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Cultural Landscapes BlogWhat is Historical Ecology?

What is Historical Ecology?

24 July 2014/by Carole Crumley/Tags: historical ecology, archaeology, anthropology

The record of human entry into the planetary system begins much earlier than the Industrial Revolution or the end of World War II. Below ground, where archaeologists focus their attention, this longer history is about the intimate details of the human affair with Earth. For millennia people have altered their surroundings by using fire, propagating certain species of plants and animals, building dams that change the course of rivers, clearing land, and generally making themselves at home—and in the process altering the course of human evolution itself.
What is Historical Ecology?

Historical ecology is a practical framework of concepts and methods for studying the past and future of the relationship between people and their environment. While historical ecology may be applied to spatial and temporal frames at any resolution, it finds particularly rich sources of data at the “landscape” scale, where human activity and cognition interact with biophysical systems, and where archaeological, historical, ethnographic, environmental, and other records are plentiful.

The term historical ecology draws attention to a definition of ecology that includes humans as a component of all ecosystems and to a definition of history that goes beyond the written record to encompass both the history of the Earth system and the social and physical past of our species. Historical ecology provides tools to construct an evidence-validated, open-ended narrative of the evolution and transformation of specific landscapes, based on records of human activity and changing environments. Historical ecology offers insights, models, and ideas for the sustainable future of contemporary landscapes based upon a comprehensive understanding of their past.

Several independent developments in the 1990s were products of an effort to increase collaborative research across certain disciplines. Archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and ecologists drew on common themes and concerns.

Historical ecology in archaeology and anthropology derives, for the most part, from archaeological best practice, which routinely amalgamates information about the past from disparate sources. In a local and regional context, applied archaeology aids heritage management, historic and environmental conservation, ecological restoration, and landscape archaeology.

Paleoecology, an old friend of archaeology, offers knowledge of vanished landscapes: vegetation dynamics, dendrochronology, disturbance history, paleoclimatology, wetlands history, seed banks, and plant communities. Historical ecology has helped reconstruct a remarkable span of history, from the ancient landscapes of early hominids to historic agrarian landscapes and gardens.

The integrated framework of historical ecology makes it possible to understand and manage historic and current-day ecosystems and landscapes and it supports planning their future. In multiple-use landscapes such as public lands and urban spaces, managers must understand the combined physical and social history of the ecosystems and landscapes in their charge, and provide for the participation of diverse stakeholders. Historical ecology plays an important part both in fundamental research and in developing new strategies for integrated and equitable landscape management.

A management approach derived from forest history and restoration ecology is also termed historical ecology. The Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER) structures its research and instructional programs around historical ecology. For SER, restoration embraces the interrelationships between nature and culture, engages all sectors of society, and enables full and effective participation of indigenous, local and disenfranchised communities (http://www.ser.org/about/mission-vision ).

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) has pioneered the use of historical ecology to track linked biophysical and anthropogenic changes in wetlands. One of their many projects is San Francisco Bay, which is surrounded by densely populated municipalities and has particularly complex management needs. SFEI combines environmental methods with maps, documents, photographs, and enthusiastic public participation to understand the Bay’s watershed prior to Euro-American modification and permitted assessment of options for future environmental management. Throughout the region SFEI helps define environmental problems, advance public debate about them through sound science, and support consensus-based solutions that improve planning, management, and policy development (http://www.sfei.org/ ).

The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) (http://www.wsl.ch/index_EN) provides clear benefits for society and the public in Switzerland by guiding the use, development, and protection of natural and urban spaces (Burgi 2011). WSL’s research focuses on the responsible use of mountainous landscapes and forests and a prudent approach to natural hazards. WSL hosted the conference “Frontiers in Historical Ecology” in 2011, attracting environmental historians, archaeologists, ecologists, and managers.

Almost by definition, landscapes are theatres of conflict over resources and values. While Elinor Ostrom’s admirable global examination of collaborative management is much cited, and adaptive governance is a recurrent theme in resilience research, there remains little engagement with community building, multi-level politics, or ethical issues such as indigenous rights. To be politically feasible and equitable, planning must engage diverse stakeholders; its implementation must adapt when conditions change. Robust —resilient—local and regional management requires understanding the region’s past; that understanding requires a more comprehensive grasp of the social, historical, cultural, and political aspects of complex systems that make up our world.

The United States National Park Service (USPS) employs historical ecology to manage and interpret the enormous national park system, which must respond to the contradictory needs of many users. Among the Park Service’s responsibilities is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming; historical ecology guides interpretation of the site to visitors and the accommodation of sport climbers while honoring the beliefs of Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone peoples whose cultural and geographical ties to the site predate Europeans (http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/index.htm).

A region’s history reveals how it has responded to extreme events: harsh climate, war, shortage of essential resources, pestilence, and mismanagement. In mediating these events, successful adjustments to fit changing circumstances have accumulated. Future climate change will likely increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme temperature and precipitation anomalies and have severe economic and social impacts. The long-term records of regional climate reveal many such anomalies, termed excursions. Such records are particularly valuable, as they point to how the regional system responds to particular conditions (Crumley 2012).

There may be particular economic and social strategies —“basins of attraction”— that recur but whose strength fluctuates over time. Knowledge of a particular landscape’s past management strategies can help to avoid earlier mistakes, or, in the case of good results, offer viable alternatives to a similar contemporary challenge. Such “old-and-new” solutions stimulate “tinkering”—trying to improve on an old idea or material —leading to hybrid innovations. That a technique dates to prehistory does not necessarily mean it is sustainable today, but its longevity certainly demonstrates its utility. “Old ways” of doing things can have advantages that go beyond nostalgia and tourism.

Thus the emergent, collaborative, transdisciplinary research environment of historical ecology draws on a broad spectrum of concepts, methods, theories, and evidence taken from the biological and physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. It is not a new discipline so much as a cluster of mutually compatible questions, concepts, methods, and values that are germane to diverse challenges. It is a rich environment within which to find common cause with other initiatives. Such communities are taking shape and broadening their inclusivity.

One exciting possibility is that organizations, such as international NGOs that garner support for environmental action or for heritage preservation, might realize that their goals are intertwined and pool resources. At the local/regional scale, many communities already understand this biocultural heritage link and work together (Barthel et al. 2013). As several historical ecology studies have demonstrated, much of the biodiversity found in these landscapes has emerged as a direct result of the presence of humans and the patterns of ecological mutualism that have evolved between humans and nonhuman species over the longue durée. The Yucatan Peninsula and the Amazon basin are regions of great biodiversity that warrant cultural, linguistic, and heritage conservation (Maffi and Woodley 2010). Terralingua (www.terralingua.org) and the Maya Forest Alliance (http://espmaya.org/index.html) are examples of organizations that promote the preservation of biocultural diversity.

The Integrated History of People on Earth (www.ihopenet.org) is a global network of researchers and projects using historical ecology’s integrated approach to study combined human and Earth system history. IHOPE’s long-term, human-scale perspective is intended as a corrective to models based on Earth system science that exclude knowledge of the world drawn from the social sciences and humanities and from communities of practice.

Researchers, practitioners, and communities in this growing framework of shared goals can play an important role in safeguarding knowledge from the past while making an equitable and secure future possible, fashioning new paths into the human-driven, less predictable world of the Anthropocene.

Carole Crumley
Uppsala Universitet
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History

 

Picture
Family farms in the foothills of the Morvan mountains, Saone-et-Loire, France

 

Further Reading

Balée, William
 (2006) The research program of historical ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 35(5):15-24.

Balée, William, ed. (1998) Advances in Historical Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press.

Balée, William and Clark Erickson, eds.
 (2006) Time and Complexity in Historical Ecology: Studies in the Neotropical Lowlands. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barthel, Stephan, Carole Crumley, and Uno Svedin
 (2013) Bio-Cultural Refugia: Safeguarding Diversity of Practices For Food Security and Biodiversity. Global Environmental Change 23(5):1142-1152.

Burgi, Mattias (2011) Frontiers in historical ecology. IUFRO News 40:3.

Costanza, Robert, et al. (2012) Developing an Integrated History and future of People on Earth (IHOPE). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4:106-114.

Crumley, Carole L. (2012) A Heterarchy of Knowledges: Tools for the Study of Landscape Histories and Futures. Resilience and the Cultural Landscape: Understanding and Managing Change in Human-Shaped Environments. T. Plieninger and C. Bieling, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crumley, Carole L., ed. (1994) Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Crumley, Carole L. and William H. Marquardt
 (1990) Landscape: A Unifying Concept in Regional Analysis. Interpreting Space: GIS and Archaeology, Kathleen M. Allen, Stanton W. Green, and Ezra B. W. Zubrow, eds., pp. 73-79. London: Taylor and Francis.

Egan, D. and E. Howell, eds. (2001) The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Washington DC: Island Press.

Jackson, S. T. and R. Hobbs
 (2009) Ecological restoration in the light of ecological history. Science 325:567-569.

Maffi, Louisa and Ellen Woodley (
2010) Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook. Oxford UK: Earthscan.

Meyer, William J. and Carole L. Crumley (2011) Historical Ecology: Using what Works to Cross the Divide. Atlantic Europe in the First Millennium BC: Crossing the Divide. Tom Moore and Lois Armada, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swetnam, T.W., C. Allen, and J. Betancourt
 (1999) Applied historical ecology: Using the past to manage for the future. Ecological Applications 9(4):1189-1206.

 

 

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