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date: 12 May 2021

Potential and Pitfalls (p. 1) (p. 2)

Abstract and Keywords

Historical ecology is a practical framework of concepts and methods for studying the past and future of the relationship between people and their environments. Its holistic, ethical, and place-based approach can ‘grow’ regional expertise in managing the future. This chapter offers an overview of the origins and growing integration of several strands that comprise historical ecology, paying particular attention to theoretical contexts and offering examples of practical applications. Historical ecology is not a new discipline so much as a ‘cluster’ or ‘cloud’ of mutually compatible questions, concepts, methods, and values that provide a rich environment within which to find common cause with other initiatives; such communities are taking shape and broadening their inclusivity.

The potential of archaeological methods, data, and interpretations to address contemporary global challenges has boosted optimism regarding the societal relevance of the discipline. This volume presents theoretical discussions, methodological outlines, and case studies describing the discursive overlap of the theoretical and methodological framework of historical ecology and the emerging subdiscipline of applied archaeology. It is designed to complement and qualify a growing and diversifying discourse spanning, at one end, developmental literature that discusses the use of ‘indigenous knowledge’ in development and conservation projects around the world and, on the other, global environmental change research that integrates the long-term humanities and social studies perspectives of archaeology in future scenario modelling. Implementing insights drawn from the study of the past may have decisive impacts on future livelihoods and requires a critical assessment not only of the potentials but also of the pitfalls of historical ecology and applied archaeology, as well as a consideration of the ethical dimensions and political implications of applied science. This section collects seven essays that critically examine opportunities of research at the intersection of historical ecology and applied archaeology to produce relevant knowledge, all of which also point to the challenges associated with the generation and implementation of practical insights.

Crumley, a key contributor to the development of the historical ecological discourse from an archaeological vantage point, is well placed to outline the field of historical ecology, and her chapter forms a point of departure to further problematize these potentials and identify some pitfalls. Among several crucial points she highlights the need to work with local ‘communities of practice’ and land managers, and cites several successful management programmes that have integrated the anthropocentric perspective of historical ecology for understanding ecosystem evolution. Crumley voices strong optimism in the scope of an integrated, transdisciplinary and trans-sectorial historical ecology, suggesting that researchers, practitioners, and communities collectively need to form ‘clusters’ or ‘clouds’ that share the goal of safeguarding knowledge about—as well as from—the past in order to create an equitable and sustainable future. Her assessment points to the considerable potential of historical ecology, not only to generate the kind of (p. 4) data and insights needed in applied research within the scholarly world, but also to connect with relevant bodies across society for implementing practical solutions.

Minnis addresses the core argument of archaeology’s potential to be useful, emphasizing the need for a complementary approach to the traditional a priori focus on investigating the archaeological record to understand the past. This alternative, ‘utilitarian-perspective archaeology’ stresses an ontology of the archaeological record as a complex source of practically useful information that can tackle contemporary challenges to sustainability. Minnis highlights the critical value of archaeology to contribute crucial information on the vast majority of the human experience, a scope simply beyond the reach of other disciplines. He discusses challenges of a ‘traditional’ archaeological approach to address human–environment issues in the contemporary world, and shows how an alternative and complementary utilitarian perspective—using archaeology to mine practical insights on current issues, such as challenges to food security—can be productive, despite the fragmentary nature of the archaeological record.

A significant but under-realized problem in inter- and transdisciplinary research is that concepts shared among cognate disciplinary traditions may have different meanings, even if semantic discrepancy may be ever so subtle. Failing to identify the dangers of conceptual confusion is cause for concern since it may hamper robust data analysis, the credibility of interpretation, and the transfer of generated insights to practical management solutions. In their respective chapters, Doolittle and Lane highlight a range of issues pertaining to the imprecise use of shared, borrowed, and/or invented terminology, within as well as among archaeology, cognate disciplines, and non-academic public discourse. For instance, Doolittle highlights the ambiguities in the application of concepts such as ‘the Anthropocene’, ‘sustainability’, and ‘adaptation’; key terms that aspire to cross-disciplinary understanding, but that when imprecisely used form paradoxical buzzwords that obscure rather than clarify. Lane makes a similar argument regarding the phrase ‘the long-term’, a central concept to sustainability science in general and to archaeology and historical ecology in particular. The concept of the long-term is a particularly good case to elucidate the dangers of discrepancy, not only because it is central to the historical ecological discourse, but also (as the relation between the ‘long-term’ to ‘short-term’ is dependent on the temporal scale of analysis associated with each discipline) because different uses are readily demonstrable quantitatively.

These necessary calls for caution and precision in the use of terms are offset by the two chapters that follow, both demonstrating the intellectual scope of a critical, anthropocentric historical ecological approach to applied archaeology. Integrating palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data to reconstruct the social-ecological dynamics of long-term landscape histories is an approach at the core of historical ecological research. Presenting a series of African examples, Ekblom shows how orthodox understandings of Holocene landscape evolution as a natural process are not only demonstrably misconstrued, they also impede the implementation of sustainable management institutions aiming to protect, conserve, or restore biodiversity. Emphasizing people as agents in landscape histories—rather than as disturbance factors to ‘natural’ ecosystems—her review highlights the potential of anthropological historical ecology to provide data (p. 5) and a frame of reference that at a broad scale can practically inform and reform current mainstream approaches to conservation and landscape management in Africa and elsewhere.

A key problem in understanding landscape histories is the intentionality of human action. Are landscape transformations in the past caused by human action? Were these deliberate or unintentional? How do we determine intentionality on the basis of archaeological data? Drawing on a distinction between anthropogenic (deliberately modified) and anthropic (influenced by human action), Arroyo-Kalin addresses these ontological, epistemological, and empirical conundrums focusing on three dimensions of landscape change in pre-Columbian Amazonia: landscaping, landscape legacies, and landesque capital. His chapter demonstrates the persistent significance of Amazonia as a core case region and focal point for articulating, addressing, and advancing essential challenges in historical ecological inquiry.

The basis of any historical ecological inquiry thus remains the meticulous recovery and recording of data in the field and the careful scientific analyses of the empirical evidence. The empiricist call for ‘data first!’—the privileging of data over models—resonates loud and clear in Butzer’s chapter. Drawing on a career spanning over seven decades developing geoarchaeology and making it a centrepiece in the scientific investigation of human–environmental relationships of the past, he offers an authoritative and yet reflexive argument for multidisciplinary data generation and interdisciplinary integration as complementary fundamentals to the goals of applied archaeology and historical ecology.