If you tried to explain what biomimicry is to a secluded indigenous tribe that has lived off their native land for thousands of years, they might look at you as if you had three heads. This is because various tribes throughout the world have already been using this magical inspired-by-nature idea for centuries. The western world has only recently claimed it as the science for imitating nature’s designs. Before hopping into all the futuristic technology and architecture scientists and designers are creating through biomimicry, let’s pay some respect to the originators. How did native peoples use the local fauna and flora to their advantage?
The Huaorani people of Ecuador have always relied on the rainforest they inhabit for ideas—they’ve successfully utilized its diverse resources for millennia. Being hunter-gatherers, they needed to find ingenious ways to hunt down prey for dinner. Where did they find inspiration for weapons? Local plants, of course. The Huaorani crafted poison dart guns using a substance that mimicked the poison found in the Strychnos toxifera plant. The mixture they attached to darts, called “curare,” would paralyze the animals they were hunting. It’s unfortunate and sad that this clever tribe is currently diminishing in numbers due to “enforced ethnocide” by oil companies who are forcing themselves onto their land.
The Chipewyan people, native to the Athapaskan region in Canada, have a very interesting ontology. This indigenous group believes that animals hold an important source of knowledge—in particular, a great source of empirical knowledge. David M. Smith, an anthropologist who studied the Chipewyan, says that nearly all the elderly men he met could “talk at length and in fascinating detail about the behavior of caribou, moose, beaver, pine marten, and other animals.” Amazingly, through careful observation of wolves, the Chipewyan were taught successful hunting techniques. Could it be that other indigenous tribes throughout history mimicked how pack animals hunted as well?
How is biomimicry being applied today?
Nature has had 3.8 billion years to create not only “efficient” designs and systems, but also ones that effectively nurture and replenish the environment when they break down. This is why scientists like Janine Benyus, the world’s leading biomimicry expert, are looking to model after nature for “novel solutions” to our world’s current sustainability issues. Mirrors on solar panels mimic the formation of petals on a sunflower, wind turbines now have humpback whale-inspired bumps, and buildings may soon be wrapped in a material that traps fog and turns it into water—similar to the way a Namibian beetle’s shell works.
By now, hopefully everyone—not just scientists—is starting to get the bigger picture. Why would we continue manufacturing goods that do not break down and nourish soil, like leaves falling from a tree? How can we design buildings that provide comfort to not only its human occupants, but also its “outer” fauna and flora occupants? On a grander scale, how can urban planners design entire cities that function as one “living organism?”