In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Approaches and Issues in Historical Ecology

  • Introduction

Ecology Approaches and Issues in Historical Ecology
Carole Crumley, William Balée
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0250


Historical ecology supplies an epistemological foundation for the exchange of information about the past and present of a physical place and courses of action for its future. With roots in the environmental and social sciences and humanities, it offers a practical, holistic perspective on the study of environmental change and human agency. Drawing on a broad spectrum of evidence generated by scholars and by communities of practice, the applied objective of historical ecology is to inform management decisions that ensure an equitable and sustainable human future. For its practitioners, ecology includes humans as a component of ecosystems and landscapes, and history includes that of the Earth system as well as the social and physical past of humans and other species. Historical ecologists assert that humans have impacted almost all Earth’s habitable environments, that societies have their own worldviews and leave different environmental signatures, that human intellect is equally distributed across all environments and cultures, and that the Earth biome should be the ultimate umbrella of place-based research. Historical ecology is not a discipline, theory, or method, but a research program: It is a framework and toolbox for merging many relevant kinds of evidence to reach deeper understanding of the human–environment relationship. Research programs enable multiple, flexible, and inclusive narratives of human–environment relations over time in particular geographic locations. Cooperation is particularly valued with traditional and Indigenous managers, whose strategies often reflect deep knowledge of the landscapes they inhabit and can serve as both a baseline and source of innovation for a more equitable and durable future. The standard analytic procedures of disciplines and philosophical worldviews are respected and provide critical ‘cross-checks’ against other datasets, revealing new patterns and questions. Successful collaborative projects begin with agreement on goals. While historical ecology may be applied to spatial and temporal frames at any resolution, particularly rich sources of data are found at the landscape scale where human activity and cognition interact with biophysical systems, and where environmental, archaeological, historical, ethnographic, and other records are most plentiful. Although there are several organizational possibilities for the subject, this article has followed trends in the literature and chosen biomes, landscapes, and waterscape forms. The authors encourage future entries in languages other than English and the expansion of our own partial knowledge of a fast-growing literature.

Foundational Texts, Twenty-First Century Perspectives, and Methods

Intertwined foundations anchor historical ecology across the environmental and social sciences and humanities. Early research in paleoecology, palynology, forest history, and land management—as well as theoretical and methodological treatment in anthropology, archaeology, geography, and history—has now coalesced into a widely accepted framework of inquiry. While drawing widely on methods appropriate to places—landscapes, biomes, land- and waterscapes, and regions—the research program of historical ecology does not rest on a single theoretical perspective; instead, as seen in practice, the melding of approaches and discussion of perspectives strengthens overall research quality. Every geographical area offers a distinct assemblage of information on its past; the varied accessibility and quality of environmental data and of human-generated records make a one-size-fits-all list of methods impossible, but aid is plentiful for frequently used tools such as remote sensing or ethnobotany. In research projects the choice of methods should address both opportunities and constraints for the chosen research focus. The interweaving of perspectives, concepts, and analytical methods and a satisfactory methodological understanding among researchers are hallmarks of historical ecology.

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