Cultural Ecology and the Anthropocene

“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.


A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

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.

More Reading:



Cambata, Altaire. “The Global Impact of Climate Change .” Ecology, n.d. Web. <>.

Standish, Alex. “The Anthropocene: A Man-made Epoch.” Spiked.

Haiti Friends.

Gunn, Michael C. “Cultural Ecology: A Brief Overview.” University of Nebraska- Lincoln.

The Creation and Discovery of Skara Brae – The Power of Storms

The now-archaeological-site, once-village of Skara Brae on the coast of the Orkney Islands of Scotland was subjected to huge storm during the late Neolithic period – burying its structures deep under a layer of sand, which acted as a preservative for the buildings and their contents for multiple millennia – four to be exact. The protective quality of the sand kept the structures and everything within them shockingly intact since around 3200 – 2200 BC. The very gradual drift of sand after the storm embedded the village of Skara Brae into the earth, making it uninhabitable for the original Stone Age villagers.

So, was it the storm alone that drove away the native inhabitants of Skara Brae? Not exactly. “The fall” of Skara Brae as a society and abandonment of it as a geographical location was actually due to long term erosion along the coast and changes in the society’s needs, not only the single event of the storm (though the storm did intensify and speed up erosion) (Orkneyjar). Even before the major storm, island conditions such as the spray of salt water and sand probably made the land virtually unworkable and unfit for food production. While that may have been okay for a while, eventually people moved away to more productive areas where they could get a more constant supply of food. The few who remained most likely finished out their lives in Skara Brae without repopulating the area.

Outside view of a Skara Brae building, separated from others by a passage.

But how was Skara Brae found if it was under a massive layer of sand? Well, another natural disaster occurred 4,000 year later in 1850, a violent storm “whose winds and extremely high tides” ripped up the earth and grass from Skerrabra – a large mound on the island (Orkneyjar). Foundations, walls, and remains of stone buildings and houses were discovered underneath the mound, to the surprise of those living there at the time. But 75 years later, in 1925, another storm came around, damaging the excavated ancient structures. Accordingly, preservation efforts were put in place through the construction of a sea wall (an embankment erected to prevent the sea from encroaching on an area of land), which actually exposed even more stone buildings! During this time period, most archaeologists believed the settlement to be from the Iron Age – around 500 BC. But finally, as we know now thanks to radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, the buildings were proved to be from the late Neolithic period and inhabited for 600 years.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

While so far storms seem to have acted in an oddly beneficial way for the archaeological preservation and exposure of Skara Brae’s long-hidden cultural artifacts and features, an increase in erosion rates have posed an environmental and archaeological threat. Steps are being taken to minimize the effects of this accelerated erosion due to natural and human causes.

For Further Reading on Skara Brae:


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print.