Academic journal article Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Evolution of Human Ecological Systems during the Period of European Colonization and Mercantile Expansion: A Preliminary Assessment

Academic journal article Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Evolution of Human Ecological Systems during the Period of European Colonization and Mercantile Expansion: A Preliminary Assessment

Article excerpt


This paper, as the title suggests, deals with a broad-ranging and difficult subject, and one that anthropology, for the most part, has eschewed and left to history and geography. However, anthropology, with its emphasis on holism and its insistence that societies be viewed as a system of interrelated parts, has much to offer in explaining what happens to a particular human ecological system when it becomes incorporated into the larger world system. During the period of European colonization and mercantile expansion, many indigenous societies around the globe evolved into different systems, and in this process their relationships with the environment also changed. This paper is a preliminary assessment of some methodological aspects involved in examining the changes in a society's relationship to the environment that occur when a society becomes incorporated into the world-wide market. I also present some models that explore the dynamics of these changes.

Ecological anthropology of the 60s and 70s took a particularistic approach and generated much good work on the relationship particular groups had with their environments. Much of this work, however, fell into the traps of functionalist explanations and the ethnographic present, treating the societies under observation as relatively isolated entities in which culture served as an adaptive tool to maintain an ecological equilibrium. Ecological anthropology of the past was criticized on these accounts, and, for the most part, abandoned by anthropology.

The legacy of ecological anthropology is mixed. On one hand, these works forced us to see that humans are part of an ecosystem and that the human relationship to nature was not that much different from other animals. I view this as a major contribution to understanding humans. On the other hand, because these anthropologists did not extricate their works from functionalist explanations and the ethnographic present, their methods and theories leave us very little with which to explain change.

The underlying goal of this project derives from the University of Georgia, Department of Anthropology's goal to revitalize ecological anthropology. I understand this goal to be a long-term project in which new and pertinent questions are formulated covering human/environment interactions. One area of inquiry concerns the evolution of human ecological systems-how these systems evolve and why. The question of social evolution encompasses the broad pattern of human existence: the long-term social organization of hunters and gatherers, the domestication of plants and animals, the rise of the state, the emergence and duration of the modern world system and capitalist economy, the industrial revolution, and the contemporary global ecological system. Each of these transformations in human existence directly affected the ways in which humans conceived of, related to, and used their environment.

Anthropology, with its long-term view of humanity is in a unique position to address questions concerning these major transformations in human existence. But to do so, we must learn from the mistakes of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. We cannot slip into the comfortable confines of functionalist explanations. Nor can we afford to ignore the global economic system and its effect on indigenous peoples. As this paper shows, capitalist development can be deleterious, disruptive, and malfunctional. European colonization and mercantile expansion form the nascence of the modern world system and capitalist economy; this project is but a beginning stage of formulating questions on how and why the modern world system served as a catalyst for the evolution of indigenous societies.


In order to examine the changes wrought in a human ecological system by colonialism, mercantile expansion, and incorporation into a capitalist market economy, one should begin by pinpointing those factors that one must consider as well as the relationship between those factors. …

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