“Cultural Ecology” is the anthropological study of how a group of humans adapted and how societies developed in the context of their environment; weather patterns, climate, native flora and fauna, available materials, and so on. “Environment” is divisible into three categories; abiotic, biotic, and cultural. The abiotic environment of a society includes land, water, minerals, and climate, while the biotic environment is the living things within the environment, such as plants and animals. The cultural environment focuses on the interactions of human beings and the development of societies. Cultural ecology is capable of examining both the effect of environment on a human society, and the effect of human society on its environment.
Archaeological techniques allow us to infer what life in a society is or might have been; in the context of an environment one might infer how a society affected its environment, or why a certain society adapted in a specific way. Though this is largely used to study societies, it can also allow researchers to see how an environment, itself, has changed. For example, the changes in Haitian culture and environment. We may discern that Haiti was once lush and forested, and assume that the natives adapted accordingly. However, after the colonization of Haiti by the Europeans, the forests were razed to clear land for sugar plantations, and slaves from many African nations were brought to work the fields. Today, Haitian culture is comprised of the various cultural traditions brought by slaves from many different nations. As for the environment of Haiti, Haiti now has only 2% forest cover, and has lost virtually all of its topsoil, making it impossible to grow food, and causing widespread drought. As such, a staple of Haitian culture has become its dependence on imports for 93% of its food, and Haiti’s resultant poverty.
The changes of environment as a result of human interaction is the distinguishing attribute of the Anthropocene Era, a geological era in which humans have become so great a geological force as to cause changes in the natural environment on a global scale. Cultural ecology, in its study of human environments, gives us insight into what environments may have been like in the past, as in the case of the once-verdant Haiti. This enables members of many disciplines, archaeological and ecological, to study how an environment has changed, and determine how human action may have led to such changes. It also allows us insight into a society’s reaction to the changing environment—did they flee, adapt, or die out? Did they recognize the change as the result of human activity? Did they attempt to fix the changes? Cultural ecology can be used to study both the changes in an environment, and the societal reactions, allowing archaeologists and ecologists alike to study the development of the Anthropocene as a human-powered geologic era.
Cambata, Altaire. “The Global Impact of Climate Change .” Ecology, n.d. Web. <http://www.ecology.com/2012/01/12/global-impact-climate-change/>.
Standish, Alex. “The Anthropocene: A Man-made Epoch.” Spiked. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-anthropocene-a-manmade-epoch/16893#.VfX71hHBzGc.
Haiti Friends. http://www.haitifriends.org/history/.
Gunn, Michael C. “Cultural Ecology: A Brief Overview.” University of Nebraska- Lincoln. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1148&context=nebanthro.
Using archaeology to explore the cultural impact of human beings on an environment provides insight into human customs and constructed institutions. Your post reminded me of anthropologist, Julian Steward’s work with the Shoshone population of the Great Basin. His interest was in the direct correlation between human populations and environmental resources. He outlined three steps to analyze the cultural ecology of a society: (1) to investigate the natural resources and technology used to extract and use them; (2) to understand the social organization of work for these practices; (3) to trace the influence of these two phenomena on other aspects of culture.
Haiti is an example of a society’s cultural ecology that has dramatically changed due to colonialism and suffered long lasting effects on its environment and people. It is important to analyze all ways that colonialism has affected a group of people, land, economies, social structures, and politics. As you could see with Haiti, colonialism left deeply harmful effects that lasted through generations and also led to the generation of a new Haitian culture and practices.
If you would like to check out further reading about Julian Steward: http://anthropology.ua.edu/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Ecological%20Anthropology
There is another human-environmental paradigm that archaeologists use called historical ecology. This approach is different in that it focuses not only on how humans change the environment but also on how the environment changes humans. We are part of the environment not simply destroyers of it. We can’t turn Haiti into a preserve to regrow its trees without changing the culture that exists there now. We can’t change the culture that exists there now without changing the environment. Archaeologists can provide the details on when and how the environment and people worked best together and help revive those traditions.