The study of ecology and anthropology, here termed ecological anthropology, is at its most basic level the examination of the relationship between humans and the natural environments in which they live. Although the nature of how anthropologists approach this relationship has changed and varied considerably over the past century, ecological anthropology is best characterized as a materialist enterprise. Studies of ecology and anthropology have at their core an implicit assumption that human societies are the products of adaptation to specific environmental conditions. In addition, the human capacity for culture is most often seen as a primary mechanism for achievement of successful adaptation. Despite this general framework, however, contemporary approaches to ecological anthropology range from the very materialist application of evolutionary theory to approaches like historical ecology, which incorporate traditional humanistic approaches to the study of human-environment relations.
Ecological anthropology has a long history within anthropology, dating to the origins of the discipline. However, because the writers of the early 19th century believed that environmental conditions absolutely determined particular cultural constructions, a perspective called environmental determinism, the emergence of a rigorous approach to the study of culture through systematic data collection, championed by Franz Boas, virtually eliminated ecology as a worthy focus of anthropological investigation. Known as historical particularism, an approach devoted to the study of culture areas, it regarded cultures as unique and ultimately incomparable. Broad theorizing about culture origins and development was rejected outright.
Leslie White and Julian Steward, widely regarded as the fathers of contemporary ecological anthropology, were both trained within the Boasian paradigm. They were, however, led by their early professional experiences to reject the Boasian paradigm in favor of addressing the processes of cultural evolution and the principles that underlie cultural similarities and differences.
For White, appointment at the University of Buffalo in 1927 and subsequent work with local Seneca Indians led him to read Lewis Henry Morgan’s writing about the Iroquois. For White, this entrée into 19th-century evolutionism fostered a deep interest in general cultural evolution. White believed that cultural evolution was driven by increased energy use per capita. His lasting contribution to ecological anthropology was the reintroduction of evolutionary thinking into anthropology.
Julian Steward’s work with the Great Basin Shoshone in the 1930s demonstrated the direct relationship between environment, technology, population density, and social organization. His work ultimately led to the development of cultural ecology, an approach to the study of culture that advocated the investigation of the relationship between the culture core, which he defined as a society’s environment, technological capacity, and social organization, and all other aspects of culture.
The deterministic nature of Steward’s work stimulated new thinking about human-environment relationships. Pioneered by anthropologists Frederik Barth, Robert Carniero, Marvin Harris, Robert Netting, and Andrew Vayda, among others, the recognition of the ways in which ecology influences cultural formulations, especially the evolution of complexity, stimulated new interest in the interplay between ecology, politics, economy, and religion. This new perspective is perhaps best exemplified by Elman Service’s Primitive Social Organization and Morton Fried’s Evolution of Political Society.
Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors, an examination of the relationship between ritual cycles, warfare, and ecology among the Tsembaga Maring of New Guinea, highlighted another interest among ecological anthropologists. Rather than being simply an adaptive tool, culture began to be recognized as a mechanism regulating the human-environment relationship, promoting homeostasis and long-term survival.
The neoevolutionary and neofunctional approaches of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, were criticized on numerous grounds. Neoevolutionary arguments were deficient either because of vagueness surrounding units of measurement and selection or because of a reliance on outdated evolutionary theory, such as group selection. Neofunctional approaches were criticized both for their lack of historical depth and their naive assumptions that culture and nature automatically tend toward stability.
Since the middle of the 1970s, then, what has been termed here as ecological anthropology has advanced in a number of seemingly disparate directions, although all have at their core a concern for understanding human-environmental relationships as a process that occurs over both short- and long-time scales, for example, the formation of specific adaptive strategies, for explaining variability not only between but also within cultural systems, and for forging links across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Political ecology developed during the late 1970s and early 1980s as anthropologists combined ecosystem approaches and actor-based decision-making models with political economy models often used by anthropologists. The result has been a greater understanding of power relationships between state societies and local peoples, particularly regarding issues of sustainability, resource management, political and economic decision making, and subsistence economies.
Human behavioral ecology incorporates evolutionary theory from biology and ecology and applies it to the study of humans. The study of foragers using optimal foraging theory, the motivation for reciprocal sharing arrangements, human mating systems, mate choice and marriage transactions, and parental investment in offspring are some avenues of exploration. These kinds of investigations have provided new insights into traditional anthropological topics. The central concern of this work is in understanding how contemporary human behavior reflects our own history of natural selection.
Historical ecology perhaps pays the most attention to time scales and processes of change between humans and their environments. Much effort has been spent in understanding the processes by which humans develop new strategies for coping with dynamic environments. There is, however, equal attention paid to the impacts that human activity has on local ecology and to the effects that human-induced change has on ecology and on humans living in those altered environments. In particular, work in this direction focuses on questioning the degree to which a presumed natural environment has been artificially created, the impacts of environmental degradation on human societies, and how specific cultures conceptualize and interact with their particular habitats.
Environmentalism and anthropology parallel some of the work of the political ecologists through the examination of power relations between state societies, multinational corporations, developers, and local people. However, while issues of sustainability, conservation, resource management, and development predominate within this work, a keen interest in how local environmental movements have developed, and how these movements integrate with national movements is one avenue of exploration. Another topic of interest to anthropologists working within this domain is environmental rights. What are indigenous people’s rights to particular territories? What rights of access do local and state agents have to particular resources? What is the nature of intellectual property law regarding rights to indigenous knowledge?
- Balee, W. (Ed.). (1998). Advances in historical ecology. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Cronk, L., Chagnon, N., & Irons, W. (Eds.). (2000). Adaptation and human behavior: An anthropological perspective. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Netting, R. McC. (1986). Cultural ecology (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.a