"Ecological Anthropology: A Historical Reader" is a collection of historically significant readings, dating from early in the twentieth century up to the present, on the cross-cultural study of relations between people and their environment. Like the focus of many environmental movements, much recent work in ecological anthropology has been crisis-driven, with a focus on the here and now. Often missing from this work is a wider perspective - including the context in which the research itself is being done.
By the 1960s and 1970s, cultural ecology and environmental determinism lost favor within anthropology. Ecological anthropologists formed new schools of thought, including the ecosystem model, ethnoecology, and historical ecology Researchers hoped that ecological anthropology and the study of adaptations would provide explanations of customs and institutions. Ecological anthropologists believe that populations are not engaged with the total environment around them, but rather with a habitat consisting of certain selected aspects and elements. Furthermore, each population has its own adaptations institutionalized in the culture of the group, especially in their technologies.
Current work on the human dimensions of deforestation or global climate change, for example, can be informed and strengthened by an understanding of the century-old intellectual lineage of the underlying issues. Divided into five thematic sections, this collection provides rare insight into the evolution of environmental anthropology specifically and environmental studies more generally. These selections, along with extensive commentary by the volume's editors, offer a unique perspective on current interest in cross-cultural environmental relations.
Faculty research interests and expertise related to ecological anthropology include agroforestry, conservation and sustainable livelihood improvement, development and environmental change, ecology of complex societies, environmental disaster and change, ethnobiology, ethnobotany, GIS, historical ecology, human ecosystem theory, human health and the biophysical environment, hunter/gatherer ecology, land use and land cover change, non-human primate ecology, nutrition and the biophysical environment, paleoecology of early humans, archaeology and paleoenvironment, plant domestication, political ecology, remote sensing, and zooarchaeology. Geographical areas include Amazon, Andes, Caribbean, Latin America, Mesoamerica, North America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
A field such as ecological anthropology is particularly relevant to contemporary concerns with the state of the general environment. Anthropological knowledge has the potential to inform and instruct humans about how to construct sustainable ways of life. Anthropology, especially when it has an environmental focus, also demonstrates the importance of preserving cultural diversity. Biological diversity is necessary for the adaptation and survival of all species; culture diversity may serve a similar role for the human species because it is clearly one of our most important mechanisms of adaptation.
One of the leading practitioners within this sub-field of anthropology was Roy Rappaport. He delivered many outstanding works on the relationship between culture and the natural environment in which it grows, especially concerning the role of ritual in the processual relationship between the two. He conducted the majority, if not all, of his fieldwork amongst a group known as the Maring, who inhabit an area in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
culture can be a decisive factor influencing what individuals and groups identify as environmental resources, hazards, or risks, and how they deal with these and related phenomena. Given such considerations, ecological anthropology concentrates on how culture mediates the dynamic interactions between human populations and the ecosystems in their habitats.
Accordingly ecological anthropologists have variously addressed each of the main categories of natural resources, including water, soils, plants, animals, minerals, and energy, but each with special attention to how a particular culture influences daily decisions, choices, and activities in exploiting them. The primary approaches within contemporary ecological anthropology are cultural ecology, historical ecology, political ecology, and spiritual ecology. Building on these approaches is the applied dimension of ecological anthropology called environmental anthropology.