Paleoecology is both a field of ecology concentrated on the study of the ecology of fossil organisms and a branch of cultural and environmental anthropology aimed at the detection of the mutual influence and interdependence of prehistoric culture (or society) and its natural environment.
The formation of paleoecology as special field of knowledge coincided with the middle of the 20th century, and was the crucial time for the initial comprehension that human livelihood systems’ diversity is directly connected with the features of the natural geographic environment. As a result, the analysis of the geographic components of certain ambient adjoining areas inhabited by separate groups of population has become a subject of principal importance. From the early 1960s the process of the creation of a database necessary for cataloging prehistoric fauna, flora, relief, and any climate reconstruction has been significantly intensified.
As a result one can trace the formation of new direction in the field of archaeological investigation-environmental archaeology, which developed mainly in the context of European Stone Age archaeology. From the very beginning its primary goal has been postulated as an interdisciplinary analysis of the geographic environment inhabited by Prehistoric populations. Since the late 1970s two fundamental approaches could be distinguished in its frameworks, and gradually each of them has become an independent discipline. The first one—geoarchaeology— concentrates its attention predominantly on the natural geographic context of archaeological objects. Methods of geology, geomorphology, and climatology are used in conjunction by the highly skilled geoarchaeologists in order to reconstruct the circumstances that have had local influence on archaeological sites, that have led to the formation of cultural remnants, and also to reconstruct the further history of their fossilization. In recent years artifact and site conservation, preservation of the same from natural ruination, technical analysis of artifacts and their raw material source base, artifact absolute dating, and other issues have also become the part of the scientific concerns of the representatives of this discipline. The other group of environmental archaeologists concentrates their attention on ecological links between human society and natural environment.
In the former Soviet Union the prehistory of the ecological context of separate settlements became the subject of intentional investigation during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since that time representatives of a broad spectrum of natural sciences have taken part in numerous archaeological excavations, and the results of their activity have enabled them to reconstruct in concrete the natural geographic environment inhabited by a certain group of hunter-gatherers. The first attempt by Soviet archaeologists to theoretically generalize the results of such interdisciplinary excavations was made by S. Bibikov. In 1969 he proposed the method of paleoeconomic simulation, the frameworks of which call for the specificity of the material culture and household activities of the concrete settlements’ inhabitants, on the one hand, and the features of their natural environment, on the other, to be taken into account. During the 1970s to 1980s, he and his many apprentices explored this method in many prehistoric settlement case studies. As a result, it was established that natural environment had significantly influenced the formation and development of separate groups of the populations and their culture, and, in its turn, was subjected to many essential changes caused by these human collectives’ activities. Based on this conclusion Bibikov elaborated his concept of paleoecological and paleoeconomic crisis, which is regarded as an objective theory and a natural result of prehistoric populations’ advances and activities taking place in a permanently changing environment. It also becomes possible to distinguish several stages of such crisis development during 9000-6000 B.C., development which is correlated with phases of geographic ambient evolution as well as with changes of the “livelihood activities” of hunter-gatherers. As a result, a new specific direction of archaeological and historical investigation—an ecological one—was founded. Its purpose is often regarded as the detection and analysis of connections that exist between a specific cultural object and its natural environment.
Representatives of Western-European environmental archaeology and experts in the ecological approach in Soviet archaeology and prehistory are taking rather close paths in looking to a prehistoric population’s culture and specific features of its mode of life for explanation. Questions of the hunter-gatherers’ mobility as well as their livelihood activity in certain localities are at the center of attention of practitioners of both approaches. At the same time, there is also a clear difference in their initial idealized theoretical postulates. So, in contrast to the Western-European and American environmentalists, the majority of the Soviet researchers believe that the social sphere of the prehistoric culture levels an environmental impact on material culture that can already be seen at the earliest phases of human history.
Practitioners of the paleoecological approach in both Soviet and Western archaeology see their main task in interpretation of any results of concrete site investigation as taking into account the site’s natural ambient dynamics. In order to realize this goal, they try to avoid broad generalizations or the creation of a simplified or complicated simulation of nature-society relationships, so they prefer a simple explanation. Of late it was proposed to distinguish local paleoecology, which concentrates its attention on problems of residence, place, and visiting a territory’s ecological situation reconstruction, from regional paleoecology, the object of which is to study features of the settlement system as well as a regional source base evaluation. Conversely, an original simulation of historical processes that took place on the territory of what is contemporary Ukraine during the Mesolithic times illustratively proves the high cognitive potential of the use of this approach in wider spatial frameworks.
Today the ecological approach is gradually improving not only in Stone Age archaeology but also in many adjacent fields of knowledge that are concerned with the investigation of prehistoric societies. First it happened with cultural and social anthropology, ethnology, paleodemography, paleosociology, paleogeography, as well as with other sciences and humanities. In particular, since the 1970s it has been repeatedly stressed that in prehistoric times the main stages of natural geographic environment changes correlate well with human morphology evolution as well as with the society’s material culture and livelihood systems development. The main role in this process, as a rule, was given not so much to the living conditions of a prehistoric population as to their dynamics in time.
Recent decades have brought new insight to the theoretical background of paleoecological studies. Today the concept of the influences of cultural adaptation, stresses, resilience, and adjustment of a society are an integral part of paleoecology along with the application of theories of sustainability, socio-economic metabolism, co-evolution, and nature colonization.
- Bibikov, S. N. (1969). Nekotorye aspekty paleoeconomicheskogo modelirovaniya paleolita [Some aspects of palaeoeconomic modelling of Paleolithic]. Sovetskaya Archeologia, 4, 5-22.
- Boyd, F. W. (1990). Towards a conceptual framework for environmental archaeology: Environmental archaeology as a key to past environment. Circaea, 7, 63-79.
- Dincauze, D. F. (2000). Environmental archaeology: Principles and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Smyntyna, O.V. (2003). The Environmental approach to Prehistoric studies: Approaches and theories, History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, 42(4).