Ethnoecology is the study of human knowledge, perception, classification, and management of natural environments. Work in ethnoecology synthesizes the ecologist’s understanding of the relationships between biological and physical components in ecosystems with the cognitive anthropologist’s focus on the acquisition and expression of cultural information. For ethnoecologists, culture is seen as the knowledge necessary for ecologically adaptive behavior. Accordingly, culture is understood as an evolutionary process transmitted and replicated through language. Ethnoecologists emphasize the symbolic and functional roles of language, the analysis of which allows access to ecological knowledge. Research in ethnoecology integrates the empiricism of ethno-science with the functionalist perspective of ecological anthropology to understand fully the adaptive significance of cultural knowledge and the ecological relevance of human behaviors.
The term “ethnoecology” was first coined in 1954 by Harold Conklin, who conducted a systematic study of plant-naming strategies among the Hanunoo, a small-scale horticulture society in the Philippines. By examining the content and structure of Hanunoo plant nomenclature, Conklin demonstrated the hierarchical nature of ethnobotanical classification. Conklin’s dissertation, though never published, was the first of its kind to adopt an empirical approach to understanding traditional ecological knowledge. While previous ethnobiological studies were concerned primarily with documenting human uses for living things, Conklin’s research provided the first real insight into human conceptualization of a natural resource.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, efforts to examine human ecological interactions proceeded within the rubric of ethnobotany, the study of relationships between people and plants, and to a lesser extent, ethnozoology, the study of human-animal relationships. Much of this early work was descriptive in nature and utilitarian in scope, devoted largely to building lists of plant and animal names and their corresponding cultural uses. Although these studies lacked a theoretical framework, they yielded essential discoveries about the common features used in traditional systems of plant and animal nomenclature.
By the mid-1960s and 1970s, ethnoecological research came under the influence of the cognitive theory of culture as a shared system of knowledge. Anthropologists interested in traditional environmental knowledge turned to the ethnoscientific approach, which regards the individual as the culture bearer and language as the medium in which information is encoded. Ecological resources were envisioned as semantic domains, constructed and categorized with reference to the shared similarity between constituent items. This approach, also called the particle model of cultural knowledge, focused on the construction of semantic domains according to imagistic associations. This process of “mapping” knowledge and classification of cultural categories ultimately resulted in folk taxonomies of numerous ecological domains, such as firewood in rural Mexico, birds of the Indonesian forests, soils in the Peruvian Andes, and ice in the Canadian Arctic. Subsequent cross-cultural research into folk classification has largely confirmed the existence of a finite set of principles governing human categorization of the living world.
More recently, the analysis of ecological domains has demonstrated how environmental knowledge is distributed among members of a cultural group. Studies of traditional ecological knowledge have found that some individuals know more than others about various plants, animals, and other natural resources, which is the result of intracultural factors such as age, gender, occupation, interest, education, and experience. For example, in societies where women control the cultivation and management of food crops, women are more likely to hold more detailed knowledge of cultivars. Conversely, where men participate as hunters in local subsistence, men generally control and communicate information about wild animals. Ethnoecologists have benefited from these discoveries by learning to identify those respondents who are most knowledgeable about specific resources. Variation in ecological knowledge may also stem from intercultural differences, such as religion, subsistence, acculturation, and species diversity in local habitats. Understanding cultural variation is crucial for ethnographers interested in devising strategies for protecting endangered biota from disappearing altogether from local ecosystems and from the cognitive inventory of a society’s natural resources.
A complementary approach to ethnoecology is the ethnographic perspective, also referred to as the wave model of cultural knowledge. Using participant observation and other qualitative data collection techniques, ethnoecologists have successfully generated behavioral models (also called scripts and schemas) by assessing the perceived consequences of various decisions in the context of relevant ecological variables. This approach has been invaluable for determining and predicting the impact of human behaviors, particularly in unstable ecosystems such as those affected by deforestation. It has been determined, for example, that indigenous communities can and do practice subsistence strategies that maximize the productivity of all available landscapes and resources. Such practices may include the adoption of multiple survival mechanisms, including foraging, fishing, animal husbandry, and the cultivation of home gardens. By defining the parallels between the behavioral and spatial dimensions of the human landscape, ethnoecologists have advanced anthropological understanding of the adaptive significance of cultural knowledge.
Ethnoecology has witnessed significant advancements during the last two decades. Motivated by the urgent need to safeguard biological and cultural diversity in developing regions of the world, ethnoecologists are presently constructing new protocols for protecting indigenous knowledge of agricultural crops. This form of “memory banking” has recently been used in tandem with germplasm conservation to ensure that local crops and heirloom varieties are sustained for posterity, in addition to the cultural knowledge necessary to cultivate and sustain these species. Ethnoecologists have also used their findings to strengthen the productivity of agricultural systems and to engender awareness on a community level of the various medical and economic applications of local species.
Because of its holistic vision of the changing character of indigenous environmental knowledge, ethnoecology is presently informed and guided by a variety of frameworks and methodologies. A number of professional academic organizations, such as the Society for Ethnobiology and the International Congress for Ethnobiology, have helped to promote the visibility of ethnoecology by providing collaborative venues and publications for anthropologists, ecol-ogists, environmental scientists, and other scholars engaged in ethnoecological research. Multidisciplinary efforts in the field have made considerable progress in documenting and sustaining traditional ecological behaviors and praxis. Presently, the challenges facing ethnoecologists include the development of policies to protect the intellectual property rights of native peoples, the appropriation of funding to support natural resource conservation, and the implementation of local, national, and international strategies to engender cultural support and responsibility for ecological knowledge for the benefit of present generations and those yet to follow.
- Gragson, T. L., & Blount, B. G. (Eds.). (1999). Ethnoecology: Knowledge, resources, and rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Nazarea, V. (Ed.). (1999). Ethnoecology: Situated knowledge/located lives. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Toledo, V. (2002). Ethnoecology: A conceptual framework for the study of indigenous knowledge of nature. In J. R. Stepp, R. S. Wyndham, & R. K. Zarger (Eds.), Ethnobiology and biocultural diversity (pp. 511-522). Athens: University of Georgia Press.