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Dame Anne Salmond wins Rutherford Medal

For the first time, an anthropologist has received the Royal Society of NZ’s highest award.

Dame Anne Salmond

In recent years, several prominent New Zealand scientists – including Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir Paul Callaghan – have called for closer links between the natural sciences (such things as physics, chemistry, and biology) and social sciences, the arts and the humanities. These links, they argue, are needed to improve public engagement with science, drive innovation and build a stronger and more prosperous nation.

It’s significant, then, that this year’s Rutherford Medal, awarded annually to the country’s “foremost scientist”, goes to University of Auckland professor Dame Anne Salmond, who embraces all these disciplines in her work as an anthropologist: her research spans New Zealand history, Maori culture, Maori-Pakeha relations and ecological restoration.

The winner was announced at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s annual research honours dinner in Dunedin on November 27. Salmond, the first social scientist to receive the Rutherford Medal, was cited for her “eminent work on Maori social structures and interactions with the European world, and on European exploration and engagement in the Pacific”.

She is known to many readers as the author of award-winning books about New Zealand culture and history. In 2004, she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. A fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, she was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year earlier this year, an award that acknowledges “an outstanding contribution to the well-being of the nation”.

Salmond studied anthropology at the University of Auckland in the 1960s, driven by a passionate curiosity about Te Ao Maori. It was here, perhaps, that her comfort with working across disciplines emerged. The department taught “four-field anthropology”, which encompassed archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics and social anthropology. She had grown up in a strong Maori community, but it was in Auckland that she learnt to speak Maori and began a close personal friendship with Eruera and Amiria Stirling, through whom she became immersed in Maori culture. It was from this friendship and the experiences she was exposed to that the books Hui: A Study of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings, Amiria: The Life of a Maori Woman and Eruera: Teachings of a Maori Elder emerged, cementing her position as a groundbreaking academic and bringing Maori stories to a Pakeha audience.

She then began looking into the past, to examine the early relationships between Maori and Europeans, and published Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772 and Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815.

That led to a study of voyaging and exploration in Polynesia and New Zealand. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas was followed by Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti and, most recently, Bligh: The Pacific Voyages of William Bligh.

At the time Cook visited New Zealand – during the Enlightenment – the sciences, arts and humanities were all part of a spectrum, “different facets of an intelligent enquiry into the patterns of the world”, says Salmond. Hydrographers made maps and charts, artists sketched the landscape and the scientists made “very detailed descriptions of what people were doing, and how they were dressed, as well as local environments, plants and animals”.


Although the partitioning that has gone on since has been very powerful, she says, “in many ways we have lost sight of the way things come together. It’s been a major philosophical mistake to have divided the natural and the social sciences as deeply as we have done, because it makes it difficult to understand the ways in which people participate in complex biophysical systems at every level, and vice versa.

“We have tended to look at people through one set of disciplinary lenses, and rivers, oceans, plants and animals through another. This has been a powerful contributor to some of the fundamental problems we face now, like climate change, the acidification of oceans, loss of biodiversity and the degradation of waterways.”

Dame Anne Salmond. Photo/David White

To fully understand these phenomena, she argues, we need a multidisciplinary approach. Although input from the natural sciences is essential, we also need to recognise that people are part of the complex processes that drive these phenomena and let the different disciplines talk to each other “to find intelligent ways of grasping and then trying to deal with some of these ‘wicked’ problems”.

Salmond is bringing these ideas together in Te Awaroa, a project initiated after the Transit of Venus forum in Gisborne last year. Te Awaroa, which translates as “the long river”, is a plan to restore 1000 rivers by 2050 to “a state of ora, which is prosperity and well-being”.

In keeping with her philosophy about integrating different disciplines, the project is concerned with everything in and around the water, “including the people and that intimate engagement between people and waterways”.

Te Awaroa is a research project that will draw on Maori philosophy, as well as innovative new approaches from the natural and social sciences, to explore the complex “networks and webs and systems” of our waterways.

New Zealand is an exciting place for such experiments: “We have a cohort of scientists who are also steeped in tikanga Maori, so [we have] scientists who understand modernist paradigms but who equally understand Maori philosophical frameworks. The idea is to explore forms of order that transcend modernist divisions between nature and culture in projects that open up new futures, offering alternatives to some of these processes of degradation and destruction.

“I think in New Zealand we can do that in a way that would be quite difficult to do anywhere else in the world. In fact, it’s already happening across a number of disciplines, including medicine and the environmental sciences.”

What will she do with the $100,000 prize money?

Salmond already walks the talk on Longbush Ecosanctuary, her property under restoration in Gisborne. In this “gumboot anthropology” project, as she likes to call it, people with “a whole array of scientific and practical experience” are working closely together, and she and husband Jeremy hope to build a guest house for visitors. “Having this kaleidoscopic set of expert insights is so exciting. I love that.”

One of the rivers she hopes to include in Te Awaroa is the Waimata, beside which she grew up. “So again, it’s learning from a lifelong experience of place and I guess one of the things I’ve tried to do, always, is learn from the places where I am, and the relationships of which I’m a part.”

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