ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Historical ecologies of tropical landscapes: new engagements between anthropologists and archaeologists
Location Wills 3.31
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 16:30


Pauline von Hellermann (Goldsmiths)
James Fairhead (Sussex University)
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Short Abstract

This panel brings together anthropologists and archaeologists researching the historical ecology of tropical landscapes, and reflects upon the new insights, opportunities and problems such new engagements between the disciplines generate.

Long Abstract

Historical ecology has emerged as a powerful analytical frame in which diverse collaborations between archaeologists and anthropologists have rethought the social history and shaping of tropical landscapes. In the Amazon, in particular, these collaborations have challenged both earlier anthropological representations of Amazonian societies - as small scale and unchanging - and earlier archaeological assumptions concerning their history. They have also generated new ecological understandings of the Amazon forest itself.

However, such engagements between archaeologists and anthropologists are not without potential pitfalls. For example, there is a danger of producing circular arguments if archaeologists experimentally uses ethnographic reconstructions to identify past land use practices and anthropologists, in turn, interpret archaeological case studies of this kind as evidence of the continuity of local practices. There may also be problems in the practical implementation of joint research projects.

This panel invites papers from anthropologists and archaeologists conducting research into the historical ecology of tropical landscapes, whether in the Amazon or elsewhere. They may discuss emerging new understandings of society and nature in tropical forest regions, or the ways in which the current engagement between anthropologists and archaeologists challenges existing ideas in either discipline. They may also reflect on practical experiences of collaboration, and any problems as well

as opportunities joint projects or other forms of engagement can entail.

Discussant: Michael Heckenburger

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Time lags: the slow march of archaeological revisionism in lowland Amazonia

Author: Stephen Nugent (Goldsmiths)


The long-prevailing view that forest Indian societies (of the types today represented by a relatively small number of indigenous peoples) are typical of pre-conquest Amazonian social formations has been challenged periodically. Most recently, the work of Heckenberger and colleagues in the upper Xingu has forced reconsideration of such typicality, but since the time of Carvajal, and in diverse ways expressed by Nimuendaju, Levi-Strauss, Lathrap, Denevan, Porro and Roosevelt, revised images of Amazonia have uneasily co-existed with the dominant anthropological theme of marginal, contingent, nomadic societies. Despite strong evidence that might plausibly demand a broadscale re-evalution of the dominant research strands in Amazonian anthropology, the tendency has been to consider the (proto-)revisionist implications of archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence for large-scale, complex societies as an addition to the record rather than one that serious undermines long-held assumptions.

Domestication in a changing landscape: a historical ecological approach to the emergence of Amazonian anthropogenic dark earths

Author: Manuel Arroyo-Kalin


The research programme of Historical Ecology argues that biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems are imprinted by the path-dependent and enduring effects on the landscape of trans-generational human action. Intriguing examples of this imprinting are Amazonian anthropogenic dark earths (ADEs), anthrosols of pre-Columbian age recognised as evidence of large, sedentary settlements in the Amazon basin. Research focused on their properties, land use and botanical inventories highlight these soils are anomalously fertile, are preferred locales for present-day cultivation, and contain higher concentrations of edible plants, especially fruit trees. My aim in this paper is to examine the role of ADEs in the long-term human history of Amazonia. To this effect, I first outline evidence about their variability as well as inferences about past land use that together illuminate the proximate causes for their formation. Next, I explore their ultimate causes by linking their appearance in the Amazonian archeological record to specific histories of plant domestication in the landscape. This dual perspective draws attention to plant domestication as a landscape process and endorses Historical Ecology's invitation to interrogate landscapes - past and present - with archaeological questions. (185 words, excl. title)

Dark earths and the domestication of landscape on the Middle Madeira River, Amazonas State, Brazil

Author: James Fraser


Archaeological evidence suggests an association between anthropogenic soil enhancements and concentrations of useful species at campsites and settlements since the early stages of occupation of the Amazon basin. Such sites are likely to have been early theatres of plant domestication. By the late pre-Columbian period (AD500-1500) whitewater rivers such as the Solimões and the Madeira were among the most densely populated of the Amazon region. These are the most eutrophic environments of all Amazonia, combining abundant aquatic fauna with wide and fertile floodplains. Today on the Middle Madeira we find some of the biggest anthropogenic dark earth (ADE) sites in Central Amazonia. Drawing on data from fieldwork in homegardens at several locations across three different ecotones (Floodplain, Oxisols and ADE) in this region, we demonstrate different patterns in species assemblages that are particular to each ecotone.

We propose that species assemblages (measured by species area per hectare) in homegardens emerge through the interaction of human agency (measured through use values) with agro-ecological conditions over time. This cumulates in landscape domestication, measured here by categorizing species densities at four stages of domestication (wild, incipiently-domesticated, semi-domesticated and domesticated). The distinct configurations of plants and trees which emerge in turn shape the knowledge and practices of people; as most people interact more with the plants in their immediate surroundings. This study allows a reappraisal of the role of ADE in processes of landscape domestication both today and in the late pre-Columbian period in Central Amazonia.

Creating sites: shaping and re-shaping domestic areas in Caviana Island

Author: Juliana Machado (Museu Nacional - UFRJ)


Early theoretical models for pre-colonial Amazonia based on ecological determinism straitened Brazilian archaeology´s view concerning the environment as culturally constructed and continuously transformed. However, more recently interdisciplinary approaches focusing on historical ecology, has revealed fruitful results such as the anthropogenic processes of Terra Preta formation or the domestication and dispersal of manioc and maíz. Following this path, an Ethnoarchaeological research was developed in Caviana Island, delta region of the Amazon River. In this context we found recurrent overlapping of actual riverine occupations and archaeological sites. The great frequency of reoccupations together with the availability of surrounding areas turned our attention to the reason and meaning of these settlement choices. Ethnographic data indicate that these riverine dwellers search for previously managed areas, recognized through the amount and quality of specific vegetal species. It was also noticed a certain correlation between the species maintained and managed around households and those on archaeological sites. Another aspect observed was the introduction of new species within the domestic environment and its circulation in a micro-regional level. Riverine dwellers of this area don´t usually plant "roças", depending almost exclusively on hunting, fishing and gathering and resource management for their subsistence. Thus the surrounding areas of their houses assume an important role supplying their families with food and raw-material, as well as other functions as attracting animals for hunting, medicines and decorating.

Continuity, change and the ownership of persons in native ecologies of Guianese Amazonia

Authors: Marc Brightman (University College London)
Jimmy Mans (Leiden University)


The Trio and Akuriyo of southern Suriname are swidden horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers, who understand the relationship between man and environment in terms of histories of interpersonal relations, in which the ownership of persons plays a key role. With reference to this native perspective, I will outline the history of the landscape dwelt in and fashioned by the Trio and Akuriyo since contact with non-Amerindians intensified in the 1950s. The initial intensification of resource use was accompanied by missionary-instigated cosmological changes, while Akuriyo foragers were taught to adopt agriculture; yet recent evidence shows that the Trio's preference for small settlements and the Akuriyo's preference for foraging persist. In bringing to the fore the relationship between colonial or postcolonial forces for change and native preferences based on traditional landscape management practices, this material raises various questions for historical ecology and for archaeology. Selection of a new place for a village may involve a form of native archaeology, but at the same time many traces of native historical meaning in the landscape may be invisible to the conventional archaeologist. Meanwhile, as history makes its mark on the landscape, its motive forces may be those either for change or for continuity. My discussion, presenting the perspective of an anthropologist, will make reference to new archaeological research among the Trio.

People, rice and the landscape in highland Borneo: emerging understandings from the Cultured Rainforest project

Authors: Monica Janowski (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Samantha Jones (Queen's University)
Chris Gosden (University of Oxford)


Rice is a key element of the relationship between people and the natural environment and landscape in the interior tableland of Borneo of which the Kelabit Highlands forms a part. Until recently, nothing was known about the history of rice cultivation in interior Borneo. One of the goals of the AHRC-funded Cultured Rainforest project, in which all three authors are involved, has been to use anthropological and archaeological/environmental science methods to begin to develop an understanding of the history of rice-growing in the highland area.

Because of the cultural centrality of rice in this area (Janowski 2003, 2007), the range of cultivation methods used and the presence of peaty areas and old river beds used for rice cultivation suitable for coring, the Kelabit Highlands has exciting potential in both anthropological and archaeological terms in relation to understanding the rice cultivation.

The project is ongoing until April 2010. We will present our current understanding of the history of rice cultivation in the highland area and some hypotheses drawn from this about broader patterns of interaction between humans and the landscape/environment in interior Borneo, and the way humans think about this landscape.

Janowski, M. (2003) The Forest, Source of Life: The Kelabit of Sarawak. London and Kuching: British Museum and Sarawak Museum

Janowski, M. (2007) Being 'Big', Being 'Good': feeding, kinship, potency and status among the Kelabit of Sarawak. In M. Janowski and F. Kerlogue (eds) Kinship and Food in Southeast Asia. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

'But how false a view is this!' Historical ecology, climate change and anthropologies of East African pastoralism

Author: Paul Lane (Uppsala University)


In a discussion of the idea of natural selection that occurs early on in his most seminal of publications On the origin of species by means of natural selection…, Charles Darwin noted that:

"Every one has heard that when an American forest is cut down, a very different vegetation springs up; but it has been observed that ancient Indian ruins in the Southern United States, which must formerly have been cleared of trees, now display the same beautiful diversity and proportion of kinds as in the surrounding virgin forest."

This paper takes its inspiration from these remarks so as to consider how scholarly disregard (or misrepresentation) of their significance has shaped archaeological and anthropological characterisation of the relationships between 'landscape', 'culture' and 'ecology.' Using the changing history of East African pastoralism as case material, the more specific aims of this paper are to examine, first, the ways in which archaeologists have used anthropological data on East African pastoralists and how these have changed over the last c. 70 years of research; second, how anthropologists have integrated (or not) the results of archaeological, historical and palaeoclimatic data into their accounts and models of pastoralist society; and finally, to outline the analytical potential of adopting an alternative approach to combining these diverse data sets as developed from the key precepts of historical ecology and in particular the notion of 'domesticating landscape.'

The archaeology and anthropology of conservation in Pare, Tanzania

Authors: Daryl Stump (University of York)
Pauline von Hellermann (Goldsmiths)


Many contemporary debates regarding rural development and biodiversity conservation emphasise the importance of an historical dimension. In essence this perspective results from concern for the related concepts of sustainability, resilience, and conservation, all of which refer to the need to balance short-term gains with long-term resource maintenance. More specifically, frequent references to economic and environmental history within these debates can be seen as partly a consequence of a continued interest in the potential utility of local resource exploitation strategies and, indeed, early advocates of this stance often contrasted the apparent longevity of local practices with the poor social and environmental record of large-scale modernisation schemes. This focus on 'Indigenous Knowledge' thus seems to demand input from both social anthropologists and archaeologists; the former playing the roles of recorders, translators, advocates or negotiators, whilst the latter provide long-term technical and palaeo-environmental data. With particular reference to the Pare mountains in northeastern Tanzania, this paper will argue that a combination of anthropological and archaeological perspectives can do much to qualify the social and historical assumptions at the heart of many developmental or conservationist narratives. However, the level of detail required to move beyond critiques and aid in the formulation of policy throws into sharp relief the extent to which all archaeological enquires rely on ethnographic and historical case-studies to provide social and technical details of local activities, and serves to highlight the lack of time-depth and precision offered by research based on local testimony and tradition.