Archaeology and the Ecodynamics of Human-Modified Landscapes

By McGlade, James | Antiquity, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and the Ecodynamics of Human-Modified Landscapes

McGlade, James, Antiquity

First generation modelling of cultural systems, as applied in archaeology, frequently invoked linear, deterministic relationships as well as privileging concepts such as stability and an assumed cumulative evolution towards increasing complexity. But can the world of human affairs with its numerous reversals and unintended consequences really be captured by such models? Recent advances in the natural sciences have demonstrated the central role of non-linear phenomena, discontinuities and unpredictable breaks from established patterns and events. It is argued that such findings can form the basis for a new theoretical framework, human ecodynamics.


The ecodynamics of human-modified landscapes is a subject which lies at the heart of archaeological attempts to reconstruct palaeo-environments, along with patterns of resource exploitation and land use - the primary concern of environmental archaeology. However, in addressing the ecology of long-term change, science-based archaeology has frequently ignored the social context within which environmental phenomena are embedded, focusing instead on what is 'knowable' and deducible from empirical data. The signal success of sub-disciplines such as bio-archaeology in demonstrating the feasibility of environmental reconstruction has tended to privilege rational and common sense approaches to subsistence and exploitation of the environment (e.g. Jarman et al. 1982; Barker & Gamble 1985; Halstead & O'Shea 1989).

In addition, the perennial study of the complexities which define and articulate socio-natural interaction is currently severely compromised by an adherence to the largely functionalist methods of human ecology and ecological anthropology. Much of this literature is explicitly economic, presenting a picture of the environment as something to be contested and tamed; it thus actively misrepresents the reciprocal dynamic that defines social and natural processes in a true co-evolutionary sense.

Current critical attention, devoted to the excesses of ecological/functionalist archaeology, has spawned a variety of new approaches to human interaction with the environment; for example, a prominent 'post-processual' alternative has been to reduce the socio-natural dialogue to one identified with landscape - the new metaphor being the text-metaphor and an emphasis on perception, experience and symbolic attributes of human-modified environments (e.g. Tilley 1991; Thomas 1993). Fundamental to this view is that 'meaning' - such as it can ever exist - resides in a perceptually relativistic and observer-dependent domain. Yet this critique effectively privileges the social, at the expense of the natural, and the almost fetishistic concern with text - a feature of much post-modern thought - betrays a reductionism which actively subverts that plurality of meaning which post-processual archaeology sets out to demonstrate.

Thus, we have two polar extremes - landscape (perceived) as a hermeneutic entity versus landscape (real) as physical fact. In a sense, the theoretical state of play may be said to oscillate between the extremes represented by Darwinian adaptationism and Geertzian 'thick description'. However, while theoretical discussion has been largely fueled by this dichotamous polarity, in fact the extremes represented by these two competing epistemologies constitute an oversimplification. The reality we confront is messy, pluralistic, contradictory and ultimately requires an epistemology that is consistent with a discursive, dialogical method of representation, rather than an analogical, textual mode.

In effect, what this debate is missing is an adequate appreciation and understanding of the way in which social practice inserts itself within the natural world and shares with it a reciprocal dynamic: the social informs the natural and the natural informs the social. This need for a more socially aware approach to human-environmental relationships has been outlined by Ruiz et al. …

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