Central and South America, Africa and Asia and bringing their rights to the attention of national and international policy makers.

<p>Artisans of the Huichol-people in Mexico (photo: Wikipedia)</p>

Artisans of the Huichol-people in Mexico (photo: Wikipedia)

Approximately 400 million people worldwide are members of an indigenous community. The influence of the Western world on Indigenous Peoples is greatly underestimated and the complexities of the current situation are little understood. On the one hand, there is the violation of their territory and their heritage by primarily Western transnational companies. Logging, mining and the construction of hydroelectric plants are destroying cultural heritage (sometimes visibly so). On the other hand, as a result of Western colonialism, indigenous people often lack basic rights that are considered normal in the West, such as the right to self-determination and education in their own language. For centuries, countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, England and France extracted commodities from countries on other continents, oppressed the local populations and forced on them their own language, religion and culture. They also took posession of these people’s tangible cultural heritage. For instance, every single example of pre-colonial Mexican pictorial writing, with the exception of half a book, is to be found in a European collection: in many cases, the indigenous people themselves do not even remember that these books exist.

A thousand indigenous languages about to disappear

Colonialism also had a direct impact on the current status of Indigenous Peoples in their own countries. They form a minority and are often the victims of governmental policies that fail to take their interests into account. This is most clearly apparent in indigenous languages that are neither taught nor studied in their country of origin. Here is what Professor of Archaeology Maarten Jansen has to say about it: ‘Of the more than 7,000 languages existing in the world today, around five to six thousand will disappear in the next hundred years. This is not an overly pessimistic estimation, but rather a certainty: the younger generations no longer speak these languages and will therefore not be able to pass them on. The flower has already been ripped from the stalk.’

With the destruction of heritage and the disappearance of these languages, we are losing insights into life and ethics, as well as knowledge about topics such as healthcare and nature. Jansen: ‘Ultimately, everything is our common heritage. When we ignore the knowledge and philosofy of other cultures, it is our own heritage we are destroying.’

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In collaboration with experts in law and humanities, Leiden archaeologists are striving to put a stop to this destruction. This means first of all drawing attention to the rights of indigenous people. These researchers’ work is therefore closely linked to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). They are working to expand the implementation of this declaration, to preserve the knowledge of indigenous people, and to protect their languages, rights and heritage. They are doing this in collaboration with the Indigenous Peoples themselves. Several Leiden researchers are themselves members of indigenous communities.

Leiden University hosts Europe’s leading research centre in the field of Indigenous Peoples. The European Union has awarded the University a number of research grants that together represent €20 million of research capacity allocated to archaeology, languages and cultures of Middle and South America.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In 2007, a number of countries signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In collaboration with academics and activists in the field, Leiden researchers help to bring these agreements to life.

They are mapping indigenous languages for educational purposes and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples by entering into dialogue with policy makers and transnational companies.

Interpreting the spiritual connection

The signing of the UN declaration does not mean that all the problems facing Indigenous Peoples have now been resolved. ‘This document contains many terms that mean completely different things to the various parties concerned,’ explains Professor Maarten Jansen; he was himself involved in developing the declaration. ‘For example: one of the articles in the treaty states that Indigenous Peoples 

The Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples helps peoples such as the Huitol in Mexico. They have been able to bring attention to mining activities in one of their holy places, Wirikuta.

have a right to create a “spiritual connection” with the area they inhabit. From a Western perspective, this is a rather non-binding article since it’s unclear what “spiritual connection” actually means. For Indigenous Peoples, on the other hand, “spiritual connection” means a promise that no mining activities or other destructive activities will take place in the area in question, and that respect will be shown for the way in which Indigenous People inhabit this area.’ This is the kind of difference in interpretation that policy makers are often unaware of.

Thousands of undescribed languages

A second element of the UN declaration in which researchers have an important role to play is the article stating that Indigenous Peoples have a right to education in their own language. This is easier said than done. Jansen: ‘We are talking about thousands of languages that have been insufficiently described, for which we have no dictionary or grammar, no written records of oral literature. You cannot simply go to a village and say to the local teacher: teach the language. It requires incredible effort on the part of researchers to document even one such language. I myself am currently involved in a project to create a contextual dictionary of Mixtec (which provides sentences for the registered Mixtec words). This project has been going on for more than ten years.’

‘Furthermore, in order to learn words you need an alphabet. Then you have to ask yourself: Where do words begin? Where do they end? Words come with different prefixes, suffixes, plural changes etc. There are tonal languages in which the meaning of a word changes with a change in pitch. This is a phenomenon we do not have in our own writing. How do you handle this kind of element? It all requires an incredible investment of time and resources.’

Conflicts with transnational companies

Leiden researchers are also defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in conflicts with transnational companies. Jansen: ‘Indigenous Peoples, the poorest people in their own country and the poorest in developing countries generally, are the victims of exploitation because they literally live on top of gold mines. Transnational companies earn fortunes in these mines. The situation poses a real challenge to the academic community: How can we contribute to improving this situation? Collaboration between archaeologists, anthropologists, legal experts and linguists can help to make the law more accessible to Indigenous Peoples. Leiden University is doing its utmost to facilitate these kinds of contacts through conferences on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for experts from across the world.’

Leiden researchers also have other opportunities for coming into direct contact with policy makers. For example, last year, Maarten Jansen attended the permanent forum on the rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN headquarters in New York. ‘Policy makers are often advised by researchers, such as anthropologists, who are hired by governments. Especially if the setting is informal, these are great opportunities for exchanging ideas with these researchers.’ Leiden University lecturer Manuel May Castillo, a Maya himself and an expert on Mayan cultural heritage, is in contact with legal experts to try and influence local Mexican policies on the preservation of cultural heritage.


All these efforts are effective on a modest scale. Jansen: ‘Indigenous Peoples use the Declaration (as well as a comparable document, Convention 169, created by the International Labour Organisation) in their negotiations with transnational mining companies and local authorities. In this way, the Huichol people in Mexico have been able to bring attention to mining activities in one of their sacred places, Wirikuta. In addition, governments seem now to at least be open to dialogue on these matters. Mixtec is now for instance seen as a language in its own right and not, as was the case thirty years ago, as a dialect. This is a step towards making discussion possible.’
Leiden researcher Eithne Carlin, a specialist in the peoples of the Amazon, also sees a shift in the attitude of policy makers. ‘In Guyana the Ministry of Culture is currently writing its policy on cultural heritage for the coming ten years and has asked researchers for input in formulating this policy. The President of Guyana has also announced that he wants to have educational material for all the indigenous languages of the country.’

Endangered worldviews and heritage

Indigenous Peoples possess unique perspectives of the world that will be lost if their knowledge and heritage are not documented, studied and protected.

If we lose this knowledge, we are losing part of our own heritage.

Pictorial writing on deerskin

Professor Maarten Jansen investigates ancient pictorial writing systems from pre-colonial Mexico. He deciphers these images and tries to uncover the meaning of the accompanying stories and descriptions. In this way, we can find out more about Indigenous Peoples and preserve their heritage. These pictorial writing systems are books made of broad strips of deerskin. Jansen: ‘All pre-colonial books, with the exception of half a book, can be found in European collections. They were brought to Europe starting from the 16th century. They represent the languages, memories and worldviews of the people who created them.’ Jansen works together with native people who still speak these languages (Mixtec, Maya, Aztec) to try to understand these books. The number of native speakers alive today depends on the language, and figures vary greatly. ‘There are sixty different languages in Mexico. Approximately 2 million people speak Aztec. For other languages, the number of native speakers varies from half a million to merely a handful of elderly people.’

Rain god Tlaloc, as depicted in the codex Borgia (photo: Wikipedia)

Rain god Tlaloc, as depicted in the codex Borgia (photo: Wikipedia)

Balance between people and nature

‘Every year on 3 May, indigenous communities move to the caves – the rain god Tlaloc is said to live in a cave – and pray for rain. The books I study contain many similar ways to invoke the God of Rain: these ways are very ancient. I was able to transmit the incantations and customs from these ancient books to local communities. This is very important to them, because these communities continue to be inspired by ancient worldviews and ethics. Their worldview is about the balance between people and nature, and they believe that people should not try to control nature, but rather serve it.’ This worldview also leads to serious

conflicts between ‘indigenous’ and Western perspectives, explains Jansen. ‘Whereas the West sees nature primarily as a source of raw materials and as something to be used, the indigenous perspective sees humans as subordinate to nature. This perspective, this heritage, should at the very least be included in our global discussion on Indigenous Peoples.’

The forest as a worldview

Linguist Eithne Carlin, who studies the languages of the peoples of the Amazon, notes that when a language disappears, unique worldviews also disappear. She documents and describes indigenous languages in order to preserve them for the communities concerned and for the rest of the world. ‘One of the challenges we are facing in this context is that Western languages lack the words or categories for expressing the worldview of Indigenous Peoples. For example, Caribean languages have eleven ways of saying ‘in’, depending on where an object is located: in an open field, in a house, or in the forest. House and forest are both viewed as containers. This is due to how the people in this area perceive their environment. Imagine: when you live in a forest, you live in a kind of well. You don’t see the horizon, and you have a very limited view of your environment. But what you do see is a lot of detail. Every single variation of the leaves on fifty different trees. It’s a completely different way of life. And its wisdom is embodied in the languages.’

Disseminating the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples

Together with members of indigenous communities Leiden researchers preserve and disseminate philosophical, historical and medical knowledge.

Indigenous communities possess a lot of knowledge that is unknown to the outside world. Leiden researchers help them to describe and thus preserve this knowledge. For example, Sada Mire studies, among other things, 5000 years old petroglyphs in the Horn of Africa, in particular Somalia, where she herself grew up. She is the only indigenous archaeologist in the world to be conducting research in this area. Mire visits indigenous communities and asks them about their customs and history. ‘This leads to many new insights, because so far African 

Somali archaeologist Sada Mire in action (CNN documentary)

history and culture have been described almost exclusively from the perspective of the Westerners. I am a woman; I grew up in Somalia and was educated in the West. Thanks to my background, members of indigenous communities tell me other things than they would tell a Western archaeologist.’ I get access to practices, beliefs and sacred uses of material culture, art and landscapes.

Significance of petroglyphs

She also discusses the significance of the petroglyphs that have been discovered with the local communities. ‘These conversations are in and of themselves important for these communities, because they often do not realise that they possess a unique history and heritage. These are some of the poorest people in the world and they are torn apart by war: this knowledge gives them back a sense of pride.’ In addition, conversations about heritage and petroglyphs also raise current problems. ‘A drawing of a giraffe may lead to us talking about the problem of giraffes disappearing from the area, and other related environmental issues. Mire researches medicinal and ritual uses of indigenous plants, which are effected by the droughts. During droughts, like the current one, not only does a lot of indigenous medicinal flora disappear but these pastoral societies are forced to adapt or completely change subsistence economy, and become, for example, fishermen. Unfortunately people often end up moving only to find that the seas are empty as a result of overfishing by illegal international companies.’ Mire shares all these insights and problems with the academic community, the UN, and the Somalian governments. 

People becoming aware of their cultural heritage

She also helps indigenous people to disseminate knowledge about their heritage. ‘In Somaliland, for example, I have started a governmental agency for Archaeology for the Ministry of Tourism. Across the country there are fifty clusters of valuable archaeological sites (some of which qualify for the UNESCO World Heritage list), but many of these sites were largely unknown. I have appointed an administrator for each of these clusters, a person from the indigenous community who is paid for his or her work. Thanks to the work of these administrators, the local communities are becoming aware of their cultural heritage, and some of them have even managed to use them to generate income via tourism. We have also created a website showing all the sites. This website has many visitors, in particular from members of indigenous communities around the country. Because, surprisingly enough, many members of indigenous communities, no matter how poor, do own a smartphone.’

Research poster on the Trio by Eithne Carlin

Research poster on the Trio by Eithne Carlin

The Guianas

Linguist Eithne Carlin offers an example of knowledge development as a result of interviews with indigenous people in the Amazon. ‘Last year a medical encyclopaedia was published, in which anthropologists had asked Indigenous Peoples how words such as ‘heart attack’, ‘belly ache’, etc. were expressed in their languages. I happened to see the list for the Trio, an indigenous people from Suriname and Brazil. ‘It turned out that symptoms, rather than conditions, had been ‘translated’ to Western terms such as ‘heart attack’. On the medical cards colllected, the description ‘his body is heavy’ was categorised under ‘fatigue’. But heaviness doesn’t have to have anything to do with fatigue. We researchers get all this knowledge from the local communities and then we try to fit it into our Western systems, but the two systems don’t match.’ Carlin went back and discovered that the Trio only have dedicated names for dermatological conditions that are visible to the naked eye; apart from that they have no medical terms for diseases. ‘In their approach there is no such thing as a generic disease; there are only 

individual conditions beacuse illness is relational. Every individual, they argue, is different. The notion of body, and indeed personhood, is a much broader concept than what we have in the West. It is a unique approach to medicine from which the Western world can learn a lot.’

Unlawful appropriation of territory

Leiden archaeologists reveal the function of specific locations and buildings in order to protect indigenous heritage and lifestyle.

Indigenous Peoples have a spiritual connection to areas that are being unlawfully appropriated by governments and transnational companies. Leiden archaeologists reveal the function of specific locations and buildings in order to protect indigenous heritage and lifestyle.

Governments and companies massively infringe on areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples. Often these people have no idea how to defend their rights to land or buildings. Furthermore, as a result of the destruction and plundering of written sources by colonisers, the specific spiritual or other significance of some places and buildings important to Indigenous Peoples has become blurred. The collaboration between Leiden archaeologists and indigenous communities serves to unravel the deeper significance and mysteries of these special locations, thereby raising awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ history and heritage both within the communities and in academia. Such amalgamated deeper knowledge gives the indigenous communities stronger grounds for reclaiming control over their territories on the basis of the terms of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Part of the Oxkintok temple complex (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Part of the Oxkintok temple complex (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

The secrets of Oxkintok

Architect Manuel May Castillo, a Maya himself, investigates the significance of buildings for the indigenous Maya people. Together with them, he unravels the riddles surrounding these buildings and highlights their significance. This gives the Maya stronger grounds for making their claim to these areas clear to policy makers. As an example, Castillo mentions the Oxkintok temple complex in Mexico, which has been studied in detail by archaeologists, ethnologists and by himself in his

doctoral dissertation. In order to better understand a rainmaking ceremony, Castillo analysed carefully the teachings during a ritual to the God Chaak in a cave near Oxkintoc. ‘In the village of Calcehtok people refer to Oxkintok, during the ceremonies, as the place of the ancestors, so the elders were teaching us that there might be a link between this mountain cave and the building complex in Oxkintoc. The elders made it clear that the building was designed to face the mountain and the cave; that there is a direct, physical link between these two locations. In my study we simply confirmed the statements of the elders in the sense that there is a spiritual connection between the two sacred places. This is why collaborative research with Indigenous Peoples is so important.’

Impact on administration

Understanding the link between the cave and the temples has important consequences for the significance of a large area surrounding Oxkintok. May Castillo: ‘The building is administered by the Mexican National Institute of Heritage, but they only focus on protecting the buildings themselves, not the wider area surrounding them. Protecting this larger area is important not only for the preservation of cultural heritage, but also for the community living there. Unfortunately the mountain and the cave are currently being exploited by a transnational mining corporation. The cave used to contain a lake filled with water, but the excavations have left it completely dry. Mining is supported by national policy. Further research on the significance of such areas can help influence these policies.’

Plundering of knowledge and territory

Industrialised countries mine raw materials in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples and appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples. Leiden anthropologists work to protect their rights.

Industrialised countries mine raw materials in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples and appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples. Leiden anthropologists work to protect the rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Thanks to their knowledge and advice, governments can purchase more sustainable products.

The affluent lifestyle of industrialised countries requires incredible amounts of raw materials. These are often extracted in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, thus threatening their way of life. Companies from industrialised countries also appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples without offering them anything in return. Leiden anthropologists investigate the interaction between indigenous peoples and other parties, and study how the rights of Indigenous Peoples are enforced in practice.

The Agta in the Philippines (photo: Gerard Persoon)

The Agta in the Philippines (photo: Gerard Persoon)

The voice of the Agta

Mayo Buenafe – herself a Filipino with indigenous roots – is conducting PhD research on the Agta, a nomadic people who live as hunter-gatherers in the tropical rainforests on the northern most island of the Philippines. The Agta depend on water; rivers and the sea provide them with drinking water, food and transport routes. Through her investigation of their language, traditions and relationship to water, Buenafe was caught in a conflict between the Agta and a mining corporation. This corporation has a permit for mining nickel and chromium in the area inhabited by the Agta, which has resulted in water pollution and is threatening their livelihood. Buenafe followed the Agta in their protest actions, recorded these events, and became indirectly involved in a court case led by human rights activists who ultimately forced the mining  

corporation to compensate the Agta for the damage.

After her PhD defence, she hopes to return to the Agta to share with them the results of her research. She also wants to make a film recording ancient Agta traditions for future generations, and to organise workshops for non-indigenous administrators. In this way, Buenafe hopes that when administrators make new plans for the area, the voice of the Agta will be heard too.

Intellectual property

Not only the raw materials, but also the culture and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples are simply appropriated by industrialised countries, often without any compensation. Companies from rich countries freely draw from ‘ethnic’ music and art unprotected by copyright. An example of this is a British pharmaceutical manufacturer that in 1998 patented the cactus plant Hoodia Gordonii, which had been used for centuries by the South African San or Bushmen to suppress appetite. The company wanted to use this plant to combat Western obesity without respecting the intellectual property of the San people. For decades now, Leiden anthropologist Gerard Persoon has been one of the few researchers to investigate this kind of injustice worldwide and publish his findings. Nowadays, the rights of Indigenous Peoples are better protected, for instance by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Persoon is currently investigating how effective these treaties are in practice.

Sustainable wood

The anthropologists’ specialised knowledge of remote areas and cultures makes them valuable partners for anyone who champions sustainability. Gerard Persoon is for instance a member of the Advisory Committee for Sustainable Wood, which reports to the Dutch State Secretary of Infrastructure and Environment. The State Secretary is responsible for purchasing sustainable wood on behalf of the Dutch government. This raises a number of questions: In what countries are woodworkers given decent housing and sufficient food? Where are the rights of Indigenous Peoples respected? Persoon is able to provide a realistic view of the situation. Thanks to this process, the use of ecologically and socially sustainable wood has substantially increased in the Netherlands.

A mining company at work in the territory of the Agta. (Photo: Gerard Persoon)

A mining company at work in the territory of the Agta. (Photo: Gerard Persoon)


Leiden scientists working in this research area

  • Prof. dr. Willem Adelaar
  • Eldris con Aguilar MA
  • Dr. Andrzej Antczak
  • Csilla Ariese MSc
  • Dr. Arie Boomert
  • Mayo Buenafe MA
  • Dr. Mariana de Campos Francozo
  • Dr. Eithne Carlin
  • Prof. dr. Lisa Cheng
  • Prof. dr. Maarten Jansen
  • Prof. dr. Marian Klamer
  • Dr. Sada Mire
  • Aurora Pérez
  • Juan Reyes Gomez MA
  • Angel Rivera Guzman
  • Prof. Gerard Persoon
  • Prof. dr. Nico Schrijver
  • Ludo Snijders MA

Prof. dr. Willem AdelaarProfessor of Amerindian Linguistics

Topics: Amerindian linguistics, Andean languages, descriptive linguistics endangered languages, native american languages and cultures

+31 (0)71 527 2511

Eldris con Aguilar MAPhD candidate

Topics: Indigenous heritage in the Carribean, public heritage policies, educational programmes

+31 (0)71 527 5261

Dr. Andrzej AntczakResearcher

Topics: Pre-colonial and historical archaeology of the Caribbean, sacred places, community archaeology, collection studies, archaeometry, shell middens and historical ecology.

+31 (0)71 527 6572

Csilla Ariese MScPhD candidate

Topics: Post-colonial museums

+31 (0)71 527 5276

Dr. Arie BoomertPostdoc researcher

Topics: Archaeology, ethnohistory and linguistics of the West Indies, Guianas, Amazonia.

+31 (0) 71 527 1924

Mayo Buenafe MAPhD candidate

Topics: Indigenous knowledge systems, water use and management, food and water security, Agta hunter-gatherers, Philippines

+31 (0)71 527 2727

Dr. Mariana de Campos FrancozoAssistant professor

Topics: Anthropology of material culture, historical anthropology, history of colonial Brazil, museum studies

+31 (0)71 527 2437

Dr. Eithne CarlinUniversity Lecturer

Topics: Anthropological linguistics, Arawakan languages and cultures, Cariban languages and cultures, endangered languages, morphology, native American languages and cultures semantics

+31 (0)71 527 2624

Prof. dr. Lisa ChengProfessor of Linguistics

Topics: Multilingualism, heritage language, syntax, Bantu, Chinese

+31 (0)71 527 2104

Prof. dr. Maarten JansenProfessor of Archaeology

Topics: Ancient mexican pictorial writing and religious symbolism, mesoamerican archaeology, mixtec language and culture, native american heritage and education, postcolonialism and intercultural communication, rights of indigenous peoples

+31 (0)71 527 2439

Prof. dr. Marian KlamerProfessor of Austronesian and Papuan Linguistics

Topics: Languages of Indonesia and the Pacific, language description, language typology, language contact, language history

+31 (0)71 527 2783

Dr. Sada MireResearcher

Topics: archaeological theory, archaeology and anthropology of Africa, cultural heritage, development and rights, history of archaeology, Somali archaeology

+31 (0)71 527 2045

Aurora PérezResearcher

Topics: Mixtec culture and history

+31 (0)71 527 4874

Juan Reyes Gomez MAPhD candidate

Topics: Conceptualization of space and time in the Ayuuk culture (Mexico)

+31 (0)71 527 6175

Angel Rivera GuzmanGuest Staff Member

Topics: Archaeology, iconography and indigenous history of the Oaxaca region (Mexico)

+31 (0)71 527 2439

Prof. Gerard PersoonProfessor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

Topics: Environmental anthropology, nature conservation, human-environment interactions, natural resources management

+31 (0)71 527 6826

Prof. dr. Nico SchrijverProfessor of Public International Law

Topics: Public international law, United Nations, peace and security, sustainable development and management of natural resources, human rights, right of the sea, international dispute settlement

+31 (0)71 527 8936

Ludo Snijders MAPhD candidate

Topics: Archaeology of Mesoamerica, paints and colorants

+31 (0)71 527 6143


Unique insights into alternative worldviews

Leiden archaeology and heritage courses are not taught in isolation. In most cases, collaboration is sought with other academic disciplines such as historiography, psychology, linguistics and law. In addition, students are taught by researchers who are not only experts on Indigenous Peoples, but often also members of an indigenous community themselves. This provides unique insights into the history, lifestyle and worldviews of peoples across the world.

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Outreach & News

The outreach of our research extends far beyond the academic world. Our experts share their knowledge online. They also make regular appearances as guest speakers at congresses and discussion forums that are open to the general public.